The Least Terns' Turn
By Donna Kay Malloy
Nesting Habits of the Least Tern: Although their spotted eggs blend perfectly with their natural surroundings, this camouflage coloration is no defense against beach-goers and dogs.
The least we can do is take a turn to help save the Least Tern, or Sterna antillarum, from extinction. Loss of habitat due to coastal development and increased disruption of beach nesting areas has caused this bird species to rapidly decline in recent years. As a result, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission now lists the Least Tern, along with the snowy plover, as a threatened species.
Wintering in Latin America, in early spring the Least Tern migrates to Florida for mating season. One courtship ritual includes optimistic males offering small fish to potential mates. The successful pair then prepares a shallow nest, called a "scrape" on open patches of sand. Although peak-nesting season is from mid-May through July, nesting can continue through August. The diet of the Least Tern consists mainly consists of fish, and occasionally shrimp and marine worms.
But their innate colonization ritual of nesting in shallow scrapes did not take into account curious beach-goers or dogs. In response, approximately 70% of Least Terns are now nesting on flat, gravel rooftops vs. natural beach sites.
The Least Terns' eggs are incubated for approximately three weeks. The young leave the nest in a few days, but the fledglings do not begin to fly until about three weeks later. It is during this fragile time period that some least terns are their most vulnerable.
Even though the Least Tern has found safety in these older buildings, some owners feel these birds are a nuisance. In addition, some of these older structures are being replaced by new construction, thus further diminishing the least terns' habitat. This makes their barrier island habitat all that more important.
What can you do to help? The next time you visit the beach, you can do your part by respecting posted areas and keeping a safe distance from the resting birds. Keep your dogs on a leash, on your boat or at home. Don't force the birds to fly and don't leave any trash behind.
On July 4th, don't deploy fireworks at or near an active nesting beach. Report colonies that have not yet been posted to your local Audubon Society and bird harassment to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) Wildlife Alert 1 (888) 404-3922. Lastly, you can take a turn helping the Least Turn by volunteering at your local chapter of the Audubon Society or the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary on Indian Shores.
Return to Current Edition