Ferry agency, volunteers help the least terns

Three thousand tons of sand was added to the nesting grounds for the least terns at Alameda Point in late February and early March. In the weeks that followed, volunteers from St. George Spirits and the Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts came out to help make the site ready for the arrival of the terns in mid-April.

Sand being delivered to the least tern nesting grounds at Alameda Point on February 25, 2016. Bay Bridge in the background.
Sand being delivered to the least tern nesting grounds at Alameda Point on February 25, 2016. Bay Bridge in the background.

The Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) paid for enough sand to cover half of the 9.6-acre nesting area with three inches of sand, as well as for grading. The weeklong delivery of sand was a conservation mitigation requirement for the impact that WETA’s new ferry maintenance facility will have on the terns’ feeding area. As many as 12 ferries will make up to four passes per weekday through the Alameda Point Channel where the terns frequently dive for small fish.

Wind and water erosion take their toll on the sand substrate lying atop old airfield taxiway pavement, requiring periodic replenishment. This latest delivery of Angel Island coarse sand has built up the sand depth on much of the site to the point that it’s starting to feel like a real beach underfoot. Beaches are the traditional nesting habitat for terns.

In March, virtually all of the employees of nearby St. George Spirits showed up on a rainy Sunday morning to help distribute cinder block grid markers and clay tile chick shelters throughout the site. The high-spirited and determined crew trudged through puddles of water determined to get the job done regardless of how wet they got. Some of the volunteers worked in the old Quonset hut repainting and numbering the plaster markers that the Fish and Wildlife Service uses to identify each nest. Others re-stenciled cinder blocks.

Employees of St. George Spirits volunteering on March 13, 2016.
Employees of St. George Spirits volunteering on March 13, 2016.

The cinder blocks and the plaster markers allow for systematic data collection on nesting success. The blocks and markers were removed prior to the sand delivery and grading work.

In April, Alameda Boy Scouts of Troop 73 joined the Cub Scouts from Pack 1015 for the final preparations for the least tern arrival. “Overall, 25 youth from 4th grade to 12th grade and 15 parents joined this final chilly work day putting out oyster shells, flattening the area after a week of rain and pulling the last of the weeds,” said Dorinda von Stroheim, Webelos Den Leader Pack 1015. “The kids loved placing the shells and took extra care to make sure all the shells were evenly distributed.” The scouts were supposed to get pizza delivered at noon, but they hustled through their assignments so quickly that the pizza parlor was not even open yet. They accepted a rain check from the Audubon Society.

Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts, some holding up oyster shells, at the least tern nesting site April 10, 2016.
Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts, some holding up oyster shells, at the least tern nesting site April 10, 2016.

The least terns, an endangered species, have enjoyed phenomenal success on the old airfield at Alameda Point. Pushed to the brink of extinction by human encroachment on their traditional Southern California coastal nesting areas, the terns began taking up residence on a number of military bases in California during the past four decades. With early and continued stewardship by the Navy through 2014, and the addition of volunteers after the base closed, the Alameda Point colony went from a few nests to over 300 today.

Adult least tern with chick during 2014 nesting season at Alameda Point. Photographed through chain link fence.
Adult least tern with chick during 2014 nesting season at Alameda Point. Photographed through chain link fence.

During the 2015 nesting season, the Alameda Point terns were the top performers statewide, both in terms of the total number of fledglings produced, and the key data point — ratio of fledglings per nest — according to recently released data.

The public is invited to see the terns during the annual “Return of the Terns” event on June 18. Tours by bus leave from the Crab Cove Visitor Center after an educational presentation. Reservations are required for one of the three tours via the visitor center, or the East Bay Regional Park District’s website https://apm.activecommunities.com/ebparks using the search keyword “terns.”

Originally published in the Alameda Sun.

