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The Terns Battle to Preserve Family Values


Havre de Grace. -- In April, I reported on efforts to re-establish a nesting colony of least terns on a sandy little island south of here in the upper Chesapeake Bay.

This was a story of more than ornithological significance, it seemed to me at the time. I saw it as a poignant example of the ongoing free-for-all between humans and wildlife, all seeking living space around the edges of our great local estuary.

The terns need islands because they nest on the ground, a dangerous place to raise little birds, and on islands they have some protection from animal predators. People may not need islands, but they certainly enjoy them, especially those which appear uninhabited. They like to go there in their boats, picnic, have a campfire, drink a little beer, sing songs or play their boomboxes, and just hang out until it's time to go back to work.

On the little island about three miles down the channel from here, scores of tern nests have been destroyed in recent years not by predators but by humans at play. Most of this destruction, I feel sure, was unwitting. Happy campers playing volleyball on the sand at twilight don't always look where they're putting their feet.

Least terns are a threatened species in Maryland. A decade ago, thousands of pairs nested here, but that's now down to a few hundred, and it seems like a good idea to give the terns a little help. As I wrote in April, the Department of Natural Resources is doing that, with sensitivity and imagination. Thus far, the results have been mixed. Herewith an update.

Although the island nesting area is already state property, any new regulations concerning its use would be hard to enforce. Directives, even those signed by William Donald Schaefer, won't do the terns any good. Human cooperation is what's required.

To that end, state biologists fenced the nesting area in the center of the island, leaving the beaches open to the public. They posted pleasantly-worded signs explaining the plight of the terns and asking visitors to the island to respect the nesting area. A few of the DNR people were dubious about the merits of such a gentle approach, but agreed to give it a try.

On Memorial Day weekend, I visited the island. There were the usual campers and frisbee players, but the fence was intact, and perhaps 15 pairs of terns were courting over the sand. It was a wonderful, heartening sight, and many of the campers were watching and appreciating the birds. Maybe, just maybe, the experiment was going to work.

After Memorial Day, human use of the island tends to drop off until July, so when in mid-June I went back, I fully expected to find baby terns. But although the fence was still intact, there were no nests, and only a couple of adult birds in sight. On the sand inside the nesting area, tracks and other evidence told a surprising story. Though the island is a mile from shore, it had been visited by a fox.

A DNR wildlife professional's visit soon afterward confirmed this. Efforts were made to trap the fox, but to no avail; he or she, having cleaned out the tern colony, had left the island. I hadn't known that foxes would routinely swim so far, but have since been told it's not unusual.

So the Fourth of July weekend, generally the busiest of the year on the island in terms of human traffic, came and went. It had been expected to be the most dangerous time of all for the nesting terns, but the fox had made the danger moot.

Even so, the many visitors to the island over the holiday weekend showed a touching respect for the fence, and left the nesting area undisturbed. Had there been baby birds, this time they probably would have survived.

As it happens, least terns are fairly resourceful, and are beginning -- with occasional human assistance -- to find new nesting areas. Chicks have been fledged in Maryland this summer on the flat, gravel-covered roofs of warehouses and schools located near the water. There they are presumably safe from volleyball players and foxes, although not necessarily from black-crowned night herons, which find baby terns delicious.

As for the sandy island in the upper Chesapeake that had seemed such a promising place, DNR biologists are unsure what to do next. Keeping a fence maintained, and making regular inspection visits, is hardly worth the trouble and expense if the birds aren't going to be able to nest successfully there.

I've been out to the island once since the Fourth. It was very hot that day, and the only people in sight were sitting in their anchored boats off the shore. On the sand I found no fox tracks, and in the air two pairs of terns were wheeling. The two males were offering minnows to the females, part of the established courtship ritual. It wasn't yet too late in the summer to start a family, and these four birds were determined to try again.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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