North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission

Tern Turret Tidings – The Black-“Crowned” Birds are Back in Town

Author: NCWRC blogger/Friday, April 27, 2018/Categories: Blog, Conservation, Education, Wildlife Watching

Tern Turret Tidings – The Black-“Crowned” Birds are Back in Town

The black-“crowned” birds are back in town. Over the last couple of weeks, least terns have been checking out the rooftop of the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores in Carteret County. Staff with the aquarium and the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission are hopeful that the birds will soon begin nesting on the rooftop for a second year in a row.

Least terns are the smallest terns found in North America, measuring between 8 and 9 inches long. They have a snowy white underside and forehead, grayish back and wings, orange or yellow legs and a yellow bill with a black tip. Least terns are known as “beach nesting birds” because of their preference to nest on sandy beaches with little to no vegetation. Sometimes though, their preferred nesting habitat is in short supply. Human disturbance and habitat loss are two main reasons why least terns, as well as other beach-nesting birds, have had to be resourceful in finding alternative, as well as creative, places to nest and raise their chicks. The aquarium’s rooftop, dubbed the “Tern Turret,” provides such a place.

Over the last few days, aquarium staff Commission’s Coastal Waterbird team, have made the rooftop a tad more inviting for the terns by placing 30 concrete blocks on the roof. The concrete blocks should provide cover for the chicks once they hatch, according to Carol Price, conservation research coordinator for the North Carolina Aquariums.

“On the beach, chicks might use driftwood or clumps of vegetation to hide from predators, seek shade when it is hot, or cover during rain events,” Price said.

Staff also placed eight least tern decoys on the rooftop to assure adult terns that the rooftop is a suitable place to raise a family.

Now that the Tern Turret is complete, staff will limit their activities on the roof to minimize any disturbance to nesting adults. As Jeff Harms, a Marine Educator with the aquarium, explains it, “The chicks are very cute but fragile and there is very little cover for them. When we disturb them, the parents will fly and leave the chicks unprotected.

“The parents provide shade to the chicks who can overheat and die on these really hot days. They are also often eaten by crows and gulls when the parents are flushed so the less they are disturbed the better. The eggs and chicks lay directly on the gravel in scrapes and are REALLY well camouflaged so can easily be stepped on if you don’t know what you are looking for. Plus, the adults waste valuable energy and get stressed out when they are flying around waiting for people to leave. They are very protective and will dive-bomb and poop on people to try to dissuade you from hanging around.”

Once the birds show up, pair up and start nesting in the next few weeks, the egg laying will begin. The typical incubation is about three weeks, followed by another several weeks before the chicks can fly. During this time, Price, along with Nick Jennings, a waterbird technician with the Commission, will be collecting data to determine how many pairs are nesting, how many nests have eggs and hatchlings, and how many young terns fledge.

“I am really excited about this opportunity to monitor the birds since there is very little information about rooftop colonies of least terns in North Carolina,” Jennings said. “Because of their population status, least terns can use all the help they can get nesting and raising their young.”

In North Carolina, least terns are state listed as a species of special concern and identified in the N.C. Wildlife Action Plan as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need. In some areas of their range, least terns are federally listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They are listed as special concern in North Carolina because their preferred nesting habitat – beaches – is also shared by humans. Human disturbance at nesting sites, as well as habitat loss from development and coastal engineering projects, are two of the biggest threats least terns face today. For this reason, the Wildlife Commission urges beach-goers to “share the shore” with least terns and other waterbirds during the nesting season.

See more Tern Turret photos on the Tern Turret Tidings Flickr page and visit often as we update the page with new information and photos during the 2018 nesting season.

For more information on least terns, visit the Commission’s Least Tern webpage.

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