Longtime volunteer Frank Delfino with a fresh batch of wooden shelters that he made for the tern chicks to use for shelter.
Longtime volunteer Frank Delfino with a fresh batch of wooden shelters that he made for the tern chicks to use for shelter.
Grading the 3,000 tons of new sand on March 9, 2016, at Alameda Point least tern site.
Grading the 3,000 tons of new sand on March 9, 2016, at Alameda Point least tern site.

Least tern nesting area refurbished and ready for 2014 at Alameda Point

The 9.7-acre nesting area for the endangered California least terns at Alameda Point received a new layer of sand this year. Sixty dump truck loads of sand were delivered to the site on the old Navy airfield in March, paid for by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS).

Fresh layer of sand on Alameda Point least tern nesting site.  Looking south, with ships in San Francisco Bay in background.
Fresh layer of sand on Alameda Point least tern nesting site. Looking south, with ships in San Francisco Bay in background.

After the sand was moved into place, USFWS and volunteers set up a numbered cinderblock grid system used for recording behavior and also distributed chick shelters and oyster shells for the chicks to use as protection from the elements and predators.

On Sunday, April 13 a dozen volunteers showed up for the last work party prior to nesting. The task of the day was distributing oyster shells around the site, which provide a nominal amount of sun protection for chicks and, in theory, helps make it more difficult for avian predators like red-tailed hawks and peregrine falcons to spot the chicks amongst all the white shells.

Distributing oyster shells at tern colony

From now until the end of the nesting season in mid-August, volunteers will be participating in another program called the Tern Watch Program. Participants monitor behavior and watch for predators from their vehicles outside the nesting area.

Throughout the nesting season a USFWS biologist makes periodic walks through the site and places numbered plaster markers next to nests so that the number of eggs and success rates can be accurately recorded. If there are three eggs in a nest one week, for example, and one egg the next week with no chicks, it’s an indication that predators have grabbed the eggs.

Each year following the end of the nesting season in August, volunteers at monthly work parties gather up the oyster shells, the wooden A-frames, drain tiles, grid markers, and the hundreds of numbered markers used to identify nests. Clearing the site makes it easier to remove weeds and grade the sand, which can erode during rains. The volunteers pull weeds from inside and around the perimeter of the fenced-in site. The volunteer program during the non-nesting season is organized by the Golden Gate Audubon Society’s Friends of the Alameda Wildlife Reserve committee, in conjunction with the USFWS biologist in charge of the Alameda Point tern colony.

The effort to protect the least terns was begun by the Navy when nesting activities were first noticed in the 1980s. The likely reason for the terns choosing such an unlikely place to nest was the absence of people who might trample on the nests. The nesting site was chosen by the terns, not by the Navy or USFWS, and has been expanded to its current size as the colony expanded. The sandy substrate that approximates the traditional beach nesting habitat for terns is on top of old airfield pavement. Due to erosion caused by wind and rain, the sand has to be periodically replaced, as it was in 2009 and 2011.

Training sessions for this year’s Tern Watch Program will be held at the USFWS office at Alameda Point on April 26, April 30, May 28, and May 31. Volunteers do not have to be a bird expert, just be very interested in observing and reporting about them. Participants are required to attend one training session and commit to signing up for a minimum of three of the 3-hour shifts. Also required are binoculars, cell phone, and personal vehicle. Reservations for the training sessions can be made by calling Susan Euing at 510 521-9717 or by emailing susan_euing@yahoo.com. Directions and registration materials will be sent by email.

The annual Return of the Terns bus tour to the nesting area will be held on June 14 this year. The tour departs from the Crab Cove Visitor Center in Alameda. Registration required through the East Bay Regional Park District’s website or at the visitor center.

Reprinted on the Golden Gate Audubon Society’s Golden Gate Birder blog.

