ATHENS, Ga. -- A small gentle shorebird, hunted nearly to extinction earlier this century as an adornment for women's hats, is perched on the brink again. Crowded off its natural beachfront nesting grounds by frisbee-throwing vacationers and high-rise hotels, the beleaguered Atlantic least tern has resorted to nesting on roof-tops.
A new study by University of Georgia wildlife researchers has found that nearly all of Georgia's 1,200 to 1,500 surviving least tern pairs are nesting on some type of artificial site, whether it's roof-tops or man-made sand hills called "spoils," dredged from ocean channels. Another 125 or so pairs still try to nest on beaches each year without much success. The researchers say without further protection, the Atlantic least tern, already listed as "rare" by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, is vulnerable to further decline.
"Successful breeding depends on having large, intact colonies," said Dr. Sara Schweitzer, a wildlife ecologist in UGA's Warnell School of Forest Resources. "The few remaining beach colonies have the absolute last tatters of usable beach, and they're being flooded out. So these artificial nesting sites are crucial."
The research, which was presented last year at national meetings of the Colonial Waterbird Society, the Association of Field Ornithologists and The Wildlife Society, was supported by grants from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Resources Division, the Max McGraw Wildlife Foundation and the UGA Research Foundation.
About the size and color of a mockingbird, the Atlantic least terns fly
over shallow water,
hunting for minnows and other small fish. Their aerial acrobatics delighted
nineteenth century beach goers who nicknamed them "sea swallows." They once
nested up and down the East Coast, but their long, fancy black and white wing
and tail feathers made them a fashion target. From the 1870s to the early 1900s,
Contact: Helen Fosgate
University of Georgia