A group of Hancock County volunteers partnering with Audubon Mississippi is working to get protection for the new Hancock County Least Terns colony. The 2016 nesting site didn't make it.
A new website, www.LeastTerns.com - hopes to consolidate community support for a happier ending this year.
- by Ellis Anderson
None of the chicks made it to adulthood. By July, Audubon had declared the Hancock County colony a failure.
According to Sarah Pacyna, director of Audubon Mississippi’s Coastal Bird Stewardship Program, the organization wasn’t able to get permission from the Hancock County Supervisors quickly enough to mark the colony and erect awareness signs.
Since the terns lay their eggs and raise their chicks directly on the sand beach, they’re especially vulnerable to predators, storm surges and people who inadvertently trample the eggs or chicks, fly kites or walk dogs through the nursery.
This year, Audubon and its Hancock County volunteers began organizing early. If the birds returned to any beach in Hancock County, they wanted to be ready.
The tern scouts have apparently decided to return to the same location. But Pacyna, who spoke to the supervisors at their April 17th meeting, was told to return on May 1st.
At that meeting, Pacyna will be again requesting permission to symbolically rope off the beach to alert beachgoers to the nesting birds. She’ll also ask permission to post educational signage.
Similar efforts by Audubon have been very successful on Harrison County beaches over the past years, where the colonies attract bird-watchers from around the country, helping fuel the local economy.
The Least Terns website offers Hancock County residents several ways to support the colony.
A letter writing campaign hopes to generate dozens of letters from constituents urging the Supervisors to support Audubon’s efforts to protect the colony. The campaign also points out that the colony has the potential to be an additional visitor attraction to bring economic benefits - at no cost to taxpayers.
Pacyna points to surveys showing that serious birders tend to be affluent and often travel for their hobby. Bird-watching, one of the fastest growing hobbies in the country, generates millions for communities that tap into eco-tourism. Birding alone brings in around $350 million each year in the diminutive state of Maine, which has embraced birding as a natural resource that happens to feed money into state coffers.
Pacyna says that in addition to the letter writing campaign, the new website offers sign sponsorships. Local businesses will be able to have their logos/names printed on attractive educational signs. The signs sport a new Hancock County tag line - “Walk around – it’s the least we can do” - as well as the more familiar “Nest in Peace” slogan, used for years in Harrison County.
If the Hancock Supervisors give permission on May 1st, Audubon Mississippi will provide the wood to mount the signs and volunteers to post them around the colony. The signs are $25 for a 12” X 12” size and $50 for a 24” X 24” size.
Businesses (and individuals) may sign up on the Least Tern website. Volunteers can also sign up to watch over the birds during busy holiday weekends.
But if Pacyna doesn’t receive permission from the supervisors on May 1st, the Least Terns may be facing another repeat of last year’s loss.
“Every week we have to delay lessens their chances for survival,” Paycna says.
In the 80s, the birds were so endangered that only 3,000 nesting pairs remained in the country. While continued conservation efforts have helped the population of the small bird gain ground, they’re still protected by state and federal laws.
Historically, these birds nested on barrier islands, but erosion from storms and land loss caused by industry has forced them onto the coast. Harrison County has become a safe haven for the nesting birds in recent years. Between mid-May and late July, sixteen colonies nest on the shore.
Audubon Mississippi’s programs to raise awareness and engage the support of the public has been successful through the years in Harrison County, which has become a popular destination for bird-watchers.
For more information, go to www.LeastTerns.com. To purchase a sign sponsorship or send a letter to the Hancock Supervisors, go directly to the "Take Action" page.
The Least Terns website is sponsored by Audubon Mississippi's Coastal Bird Stewardship Program and the Shoofly Magazine.