Adult least tern with chicks next to oyster shells at Alameda Point, June 15, 2013, during the Return of the Terns tour.  Plaster marker with number on reverse side is to the right.
Adult least tern with chicks next to oyster shells at Alameda Point, June 15, 2013, during the Return of the Terns tour. Plaster marker with number on reverse side is to the right.
April 13, 2014 work party, with Port of Oakland in background.
April 13, 2014 work party, looking north, with Port of Oakland in background.
Killdeer sitting on four eggs in the least tern nesting area on April 13, 2014.  It is not uncommon for a few killdeer to nest among the terns.  Killdeer lay their eggs about a month before the terns lay eggs.
Killdeer sitting on four eggs in the least tern nesting area on April 13, 2014. It is not uncommon for a few killdeer to nest among the terns. Killdeer lay their eggs about a month before the terns lay eggs.

Navy and VA ignore economics, environment in killing Alameda National Wildlife Refuge

White-tailed kiteOnce upon a time there was talk about a national wildlife refuge at Alameda Point.  It was included in the reuse plan for Naval Air Station (NAS)-Alameda that was accepted by the Department of Defense.  It was added to Alameda’s General Plan.  The US Fish & Wildlife Service was poised to be the owner and caretaker of the refuge.

But after talks broke down between the Navy and US Fish & Wildlife Service nearly a decade ago, the Navy arbitrarily decided to give the land to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for a clinic and columbarium.  The VA is counting on the City of Alameda to give them an additional 70 acres of land early next year so that their clinic can be located further away from the nesting site of the endangered California least terns.  This would bring the VA’s property to roughly 620 acres, even though they need only 110 acres.

The city should impose a condition on this land deal:  Before the city changes its reuse plan footprint to accommodate the VA, the city should insist that the Navy place a conservation easement on the 511 acres that the VA does not need.  A conservation easement would lay the groundwork for creation of a wildlife refuge or wildlife conservation area to be operated by another agency.

Golden Gate Audubon Society 1995 study examines economic value

The benefits of creating a wildlife refuge at Alameda Point go beyond environmental stewardship.  They also include economic benefits to Alameda and the region.  The Golden Gate Audubon Society (GGAS) understood the economic angle back in 1995 when they were advocating for creation of a wildlife refuge.  To provide substance to their views, they commissioned a study by Robert Hrubes and Associates that was released in March of 1995.  It’s called “The Potential Economic Benefits of the Proposed Alameda National Wildlife Refuge:  An Overview.”  The conclusion of the 1995 study—that a wildlife refuge will complement economic development—still holds true today.

2012_Composite_NoFence_Rev1The study went on to extol the intersecting virtues of wildlife habitat protection and economic value.  “While important in their own right, the benefits that would be generated by establishment of the wildlife refuge are not limited to habitat and species protection,” stated Hrubes and Associates.  “[T]here are indeed potential economic benefits that could derive from a wildlife refuge/day-use recreation area located in the central Bay Area. That is, the wildlife refuge proposal is not an ‘either/or’ choice between environmental quality and economic development.  Rather, it constitutes a land use that not only will take optimal advantage of the environmental attributes the site has to offer but also will generate economic activity that benefits the local region. Further, it will enhance the economic value for development of the remainder of the NAS.”

VA’s project requires further study of impacts

VA development area - Version 2The current proposal for the VA to own and control the 511-acre refuge area next to their 110-acre medical clinic and columbarium makes it all but impossible for this area to become the urban wildlife oasis that it could be.  The VA’s proposed project map makes this clear by wiping out the words “Wildlife Refuge” and replacing them with “VA Undeveloped Area.”

At this stage of the environmental review process, the only significant environmental requirement that has been imposed on the VA is that they provide predator management, housekeeping, and record-keeping for the California least terns during their four-and-a-half-month nesting season at Alameda Point from April to mid-August.  This is because the Biological Opinion issued by the US Fish & Wildlife Service in the summer of 2012 focused only on one species – the least tern – due to its listing as an Endangered Species.  It remains to be seen whether the VA and Navy will prepare a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) as typically required for a federal project of this size and scope.  The National Environmental Policy Act provides for an impact report that is similar to California’s Environmental Impact Report.  If the Navy and VA perform an EIS, they will then have to look at impacts to other species (such as the burrowing owl), habitat values, climate and traffic impacts, as well as identify alternative sites for all or part of their project.  

