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Least Terns Get Safe Home on Buck Island

May 22, 2004 – Buck Island Reef National Monument is a popular destination around St. Croix. Weekend boaters visit West Beach for snorkeling, sunning and swimming. This time of year, weekenders must make way for a returning guest, the least tern, a migratory bird that competes with the people for a spot on West Beach. The birds are looking for a place to settle in and make their nest.
The migration pattern of the least tern varies a little every year, but they usually arrive on St. Croix in April, start nesting in June, and stay through August if the situation is favorable. This year, a portion of West Beach will be roped off to encourage the least tern to stay, and encourage people to stay away. "The birds usually arrive choosing to nest on areas that are very wide," says wildlife biologist Claudia Lombard with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "That’s good for the birds because the nests won’t be washed away."
An area clearly marked with stakes, ropes and signs will guide visitors to stay either east or west of the site, so they won’t accidentally step on eggs and put stress on the adults. If you must walk from one side of the beach to the other, there is a trail at the back of the enclosure.
The population of the least tern, according to a Web site of Cornell University, is falling because more beaches are being used for human recreation. This is the second crisis faced by the bird. At the beginning of the last century they were hunted almost to extinction when their feathers were in demand for stylish hats.
There are three subspecies of least tern, all similar in appearance. The eastern coastal least tern, which is seen on St. Croix, is a small sea bird with a white breast, grey backside, and a black cap and eye mask. It's been noted that they mate with the same partner for multiple seasons. They lay small speckled sand colored eggs in shallow depressions on the beach, and both adults take turns sitting on the eggs and foraging for food. Dog predation has been the biggest threat on St. Croix. Weighing in at only an ounce, an adult could easily fit in the palm of your hand. But stumble upon one of their camouflaged nests, and you’ll see that small and cute doesn’t mean defenseless.
"You'll know when you're in a breeding site for a least tern, because they very aggressively defend their nest," says Lombard. "They defend them by dive bombing. They dive at vehicles, people, and pets. They won’t hurt you because they’re so small. That's just one way they protect themselves."
The birds haven’t started nesting on Buck Island yet, but Lombard says they’ve been courting, and mating will soon follow. There are already 15 known nesting sites on St. Croix for the least tern, mostly on beaches, salt slats, and industrial areas.
If you have any questions about the enclosure, call the National Park Service at 773-1460.
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