Guardians of the Terns
- story by Ellis Anderson, bird photography by Charles Hubbard
At first glance, the de Buys appear to be an average couple enjoying a holiday morning on the Pass Christian beach. But all along the coast, they and dozens like them, are volunteering for the Audubon Mississippi Coastal Bird Stewardship Program. They are protecting the nesting grounds of Least Terns.
Like Brook and Roseanna de Buys, most volunteers bring beach chairs and hats and a cooler full of iced water bottles. They lounge for the length of their shift in the little patch of shade their umbrella creates. Equipment includes binoculars and literature to hand out about the birds they’ve come to love.
“These terns are feisty little birds,” says Rosanna de Buys. “They have to be. They’re fearless when it comes to defending the nesting grounds. Last week, I watched a couple attack a blue heron.”
The adult terns are probably smaller than a blue heron’s foot.
Beach to Bayou
“Most people coming to this part of the beach don’t know that it’s a nesting ground,” Rosanna says. “There are roped off areas and signs posted, but they’re having fun and not paying attention. Lots of times they just walk right past the warnings.”
“That’s why volunteers are posted on either side of the nesting grounds. Once people understand, they don’t mind a little detour at all.”
Least Terns likely spend the winters in Central America, northern South America, and the Caribbean, then return to the Mississippi Coast every April to breed. The birds gather in small colonies along the coastline. At first, couples court while gliding in the air. Then males bring the females tempting morsels of fresh fish to seal the relationship. Once the female’s been won over and they’ve mated, both birds share in parenting responsibilities.
Couples hollow out indentations in the beach sand and then announce that it’s home by laying one to three eggs. While herons and raccoons and storm tides are all commonplace factors that can wipe out the hatchlings in a heartbeat, the threat that now requires volunteer help is the growing human population of the Mississippi Coast.
Most damage from humans is inadvertent. Beach-goers walking along near the waterline may not notice the roped-off nesting grounds and pass the colony’s unmarked border. They may be oblivious to the alarm they’re causing as the little adults swoop and cry overhead. Unaware, they tromp through the nesting grounds, crushing nests and eggs and even featherless fledglings.
Sarah Pacyna, director of the Coastal Bird Stewardship Program, says that human disturbance can flush the adult terns, leaving the eggs and chicks vulnerable to high heat, sun and predators, which include other bird species.
Audubon’s Least Tern volunteers are trained to politely engage and educate people who are about to absently walk into a nesting area.
While the deBuys, who live between New Orleans and Bay St. Louis, are relatively new to the birding word, Waveland resident Barbara Bowen has been an avid birder for over twenty years. She’s a veteran Audubon volunteer.
Bowen says it’s a particularly satisfying job.
“We’re protecting those little hatchlings, that are so vulnerable now,” she says. “And we get to talk to groups of people and tell them about the terns. They become more aware of the terns, and start appreciating other birds more too.”
Roseanna says she and her husband enjoy watching the antics of the birds and sharing information about the birds with new people.
“The kids' eyes always light up when we show them the pictures of the chicks,” she says.
“Besides, it’s a great excuse to hang out on the beach. It’s peaceful, the scenery is gorgeous and we come away relaxed. It’s a tough volunteer job, but somebody’s got to do it,” she says, laughing.
The nesting cycle for the Least Terns comes to a close in August, however, the local Audubon’s Coastal Bird Stewardship Program offers year-round educational and volunteer opportunities. For more information, email Amanda Odom, Volunteer Manager
or call (228) 285-0449. Find out the many different ways volunteers can make a difference here!