The Least of Our Concerns
- by LB Kovac, photos by Charles Hubbard and Mozart Dedeaux
To prevent a repeat of last year's loss, it's going to take lots of residents willing to take action and encourage the Hancock Supervisors to allow Audubon to rope off the colony and post signs, like they do in Harrison County. Doing so helps an endangered species and can have a major positive impact on our Hancock County community. For instance, click here to read about the economic impact of birding in Toledo, Ohio.
Enjoy white sandy beaches? Relaxing afternoons ocean-side? Salty snacks and a cool breeze? Then you have a lot in common with the Sternula antillarum athalassos, or interior least tern.
You might have seen them on the beach before. Their black caps, grey underbellies, and bright yellow beaks make them stand out from other seaside birds like gulls, plovers, or pelicans. They also perform fantastic aerial feats, swooping and diving into the water as they search for food.
Beach to Bayou
And something you probably don’t have in common with the least tern is their sleeping habits: least terns tend to nest and sleep on the ground. This leaves the birds, their eggs, and young chicks especially vulnerable to predators, like domestic cats, coyotes, and owls.
But the beaches of Harrison County have been a popular least tern destination in recent years; volunteers identified sixteen colonies in 2016.
This was good news for the endangered subspecies. As recently as 1985, the breeding population for all nesting sites in the entire United States had dropped as low as 3,000 pairs.
“Lots of people didn’t even know that they were there,” says Sarah Pacyna, Director of the Audubon Mississippi’s Coastal Bird Stewardship Program, an organization which coordinates monitoring efforts for coastal birds and stewards breeding population.
Their partial invisibility is due in part to the small size of their colonies, which rarely exceed 100 breeding pairs.
But the least terns knew we were there. See, least terns are rather finicky birds; they need peace and quiet in order to thrive. Pacyna says that, as a species, they are “especially susceptible to disturbance,” and the appearance of humans or domestic animals like cats and dogs near nesting sites can stress the birds out.
The least terns’ rather sudden appearance last year in Hancock County left Audubon’s team scrambling to protect the birds and give them ample room, and peace, to raise their young.
Audubon wasn’t able to secure permission to rope off the nesting area until late in the breeding season, and, unfortunately, some damage was done. Pacyna said that the Hancock colony ended up “failing:” some of the nests hatched chicks, but none of the chicks made it to adulthood.
But that doesn’t mean there is no hope for the future.
If possible, Pacyna will also coordinate volunteers to stand near the nesting sites, preventing beachgoers and pets from trampling nests or disturbing the colony. Volunteers can also provide valuable information on colony size and egg and chick production for least terns and other endangered coastal bird species.
Pacyna says that Audubon also has several contingency plans in place to make it easier for birds and humans to coexist on Hancock County’s beautiful beaches. If the terns decide to colonize near a popular stretch, her team can use decoys and clips of bird calls to lure them to a less-populated area.
You can do your part to protect these little birds. Pacyna says “be aware of your beach surroundings” when you’re out relaxing near the water. Keep an eye out for greenish, speckled eggs, which can be found in shallow indentations in the sand. And, if you do find a least tern nest, give the folks at Audubon a call.
This way, bird and human alike can enjoy the beach.
Read more about volunteer efforts here.