Birds of a feather: Vols flock to build nest site for troubled species

The least tern is losing natural nesting habitat on the South Carolina coast, forcing biologists to turn to alternative sites.

Least terns are those tiny darting acrobats in the estuary sky. They look like they live in the air. More and more, living in the air is what they have to do.

Biologists estimate that the shorebirds’ population dropped 30 percent in the past 30 years. They continually lose their once-isolated pebble beach rookeries to human intrusion. 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.

That’s why a group of biologists and volunteers on Friday spread pea gravel across the unused Pier Romeo at the old Navy base, to build what could literally become a least tern refuge. And as they worked, a few of the shorebirds circled overhead.

The Cooper River pier, in the midst of the steel of military and research sea vessels at adjacent moors, might be the last place one would consider for a wildlife haven. But it’s the latest test site in a new way of looking at conservation in the urbanizing Lowcountry: repurposing.

“It’s not the ideal situation. We’re thinking outside the box,” said Jennifer Koches of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. With its height from the water, locked gate and an electric fence added to deter predators like raccoons, the old pier “could provide a sanctuary area,” she said.

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

S.C. Department of Natural Resources, 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.

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 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.

Least terns 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, DNR wildlife biologist.

“I think that same wisdom ought to be with us today,” she said. Each of those species now struggling to find habitat along the developing coast. Like diversity in human pursuits, diversity in nature provides its richness, she said. “Any time we lose a species, that is a loss of diversity.”

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