Wild Woman: Least Terns Build Summer Nests in Arkansas

Published 07/21 2014 12:43PM

Updated 07/21 2014 12:48PM

LITTLE ROCK, AR - Summer brings many migratory birds into Arkansas.

Least terns are one example.

The Least Tern is a water bird that spends summers in small colonies on exposed sandbars in the Arkansas, Mississippi and White rivers. It spends the winter months in northern South America, Central America, and various islands in the Caribbean Sea, and then makes an epic journey north. It plunges into water from flight to catch small fish and invertebrates. 

Where do they nest? 
One to three eggs are laid directly on the sand. The camouflaged eggs and chicks are hard to find, but it's not difficult to detect a nesting colony since intruders are besieged by screeching, dive-bombing adults. She stays close to the eggs and keeps them cool by dipping her chest into the water and returning to the nest. It's a difficult task starting a family on a sandbar on the Mississippi River. They're eggs are often stolen by Mississippi Kites as well ground dwelling scavengers 

Why are least terns an endangered species? 
At the turn of the century, least terns were almost annihilated by market hunters for the millinery trade, with as many as 100,000 killed each year. Arkansas nesting habitat is threatened by manipulations of river flows. Reduced flows allow encroachment of woody vegetation, eliminating some bare sandbars. High flows during nesting wash away eggs and drown chicks. Nests are also lost to dredging operations, trampling by cattle, all-terrain vehicle use, storms and predation. 

What is being done to protect the least tern? 
Signs are being erected on islands in the river where tern nests have been seen. Other signs are going up at boat launching ramps. They instruct river recreationists to seek other locations instead of sandy islands with tern nests. Least terns may be found anywhere along the Arkansas River from the Oklahoma border to the Mississippi River, but the main nesting section is from Clarksville downstream to Pine Bluff. 

Last month, several dead least terns were found on a small island in the Arkansas River. Least terns are protected by federal and state endangered species regulations. A reward of up to $8,500 is being offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the deaths. The terns are protected by the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Penalties can range from fines up to $100,000 and up to a year in prison, or both. Civil penalties up to $25,000 per violation can also be assessed. 

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