When John James Audubon reached the mouth of Canada’s Natashquan River in the summer of 1833, the sky was raining terns. The river begins in Labrador and flows almost 300 miles mostly south through the eastern part of Quebec until it hits the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Audubon notes the waters teeming with fish and shrimp that are attracting the countless terns and other seabirds.

The Common tern as drawn by John James Audubon for Birds of America.
The Common Tern as drawn by John James Audubon.

Among the most numerous is the Common tern. Audubon’s notes also reflect that when he is on Galveston Island in Texas and all along the Atlantic coast during similar times of the year the Common tern is “extremely abundant.” Although records show today that most of those he saw as far south as Galveston Island were probably the Forster’s tern.

In 1834, Thomas Nuttall was the first to document the Forster’s tern. Nuttall named the bird in honor of Johann Reinhold Forster. When English explorer James Cook sailed around the world from 1772 to 1775, Forster served as the naturalist for the expedition. 

Audubon does not include the Forster’s tern in Birds of America. Although he does include a bird that looks much like a Forster’s tern in its winter plumage. Audubon calls the bird a Havell’s tern in Birds of America. The few Havell’s terns that Audubon ever sees are near New Orleans and the Texas coast, which is also where a Forster’s tern would likely show up in its winter plumage.

Havell's tern and Trudeau's tern as drawn by John James Audubon for his Birds of America.
Havell’s tern (top) and Trudeau’s tern (bottom) are recorded only in John James Audubon’s Birds of America.

Audubon names Havell’s tern in honor of Robert Havell Jr., the engraver and printer for Birds of America. It is through Havell’s herculean efforts that there are the few invaluable copies of the double elephant folio of Birds of America in rare book collections today. Currently in guides to birds of North America there is the Forster’s tern but no Havell’s tern. Only in Birds of America is there a Havell’s tern but no Forster’s tern. Whether or not a coincidence, Audubon pictures with the Havell’s tern in Birds of America another odd bird.

Audubon names the bottom bird (#2) in Plate 409 of the double elephant folio in honor of his friend James de Berty Trudeau. It is while Trudeau is visiting New Jersey’s Great Egg Harbour that he comes across the tern named after him. No other Trudeau’s terns have since been recorded. The greatest value of Plate 409 is that it might be the drawing in Birds of America that gives bird experts the most consternation. 

On June 18, Audubon finds while exploring the coast of Labrador not far from the Natashquan River a nest that is formed out of moss and is sitting on some rocks close to the water. This is not as startling as seeing similar eggs in a nest one year earlier (May 11) some 2,000 miles to the south in Dry Tortugas. The nest was little more than a scratch in the bare sand just a short distance from the mark left by the high tides. Audubon states that the builder of both nests is the Royal tern

The Royal tern as drawn by John James Audubon.
The Royal tern as drawn by John James Audubon.

Records currently show that the nest Audubon was seeing in the Dry Tortugas was most likely that of a Caspian tern and not a Royal tern. Adults of both species in their breeding plumage and the eggs that they lay look very similar. Although the Royal Tern tends to migrate and nest farther to the north. Like the Forster’s tern, the Caspian tern escapes Audubon’s notice. At no point in Birds of America does Audubon recognize the far-flung Caspian tern. It breeds on no less than five continents. Peter Simon Pallas (1741-1811) first documented the bird in 1770 after he encountered it during his exploration of the Caspian Sea.

While the Caspian tern and the Forester’s tern elude Audubon, he makes no mistake about the disparate locations of the Least tern. “Few birds indeed seem to me to be so irregular in their migratory movements.” 

Audubon finds the Least tern nesting in such places as Labrador, Galveston Bay, the “Middle Districts,” on sand bars on Bayou Sara, along the Ohio River, the shores of Lake Erie, and along the Florida coast. The Least tern also makes its way to South Carolina.

In Audubon’s notes is a record from his good friend, John Bachman, that the Least tern is “abundant” on Sullivan Island just east of Charleston. Slaves were once equally abundant on Sullivan Island. Of the 400,000 slaves that were shipped to America, 40% of them had to suffer through quarantine in “pest houses” that operated on Sullivan Island until 1793 and then on the other side of Charleston Harbor on James Island. Those slaves free of disease were then sold at public auction in Charleston. The Civil War brought an end to the ghastly conditions of slave ships, quarantine islands, and slavery in 1865.

Shipping slaves to Charleston, South Carolina.
Shipping slaves to Charleston, South Carolina.

Blessedly, there are no longer ports for slave ships at islands near Charleston. But there is the highway and road system, the electric grid system, and rampant development all around Charleston wiping out Least terns and many other types of birds. Since Europeans began settling in North America, few places can match Charleston’s history of wanton treatment of people and the ravaging of the land.