Caspian and Elegant Terns join Least Terns to nest at Alameda Point

Naval Air Station-Alameda gained notoriety as a refuge for the endangered California Least Tern when the base closed in 1997.  Over 500 acres were dedicated to protecting the terns’ adopted nesting site next to a runway formerly used by jet aircraft. 

This unlikely bird habitat for the Least Terns some 400 miles north of their historic breeding grounds along the southern California coast offered the birds something they had lost, which drove them to the brink of extinction – nesting sites free of human disturbance near a source of small fish to feed their chicks. 

Surprisingly, two other tern species have recently begun nesting in the vicinity.  Elegant and Caspian Terns seem to be thriving there, while the endangered Least Terns are struggling.

Elegant Terns establish nesting site at Alameda Point, a Bay Area first

Elegant Terns, whose historic breeding grounds are also along the southern California coast and in Mexico, have started nesting at Alameda Point on a beach in wetland not far from where the Least Terns nest.  When the Elegant Terns were first seen nesting at Alameda Point in 2019, it was the first documented instance of this species nesting this far north. 

The similar-sized birds are hard to distinguish in flight. They can often be seen diving for fish in the Seaplane Lagoon and nearby waters during nesting season, which is in progress right now. The smaller Least Terns, which also forage in the area, can be distinguished in flight by much faster hovering and diving movements.

More than 90 percent of all Elegant Terns nest in a single colony on Isla Rasa in the Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez), Mexico, according to Cornell University’s All About Birds website.  The remaining 10 percent nest on the nearby island of Isla Montague, on a few isolated beaches in southern California and, as of 2019, at Alameda Point.

The Elegant Terns were attracted to the tiny wetland beach where another tern species, the Caspian Tern, had taken to nesting immediately after the Navy had finished its wetland expansion and environmental remediation in 2014.  In the last two years, the combined annual population of Elegant and Caspian Terns nesting in the secluded wetland has been over 1,500. 

The lower half of this photo is mainly Elegant Terns and upper half is mainly Caspian Terns, adults and chicks, seen at their nesting site on July 14, 2021.

Least Terns experienced big decline at Alameda Point and statewide in 2021  

Stewardship of the three tern species at Alameda Point over the last two years is recounted in the 2020 and 2021 annual reports prepared by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Susan Euing. While 2020 was an average good year for Least Tern breeding at Alameda Point, 2021 was not.

In 2021, the success rate dropped almost in half per breeding pair from the prior year.  Peregrine Falcons accounted for the loss of dozens of chicks, fledglings and adults, while Common Ravens were responsible for the loss of dozens of eggs.

This low success rate was not simply the fault of predators.  Euing reported that 118 eggs failed.  Plus, 100 chicks, four fledglings, and two adults died on site.  Out of the 118 failed eggs, 40 had been abandoned, 71 were non-viable and seven died while hatching.

“Out of the 501 hatches, nearly 20% died, compared to 5% in 2020,” Euing states.  “Seventy nine of the 100 chicks were under 3 days old, 20 were between 3-13 days old and fully feathered.”

Euing surmises that reduced availability of small fish or frequency of delivery to chicks might help explain the high percentage of dead chicks in 2021.  When adults bring fish to the tiny chicks, they have to gulp them down whole.  If the fish are too large, the chick is out of luck.

The plunging success rate for the Least Terns in 2021 was not unique to Alameda Point.  Least Tern reproductive success statewide has steadily declined by over half from its peak in 2009 when nesting pairs were estimated between 7,100 and 7,350, producing as many as 2,000 fledglings. 

“This population has since seen a dramatic downward trend, culminating in a 2021 estimation of nesting pairs in the range of 3,500 to 4,300, producing as few as 800 fledglings,” writes Tyler Faurot (“California least tern’s survival in Mission Bay depends on volunteers,” Pacific Beach Monthly, April 6, 2022). 

The fledgling-to-breeding-pair ratio is one of the criteria established by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to evaluate whether the Least Terns have reached the goals for removing it from the Endangered Species list, according to a summary of the California Least Tern’s status by the Center for Biological Diversity.  The goal is to average one fledgling per breeding pair, but it is rarely achieved anywhere in California.  The Alameda Point colony, one of the most successful colonies in the state, has hit this target only four times in the last 20 years.

VA and Fish and Wildlife Service now managing three tern species

When the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) took ownership of 624 acres of the old airfield in 2014, only 120 acres of which they need for their facilities, they took over responsibility for managing the Least Terns.  The VA retained biologist Euing to manage the Least Terns.  Even though the Caspian and Elegant Terns are not endangered species that the VA is required to manage, Euing has convinced the VA to pay for removing vegetation that had begun overtaking the small beach where the these larger cousins of the Least Terns nest.

Nesting of the Least Terns on the Navy airfield was first documented in 1976.

Return of the Terns bus tours resume June 25th

After a two-year hiatus due to COVID restrictions, the annual Return of the Terns bus tours to view only the Least Terns at their nesting site will resume on June 25th.  Three tours leave from the Crab Cove Visitor Center at 11 AM, 12:15 PM, and 1:30 PM .  Registration and fee is required.  

Originally published in the Alameda Post and Alameda Sun.


2020 Activities Involving the California Least Tern at VA Alameda Point

2021 Activities Involving the California Least Tern at VA Alameda Point

California Least Tern summary – Center for Biological Diversity

Caspian and Elegant Terns at Alameda Point nesting site – July 2021 – video clip

Author: richard94501

My blog is Alameda Point Environmental Report covering environmental issues from wildlife to cleanup at the former Navy base in Alameda now called Alameda Point. Articles on my blog are frequently printed in the Alameda Sun newspaper. I also host a Twitter site and a Flickr photo site. I hope you find my stories and photos of interest. Richard Bangert Alameda, California

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