Photography Tips for White Terns on St Helena

Being givn the eyeball by this little white tern during an early morning walk near the forest area of Napoleon's Tomb.  Photographing white terns (gygis alba) on St Helena.

Being given the eyeball by this little white tern during an early morning walk near the forest area of Napoleon’s Tomb.
Photographing white terns (gygis alba) on St Helena.

HOW TO SHOOT WHITE TERNS | Darrin Henry

White terns, or fairy terns as they are commonly known, are brilliant for photographers like me who lack the patience normally necessary for capturing good wildlife pictures.

Gygis alba

Skittishness around people is not for white terns. Their playful curiosity will have them hovering one or two metres above your head, perfect range for shooting beautiful pictures.

White terns are also quck to 'nest' on tall man-made structures. This little bird is perched on the St James Church clock tower light, in Jamestown. Spotted him while we were photographing the historic clock with Roddy. Photographing white terns (gygis alba) on St Helena.

White terns are also quck to ‘nest’ on tall man-made structures. This little bird is perched on the St James Church clock tower light, in Jamestown. Spotted him while we were photographing the historic clock with Roddy.
Photographing white terns (gygis alba) on St Helena.

The white tern, Gygis alba, is found in the tropical belt all around the world and are often referred to as fairy terns, although fairy terns, Sternula nereis, is a different species. Other names for the white tern include ‘angel tern’ and ‘white noddy.’

Photographing seabirds like the white tern is fairly easy, even so, a few tips are always helpful, so here’s a quick guide, basic tips, on how to capture these angelic-like creatures around St Helena.

Tip 1 – Be Prepared

Have your camera out, turned on and ready to shoot. The terns are inquisitive but they also get bored quickly and once they’ve taken a close look at you they will often retreat back into the trees or out of range. You’re going to be shooting against a bright sky so test the shot beforehand, aiming upwards to make sure your exposure is right.

White terns can be found along most of the coastal walks on St Helena. This little fella floated by us during a walk to Banks Battery - that's Mundens hill in the background across Ruperts Bay. Photographing white terns (gygis alba) on St Helena.

White terns can be found along most of the coastal walks on St Helena. This little fella floated by us during a walk to Banks Battery – that’s Mundens hill in the background across Ruperts Bay.
Photographing white terns (gygis alba) on St Helena.

Tip 2 –Fast Shutter Speed, 1/500+

Set your camera with a high shutter speed as a priority, 1/500 sec or higher. Although white terns are relatively stationary because they’re hovering, their wings are beating quickly to stay in position. A fast shutter speed will ‘freeze’ that motion. On cameras where specific shutter speed is not selectable, switch mode to the ‘sport’ option. This is more important in forest areas; around the coastline the terns are more likely to float on up-draughts with less wing flapping.

Usually we prefer sunshine and blue skies, however, this cloudy sky worked great for this white tern shot taken during a stroll around the Francis Plain area. The beautiful wing feathers were 'frozen' by using a 1/500 sec shutter speed. Photographing white terns (gygis alba) on St Helena.

Usually we prefer sunshine and blue skies, however, this cloudy sky worked great for this white tern shot taken during a stroll around the Francis Plain area. The beautiful wing feathers were ‘frozen’ by using a 1/500 sec shutter speed.
Photographing white terns (gygis alba) on St Helena.

A high speed, low level pass - the white terns are much more difficult to focus and frame at speed, it means tracking and shooting simultaneously to get a sharp image, although any background content will then be blurred. Photographing white terns (gygis alba) on St Helena.

A high speed, low level pass – the white terns are much more difficult to focus and frame at speed, it means tracking and shooting simultaneously to get a sharp image, although any background content will then be blurred.
Photographing white terns (gygis alba) on St Helena.

Tip 3 – Framing and Focus

Next, the challenge is composing and snapping a sharp shot. Framing and focus. White terns tend to flutter directly above so you end up twisting and turning with the camera to your eye pointing upwards in a very unnatural way! There’s a risk of looking a bit mad it has to be said. I’m speaking from experience here.

