Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Sandy Point: Birders, Terns & Fireworks

For the threatened shorebirds that nest at Sandy Point, in West Haven, you’d have to figure that rowdy beer-drinking teenagers and unleashed pets were the biggest threats, right?

Well not quite. The biggest problems for Sandy Point’s least terns (see here and elsewhere on Sphere) might be bird watchers and other terns, and, for a few days in early July, fireworks.

Last summer a college student named Jennifer L. Healy, working with Sylvia L. Halkin, of Central Connecticut State University’s biology department, spent 199 hours watching the terns. Since the late 1980s, Sandy Point’s lest tern colony had gone from 200 nesting pairs to only 100 individual adults (which presumably translates into about 50 nesting pairs).

So the Connecticut Ornithological Association proposed the Healy-Halkin study (a copy of which Patrick Comins of Audubon Connecticut sent me) and published it in the Connecticut Warbler, its quarterly journal. The hope is that it might persuade West Haven officials to do a better job of protecting not just the terns but the piping plovers, black skimmers, American oystercatchers and other birds that nest there.

Miley Bull of Connecticut Audubon told me in an e-mail:

We would all love to see the Town of West Haven take some action here. DEP cannot (and should not) be everywhere trying to enforce regulations on Town-owned properties.

Healy spent 199 hours, between May 8 and August 8, watching the colony, counting the birds, and making notes on what disturbed them – that is, what made the adult least terns leave the colony, temporarily abandoning their eggs or their young, exposing them to the elements, and using up energy that presumably could have gone into nesting.

She noted that the most frequent visitors were fishermen, “followed by walkers (including people with dogs), sunbathers, and then birders.”

She added:

Among human visitors, birders caused the highest proportion of disturbances; in some cases, multiple disturbances were caused by a single individual. Fishermen caused the lowest proportion of human disturbances.

It’s easy to speculate on why birders caused the most disturbance. Fishermen and walkers, I imagine, probably couldn’t care less about the terns; moreover, as anyone who has visited a bird colony knows, the ruckus that nesting birds cause when you approach is deafening and unnerving. The birds make it unpleasant to be near them, and the fishermen and walkers probably took the hint. The sunbathers, I guess, were too inconspicuous to bother with.

The birders, on the other hand, were there to see birds, despite the trouble they might cause. They weren’t interested in moving on any faster than they had to. As a result, they caused the highest proportion of human disturbances.

But even birders couldn’t cause more trouble than other birds, particularly common terns, a larger relative of the least tern. Healy noted:

Probably the largest negative impact on Least Tern productivity was caused by Common Terns. The Common Terns tended to nest on the north side of the colony, but as the season progressed some of the nesting pairs moved south to where the Least Terns were most concentrated. Disturbances to the whole Least Tern colony were caused when Common Terns chased and harassed adult Least Terns, sometimes causing the Least Terns to drop the fish that they were carrying. … Multiple people saw adult Common Terns take fish away from chick Least Terns as and after they were being fed by their parents. This behavior occurred frequently, and worsened as the summer progressed. The adult Common Terns sometimes harassed the adult and chick Least Terns to the point where they were picking up the chicks. The Common Tern would fly up with the chick in its beak and drop the chick until the chick dropped the fish. It seems likely that the puncture wounds found in dead Least Terns were caused by the beaks of Common Terns.


Which brings us to fireworks and the Fourth of July. Healy wrote:

On the nights of July 3 and 4, fireworks were visible and audible from the beach. On July 3, the West Haven fireworks did not appear to disturb the Least Terns, but the noise caused some movement of the Piping Plovers. On July 4, the programmed New Haven fireworks caused Least Terns to leave the colony only when the fireworks were extremely loud. However, before, during, and after the programmed fireworks, people on the sandy spit north of the colony were setting off personal fireworks, including noisy sparklers that stayed on the spit, and loud aerial fireworks that exploded over the colony. These caused multiple departures from the colony.

There’s not much that can or should be done about the common terns. It reminds me of 15 or so years ago, when both the weather and sewage were being blamed for Long Island Sound’s hypoxia problem. The weather was about to become an excuse for inaction – after all, you can’t do anything about it – until it was pointed out that the weather is a problem only when it’s compounded by the pollution that we’re causing, and therefore we should control the things we can control and not worry about the rest. Same with the common terns. Take away the intruders and the fireworks, and the least terns can survive the mortality caused by the common terns. And if they can’t, that’s life, and nature.

Healy’s paper concludes with recommendations: more and better signs, and better fences. Having been to Sandy Point twice, in April and May, I concur – the signs are small and easy to ignore.

She also notes quite logically that if the police paid more attention around the Fourth of July, the fireworks problem would go away.

But that would require West Haven to make Sandy Point something of a priority, and thus far nothing I’ve seen or heard indicates that the city thinks it is.


Blogger Pamela Martin said...

It's a tricky problem about the birdwatchers. The popularity of birding is good for protection of fragile bird habitats, etc., but it seems it's sometimes hard to strike the right balance. In this case though, maybe the weight of the birders will eventually pressure the police to do something about the "private" fireworks displays.

5:37 PM  
Blogger wolf21m said...

Thanks for sharing this perspective. Its a tricky problem, but I appreciate the perspective of the possible impact that we as birders can have.

9:35 AM  

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