Rough riding for threatened least terns

Judy Drew Fairchild

DEWEES ISLAND — The least tern is a tiny, whirling spectacle on the wing, a shorebird that nests at the edge of flat rookery islands. The Quadski is a $40,000 jet-powered watercraft that can switch to an all-terrain vehicle at the push of a button.

That quickly, the least tern and other threatened and endangered shorebirds have a new threat, one that rides in the intertidal zone that is something of a no man’s land between regulations.

A pair of the watercraft jetted ashore on the east end of Dewees Island recently and began riding the beach until one of them got stuck in a tidal pool. The craft rode where a colony of least terns has laid nearly 50 nests — on a remote stretch where islanders have been trying to re-establish the species.

Any new colony of least tern nests is pivotal. The birds are considered a threatened species in the state. Like other shorebirds, they were nearly wiped out in the early 20th century when their feathers became prized for hats. Now they’re in trouble because there are fewer and fewer isolated places for them to nest.

The S.C. Department of Natural Resources is investigating the incident, said Capt. Robert McCullough. Harassing the birds would be a violation.

There’s no sign so far any of the birds, chicks or eggs were harmed, said naturalist Judy Drew Fairchild, an island resident. But the birds are so jumpy they will screech and dive bomb a person walking nearby. Riding past on a Quadski could scatter a colony.

“There are only a handful of tern colonies with a significant amount of nesting, so even if disruption is limited to Dewees, it causes serious damage to the least tern population,” said Dana Beach of the Coastal Conservation League.

The Quadski operates on two engines: one powers a jet of water to move on the sea, the other is a four-cylinder turning the wheels on land. In the water, the wheels rise up to help buoyancy.

Watercraft are governed by licensing and regulations in the water, and can land on most beaches. Motorized vehicles generally are banned on beaches by local laws. But no specific law addresses a craft that can go back and forth. And this watercraft can run 45 mph on either land or sea.

“We may not have planned for this type of vehicle when the rules were made for beach preserves,” said DNR biologist Felicia Sanders.

“When something new comes out, you always have to deal with it,” McCullough said.

On top of that are the colonies themselves. Least terns are camouflaged so well that they can be difficult to pick out against the sand if they are not moving. The chicks and eggs are virtually invisible.

“If you don’t tell people they’re there, they just can’t tell,” Fairchild said.

Biologists and naturalists that monitor the birds tend to stay low key on the whereabouts, not wanting to call attention to them. The beaches that the birds favor often don’t have signs designating them as preserves because they are so hard to reach few people seek them out.

Those are the beaches this watercraft is designed to reach. The manufacturer’s website video shows riders parking it on a tide-washed sandbar.

“How do we protect the (shorebird) beaches from technology like that?” Fairchild asked. “My wish is that people begin to pay attention because we have all these amazing things (along the beaches) we need to take care of.”

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