Effort to create habitat for nesting least terns has early success

Least terns began laying eggs in June on a fabricated “beach” at Pier Romeo in North Charleston.

Miki Schmidt took his binoculars out to the gated-off Pier Romeo and couldn’t believe his eyes. Five, maybe six nests of imperiled least terns had been laid, there on the pea gravel he had helped spread on the disused dock at the old Navy base in North Charleston.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief scientist isn’t alone in his surprise. An “out-of-the-box” try at finding new nesting sites for the bird — one that even the researchers monitoring weren’t sure would work — is showing all the signs of doing the job.

It could open a new avenue for fostering not only terns but also a number of other shorebird species as habitats are lost: repurposing vacated urban waterfront spaces as nesting grounds.

The least tern is the whirling dervish of the coast, a sparrow-size bird that looks like a skinny gull and is incredibly agile on the fly. A wooing male will dart, dance and hover in the air with a fish in its mouth, then feed it to the female. They were among a number of shorebird species almost wiped out by the early 20th-century demand for feathers for ladies’ hats. The plunder helped spur the development of public refuges, said Mary Catherine Martin, a wildlife biologist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

No sooner had they recovered, they ran into coastal development. The birds pick the most isolated spots for their nests and they are flighty, to say the least, scattering at disturbances such as beachcombers and dogs. Only two natural nesting sites really are left in the state today, on Cape Romain and at Botany Bay, and both repeatedly fail to produce offspring.

Biologists estimate that the shorebirds’ population dropped 30 percent in the past 30 years. In recent decades, they took to places like pebbly flat tar roofs. But the aging roofs now are being demolished one by one, not up to code. So the birds are turning to precipices, where nestlings fall to their death.

The idea behind the multiagency effort on Pier Romeo last April was to see if a spot like that could be repurposed, even in the midst of the industrial steel environs of military and research sea vessels.

Pier Romeo sits in the guarded compound of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. But it juts out from NOAA’s coastal management office where staff volunteered to help build and monitor it.

DNR, South Carolina Audubon, Moran Towing and College of Charleston student Aubrey O’Brien also took part in what was championed as an Earth Day project.

Terns circled overhead as they worked, but none nested. Two months later and two weeks ago, the first pair came in. Then another, then a third. A week after the first nest, Schmidt raised his glasses Monday to find more.

“We really didn’t know what to expect. I think it demonstrates that we have the knowledge of the needs of the terns, and can identify areas that can be managed, safe from predators, for them to establish long-term nesting sites in the face of increased usage and disturbance of natural nesting areas, such as our beaches and inlets,” said Craig Watson, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wildlife biologist.

“We hope that the terns will return next year and bring more terns with them,” he said.

Reach Bo Petersen at 843- 937-5744.