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Mark Seth Lender: Tern About

Air Date: Week of

Air-bound tern. (Photo: Mark Seth Lender)

As the light fades on July 4th, Living on Earth’s explorer-in-residence Mark Seth Lender watches two boys angle for a fish dinner on the beach, as a flock of hungry terns comes to feed on their supper of insects. But an unfortunate tangle interrupts the peaceful evening, leaving neither bird nor man unscathed.


CURWOOD: The Fourth of July was a special day at the beach for Living on Earth’s explorer-in-residence Mark Seth Lender, but it wasn’t about a barbeque or lazing in the sun to get some vitamin D.

LENDER: Summer late in the day. The clouds on the horizon are raked coals, row upon row, and a green gold fills the spaces in between. Two boys surf cast from the rocks where the marsh edges into the sea. Spider webs of ten-pound line, the boys in silhouette against the orange light and its reflection on the water.

And a flock of common terns appears, all flying like swallows. There must be insects on the air, too small to see, and the terns have come to feed.

Not the best of signs.

How much nourishment? Some. Or maybe something particular they need. But they have come far, there is no colony for miles and indeed the fishing has been thin all this year – the boys for all their persistence catch nothing. The chicks on the nest must be hungry. Hunger is the draft that sends the terns aloft and does not let them land.

A common tern and newborn chick. (Photo: Mark Seth Lender)

Terns skim the pull of the swell. The quick wavelets that lip-lap-lup into the spartina end in a hush upon the sand. The fishing lines fan out. The birds flash. The sunlight flares then fades to an ember. The inevitable comes to pass: a tern has tangled in the line.

Now in the water up to my knees, bare feet banging rocks but do not feel it; nor the unseasonable cold; nor see the people who crowd in:

Only the tern, only the line.

Fingers slipping, light failing, bird kiting out of control.

- And grab -

- And hold -

Hauling, winding, reeling hand over hand.

- To fold -

- His wings -

To keep them from breaking!

Grrrahking! and Screeking! the red beak seeking the black cap the white head twisting then reaching - Clamp! - on the skin of the wrist where the veins are pulsing. The man (who is me) feels the pinch but pays no mind, his mind only watching, a silence of untangling, fingers that are scrambling, an event that unfurls - on its own - that a singular purpose drives:

Part the line!

He questions far back in his mind:

Is there hurt is there harm will it heal is there time? There are young to feed and fish to find and Ah! The soft of the feathers! His hands like steel and leather of some mechanical arcade crane reaching at a distance for the prize that the man (who is me) must unbind:

A tern close-up. (Photo: Mark Seth Lender)

Part the line!

Like a snare!

- SNAP! -

- Unbound!

And from the cradle of my arms the bird –


CURWOOD: And don’t forget, if you see discarded fishing line on the shore, please take a moment to pick it up and make sure it won’t tangle some creature. It’s a wonderful and kind thing to do.



Mark Seth Lender's Field Note: Fishing Line Endangers Birds

Listen to another story about Terns from Mark


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