Beaks and Bills
To Everything Tern, Tern, Tern - Bellingham’s Caspian Tern Summer
by Joe Meche
Joe Meche is president of the North Cascades Audubon Society and also serves the chapter as newsletter editor and birding programs coordinator. He has been watching birds for more than 50 years and photographing birds and landscapes for more than 30 years.
After almost a decade of observing and listening to Caspian terns over the late spring and summer, not to mention searching for signs of nesting activity on every waterfront rooftop, last year’s nesting colony was a milestone. In the process of demolishing some of the buildings and leveling the rubble at the site of the old Georgia-Pacific (GP) mill on the Bellingham waterfront, a reasonable facsimile of prime nesting habitat was created, albeit inadvertently.
Caspian terns are opportunistic nesters and when the nesting season rolls around, they search far and wide for suitable terrain. It was well known that many Caspian terns had been displaced from a number of former nesting sites, primarily due to conflicts with humans. Whether the U.S. Navy needed room for a new base or notions that the terns were responsible for the decline in salmon runs, the terns always had to relocate. With almost 250 adults and just over 50 chicks, local avian aficionados were happy to see them here last year.
This year, as fate would have it, the once bustling colony at the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge near Sequim collapsed due to natural factors rather than the actions of humans. When we visited the colony there in mid-May, we noticed that the total number of birds was down from the previous year. Sometime after our visit, however, the colony was literally besieged by bald eagles, coyotes and other land predators. Consequently, the terns abandoned the site.
Shortly after that visit, on a Sunday morning walk along Whatcom Creek with fellow Audubon members on May 23, we made a discovery! It seemed from our vantage point on Roeder Avenue that the old G-P pier was covered with white. We first suspected a large number of gulls, but upon closer binoculation, it was clear that the birds were Caspian terns — a lot of Caspian terns! In the ensuing days, I made it a point to get a better look at what might be going on at the site that had been used last year.
I observed the terns for the next couple of weeks from vantage points on Cornwall Avenue and from the foot of C Street, just across the waterway from the old pier. From the behavior and general activity exhibited by the terns, it became obvious that they were back to utilize last year’s nesting site—and they had brought along a few friends! Shortly after these initial observations, I posted the news to three separate birding listservs to spread the word.
I made a site visit in late May with Mike Stoner, environmental director for the port of Bellingham, which manages the property. Realizing the opportunity at hand, I worked with Mike to put together an agreement with the port for me to access the site through the nesting season. I owe a great deal of gratitude to Mike and the port for allowing me the pleasure to be on site, and also to Neil Clement, the port’s emergency management/security officer for his gracious hosting throughout this time.
Looking back through my journal in early August, the chronology of the local tern activity is clear. Terry Wahl made the first reported tern sighting on Bellingham Bay on April 11. We first realized that the terns were back to the nesting site in the last week of May and the first part of June. My first solo visit on June 14 was impressive enough with about 600 adults on site. Many birds were sitting on eggs, but no chicks … yet! Paul Woodcock was able to join me for a visit on June 17 when we estimated that there were almost 1,000 adults and, lo and behold, 30 chicks!
As the number of my visits increased toward the end of June, the adult and chick numbers increased as well. In early July, I was contacted by a representative of Oregon State University/ Bird Research Northwest to discuss the size of the colony. Beginning on July 9, I was joined on site for several visits by Ladd Bayliss, a field technician for the project that was monitoring the tern colonies on the Pacific Coast. Ladd and I were constantly impressed at the increased numbers on each visit.
Fast forward to the end of July, 2010, and we were quite simply, in the common vernacular, blown away! Toward the end of the month, there were more than 3,000 adult terns on the site and almost 1,000 chicks ranging in age from week-old downy chicks to soon-to-be-fledglings eager to take to the air. The data that Ladd gathered from her visits turned a few heads. The numbers were high enough to declare that this colony had become the second largest on the Pacific Coast!
Some of the bands we read as we scanned the colony told us that birds were here from Dungeness and some from as far away as East Sand Island on the Columbia River, the Tri-cities area, southern Oregon, and the San Francisco Bay area. A real highlight for Ladd came when she spotted a bird that she had helped to band as a chick in early spring near Pasco! No one really knows how the word was spread among the birds about Bellingham, but they kept coming! One bird that was in the colony was banded on East Sand Island in 2001!
After seeing the data about the birds here combined with the collapse of the Dungeness colony, Pete Loschl, field coordinator from Oregon State University, contacted the port to discuss the possibility of a chick capture and banding some time in late July. When Pete contacted me, I had almost 20 local volunteers ready to assist. As it turned out, Pete had a field crew ready to come up to Bellingham for the operation, along with three representatives of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The date for the capture and banding was set for early morning on July 30. We had a pre-banding meeting with the entire crew at Larrabee State Park the night before and another meeting on the day of the banding. Like a fine military commander, Pete sketched the plan on a chalkboard and assigned duties to everyone involved. The execution of the plan was simply flawless and before we stopped for lunch, we had rounded up, captured, banded, and released 252 Caspian tern chicks. The targeted birds were 4-5 weeks old. The highlight of the entire operation was the fact not a single bird was harmed in the process!
I plan to continue monitoring the colony through August and into the middle of September, or until all the birds have departed to their wintering grounds to the south. It has been a pleasurable experience for me and, despite the incessant noise from being so close to the terns, I have come to appreciate them in an entirely different light. I remain enthralled by the almost constant movement of birds in and out of the colony, delivering fish to the chicks and going back for more; the occasional lifting of all the adults as one when an eagle came too near; watching chicks develop from hatching to fledging; and the general dynamics of a breeding colony of large birds.
Keep in mind that the number of terns onsite when the sun goes down is nearly 5,000-6,000 individuals. We’re looking into ways to accurately assess the actual number in the dark. The future of this site as a nesting ground for this largest member of the worldwide family of terns is uncertain as plans for development of the property will certainly move forward. Ideally, setting aside a small corner of the property for a nesting colony of Caspian terns would be a tourist attraction in and of itself.
Final numbers and the future of the site notwithstanding, the Caspian Tern Summer of 2010 will remain quite vivid for this reporter, for some time to come. §