Conservation
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A Real-Life Example Close to Home

by Eleanor Kee Wellman | April 1, 2006

© Eleanor Kee WellmanWhen the loons didn’t nest on my small lake in south-central Ontario in 2005, I had to find another subject to maximize the summer photography season.

I had been out to a Common Tern nesting colony on a local lake with friends who live on the lake and had been monitoring the colony for 25 years. The birds have been observed nesting on their rocky island since the late 1800’s. Fifteen years ago the naturalists’ group to which I belong monitored the island and helped erect signs to warn people away when the terns were nesting.

Since then, Ring-billed and Herring gulls have crowded out the terns from their preferred area; the terns moved to a steep rock at the end of the original nesting area. There is almost no vegetation and no cover and their nest sites are totally open to the elements.

Common tern nest site © Eleanor Kee Wellman

A 2005 Common Tern nest site, totally open and exposed to the elements.

Observing the terns again with their long-winged grace in flight and tenacity in sticking to a difficult nesting situation drew me in and I began my local conservation photography project.

The Project

It’s a 20-minute paddle by open kayak out to the island. I made several trips; on the first trip the second week of June 2005, I found 12-15 pairs of birds and a single individual. Some birds were still taking fish to their mates and most were sitting on eggs. The best time for photography is from 7:30am to 10:30am as the wind and waves make keeping the boat still difficult after that. An extended heat wave made trips later in the day very uncomfortable.

About my fourth trip out I was very excited to see a couple of puffball chicks being carefully protected by the adults and being fed small fish. A couple more hatched and the earlier ones were able to head down the rock to get water.

Common tern chicks © Eleanor Kee Wellman

Common Tern chicks interacting at the harsh nesting site. Not a single chick survived the 2005 season.

On my next trip I realized that the earliest-hatched chicks had disappeared. By the eighth trip not a single chick was left and some adults were starting courtship all over again.

On the tenth and final trip out in mid-July in my friend’s boat, we searched the lake to try to find any juveniles we might have missed. All the adult Common Terns had left the nesting colony three weeks earlier than expected and we found only one pair left on the lake. The adults with their juveniles usually would not leave the lake until mid-August.

Time for Action

A whole breeding season wasted for these birds! How would they survive and keep the colony going if no chicks fledged? It was time to do something! My friends and I decided to approach our local Ministry of Natural Resources biologist, Jan McDonnell, for help. After doing a bit of research on the Internet, we thought that we could set out structures to help protect the chicks. We had not determined whether gulls, owls, or crows had taken the chicks or if they had succumbed to the relentless heat.

We decided that my photographs could help our cause. Jan could see that the colony site was very inhospitable; she used a couple of photos as attachments to illustrate the problems we faced when she sent out e-mails to other biologists asking for help. We marked one to show the sites used for nesting in 2005.

Common tern nest sites © Eleanor Kee Wellman

This is the daunting topography of the rock the Common Terns have had to resort to nesting on. White X’s indicate the nest sites.

To gain sympathy when asking our naturalists’ group to help us obtain grant money for materials, we used photographs to show the classical elegance of the adults and shots of the chicks to show how cute they are along with the contrasting shots of the harsh conditions on the bald rock. We used the photographs to enlist the help of a man with a barge and another with gravel and stone. We used the photographs to gain the support of volunteers to build the chick shelters and again to get help with moving the stone and gravel to level areas for nesting and better drainage.

This was just the first year of our plan. Now we have a much larger agenda. We hope to get the help of our local heritage foundation to supply shrubs and vegetation over the next few years to plant with the hope that we can discourage the gull colonies that took over the more hospitable nesting sites. We are planning to monitor the colony to keep predators away.

Using the photographs helped others see the problems we faced. We intend to do all we can to save the only Common Tern nesting colony in our area.

Common tern interaction © Eleanor Kee Wellman

About the Author

Eleanor Kee Wellman lives on a small lake in south-central Ontario and has been photographing wildlife for 15 years. She has spent many hours watching and photographing the loons that nest nearby. Although animal behavior interests her most, she works at photographing all the flora and fauna living around her.

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