The Least We Can Do for the Terns

April 17, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE. — The next round in the ongoing and mostly unnecessary battle between wildlife and people may take place on a little island about three miles south of here, near the southwest corner of the great shallow bay at the Chesapeake's head known as the Susquehanna Flats.

The island is a mile from shore, and perhaps three or four acres in size. It's mostly barren sand, though there are some phragmites reeds and beach grasses and a few struggling trees. It was created several decades ago from spoil dredged from the ship channel to Havre de Grace.

It has no official name, though locally it and a smaller, more wooded island just to the north are known as the Sand Islands. Legally, it's state property, and is theoretically administered as part of Susquehanna State Park, which lies far away up the river. But it's entirely unsupervised, which is part of its charm.

For years local people have used it in the summers, sometimes considerately and sometimes grossly, as a picnic spot, a campground, and as what an older generation delicately called a trysting place. Some of these visitors leave a lot of litter, which others frequently clean up.

About three years ago, the island's attractions became apparent to some other seasonal visitors. To Maryland's declining population of least terns, which have the unfortunate genetic preference for nesting on sandy ground near the water, it ZTC seemed to offer reasonable privacy and, most important, protection from four-legged predators. Few other spots around the bay meet those simple requirements.

In June, 1992, state wildlife biologists counted 31 active least tern nests on the island. But over the Independence Day weekend that year, human traffic overwhelmed the island and -- probably inadvertently -- destroyed all but three of the nests. The three nests contained three dead tern chicks, which presumably starved after their parents were flushed.

Last summer, the state posted signs describing the tern nesting area, and put up a strong fence around it, leaving the rest of the island (including all the shoreline) open to visitors as usual. But the fence was torn down, and although at one time there were 16 active nests, not more than one or two little terns eventually fledged.

Ten years ago, Maryland had thousands of pairs of nesting least terns. Last year that number had dropped to about 240. Least terns are now described by the Department of Natural Resources as a ''species in need of conservation,'' but with the population crashing fast it's likely that this year the designation will be changed to ''threatened.''

The failure of the Susquehanna Flats nesting site, which Laura Gill of the DNR-supported Maryland Colonial Waterbird Project says is potentially the most significant in the state, is a major reason for the terns' troubles. Something needs to be done differently on the island. But what?

DNR could order the entire island closed for the May-through-August nesting season, and may yet do so if the terns come back this year and try to nest. But it hasn't the staff or the budget to enforce such an order, which would certainly meet with enormous resentment and constant challenge, and without enforcement no bureaucratic directive will be much help to the terns.

It should be possible to protect the least terns on the island without entirely closing it to the humans, who in this instance were there first. Such a decree risks making the terns a Chesapeake equivalent of the spotted owl.

A better first step would be to build community support for the terns, which are beautiful and interesting little birds, and perhaps raise private funds for improving their nesting sites. (Terns are adaptable. In recent years, Ms. Gill's study project found that in Maryland, more successful breeding pairs nested on the flat gravel roofs of schools in Talbot, Dorchester and Baltimore counties than anywhere else.)

Also helpful would be a volunteer corps of tern-protectors to monitor the island nesting site, especially during busy summer weekends. The volunteers, many of whom would probably come from those who already use and care about the island, could explain the project and see that the small restricted area around the nests was respected.

If such a volunteer effort succeeded in getting the terns established over the next couple of breeding seasons, it's not implausible that the conservation habit would become well enough established among island users so that strict supervision would be less necessary in the future.

Whether there will be a chance to try these or other innovations at all will depend first of all on the terns. If they're going to come back to the island for another try, after the disasters of the last two summers, they should be along within the next couple of weeks. I went out a few days ago to check, and there was no sign of them yet. But they're known as tenacious birds, which is reason enough to hope that they'll give themselves, and us, one more chance to make coexistence work.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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