Another white tern shot around the woody surrounds of Francis Plain. The translucent feathers backlit against a deep blue sky is one of the classic images of this little seabird. Photographing white terns (gygis alba) on St Helena.

Another white tern shot around the woody surrounds of Francis Plain. The translucent feathers backlit against a deep blue sky is one of the classic images of this little seabird.
Photographing white terns (gygis alba) on St Helena.

Returning from a fishing trip with food in its beak, this white tern on its way back to the trees around Heart Shaped Waterfall. Photographing white terns (gygis alba) on St Helena.

Returning from a fishing trip with food in its beak, this white tern on its way back to the trees around Heart Shaped Waterfall.
Photographing white terns (gygis alba) on St Helena.

Set the focus point to centre weighted.

This is one situation where I never worry about photography’s rule of thirds. Just keep the target (the white tern) in the middle of the frame, covered by the focusing point.

You want to achieve a good, solid focus then press the shutter release in quick succession. Timing is everything. The more familiar you are with your equipment the better; knowing the focus response time of your lens really helps.

Tip 3 – Multiple Shots

Rapid burst is essential if you have that setting on your camera; it increases the chances of more ‘keepers.’ You also capture different interesting angles of the wings as the terns are hovering.

From the top of Cow Path in Half Tree Hollow, hundreds of white terns can be seen returning from fishing at about 8am, flying against the breeze back to the forests around Francis Plain. Photographing white terns (gygis alba) on St Helena.

From the top of Cow Path in Half Tree Hollow, hundreds of white terns can be seen returning from fishing at about 8am, flying against the breeze back to the forests around Francis Plain.
Photographing white terns (gygis alba) on St Helena.

We use the 70-200mm lens, which is perfect. The birds come up close, perhaps 2-3m, which means great close up detail.

Tip 4 – Finding White Terns on St Helena

On St Helena white terns can be found in most places around the coastline, but inland as well in forest areas with tall trees. In fact, they will find you once you wander into their nesting zone.

White terns are also quck to 'nest' on tall man-made structures. This little bird is perched on the St James Church clock tower in Jamestown. Photographing white terns (gygis alba) on St Helena.

White terns are also quck to ‘nest’ on tall man-made structures. This little bird is perched on the St James Church clock tower in Jamestown.
Photographing white terns (gygis alba) on St Helena.

Plantation forest is a good ‘hunting’ ground. The trees near Napoleon’s Tomb is another. Knollcombes and the forest around the Boer war cemetery and Francis Plain will bring reward. Pretty much most places with tall trees. When it comes to coastal walks, Sandy Bay Barn post box walk, Banks Battery and the cliff trails around Mundens are a few.

Finally, time of day. Earlier or later is better for softer light and avoiding the harsher midday sun.

The fairy tern is a delightful bird to encounter and photograph. It’s not too difficult; good luck.

White terns don't build conventional nests in trees, instead they lay eggs and balance them on tree branches. The parent birds take turns to look after the egg; changing over can be a delicate operation. Photographing white terns (gygis alba) on St Helena.

White terns don’t build conventional nests in trees, instead they lay eggs and balance them on tree branches. The parent birds take turns to look after the egg; changing over can be a delicate operation.
Photographing white terns (gygis alba) on St Helena.

Did You Know? – Fun facts about white terns.

They don’t build nests in trees; they lay eggs directly on a bare branch. Windy conditions are therefore not good!

White tern chicks have special clawed feet for clinging onto the branches.

Other popular ‘nest’ locations are rocky ledges and man-made structures.

The birds catch small fish for food to feed their young.

White terns mate for life.

They are long-lived birds, recorded living up to 42 years.

6 thoughts on “Photography Tips for White Terns on St Helena

  1. One of my abiding memories of my visit is the curiosity of the terns…..they were very entertained by how long it took me to do the ladder…in the end I felt like they were willing me on…..
    Beautiful birds on an awesome island.

    Really enjoy reading your blog….

    Liked by 1 person

    • They are entertaining – must admit, it’s easy also to end up marvelling at them until they fly away and then realise you forgot to take a picture! Thanks for the feedback Kay, cheers 🙂

      Like

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