Existing grasslands between runways on wildlife refugeHowever, based on public statements from the VA about their timeline for construction, it does not appear that they have any intention of doing a full EIS, and thus their environmental commitment will be limited.  This will mean that rather than adding grasslands to perimeter areas that already have pockets of grasslands between runways and taxiways in order to divert hawks and other avian predators away from nesting terns, they will keep the refuge looking as much like a fenced-in stadium parking lot as possible (like it has been for the past decade).  The pretext is that it removes habitat for predators, but in this case they would be torturing the concept by making the tern nesting site so conspicuous that it will invite predation.  Virtually all of the least tern predation events have been from flying predators—like the peregrine falcons that come from miles away on the other side of Alameda.

Runway'taxiway area of wildlife refugeThe real reasons for maintaining the industrial look are to reduce maintenance and capital costs, and to exploit the paved areas for revenue-generating uses that don’t require construction.  They have already said they will use the area for emergency preparedness training, disaster staging, and storage of supplies.

Over 180 different species of bird have been spotted on the refuge at one time or another.  Some of the wetland area can easily be expanded and linked permanently to the Bay.  Grasslands could be added.  Instead, what we can expect to see added are auto driving events and RV shows.

Early in 2013, the Alameda city council will play a pivotal role on whether the VA is able to permanently kill the wildlife refuge vision.  The city council must vote on an amendment to its no-cost conveyance deal with the Navy in order to allow the VA project to move forward.  By their action, the city will decide whether the 1996 Community Reuse Plan for Alameda Point will be amended to remove the wildlife refuge as a goal, or if it remains.

Killing the wildlife refuge is not only a bad idea for the environment.  It’s a bad idea for the economy.

Read more in the Conservation Action section of the Alameda Point Environmental Report.

Alameda Wildlife Refuge committee touts benefits of VA/parkland deal

CA Least Tern nesting site at Alameda Point Wildlife Refuge

The following was prepared by Leora Feeney, co-chair of  “Friends of the Alameda Wildlife Refuge,” a committee of the Golden Gate Audubon Society.

Delivered to the Alameda City Council on Monday, March 19, 2012, regarding the city-VA-park district proposal being considered for Alameda Point.  

Alameda Point Collaboration

on

Veterans Health and Memorial Facilities

CA Least Tern Colony

Nature and Wildlife

Passive Open Space

Unsurpassed Inner-City Views and Experience

Subject:  East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) proposal for Northwest Territories

Benefits to the City of Alameda

Preserves city resources – The proposal will help defer considerable Alameda Point related costs and responsibility to the city, already having multiple difficult challenges.

Meets land use challenges – The land is not suitable for uses beyond open space and water-related uses.  Current wetlands will require mitigation.  Several issues surround this property that will meet challenges with most development proposals.

Enhances Alameda’s identity – Alameda’s military history, well-recognized wildlife history and resources, and East Bay shoreline location make this project the perfect fit to further enhance Alameda’s identity.

Realizes payoff from stakeholder investments – Consider stakeholders’ investments that also benefit Alameda:

  • The VA has spent millions of dollars to move their city-supported project forward.  The proposal would allow them to see an end to conflicts that have stalled this investment.  Alameda would finally become the home to the VA’s Health and Memorial complex.
  • The City of Alameda has also invested time and thought to uphold a position that supports the VA facility and that endangered wildlife at Alameda Point are to have top priority.
  • The Navy and Fish & Wildlife Service have invested time and money to maintain endangered wildlife species.
  • EBRPD has spent time and money to develop a plan that would resolve difficulties in a way that would meet several positive goals.
  • Golden Gate Audubon Society since the 1980s and Friends of the Alameda Wildlife Refuge (FAWR) since 1997 have been steadfast supporters of endangered California Least Terns at The Alameda Naval Air Station, later Alameda Point, ensuring continuous success of the colony.  FAWR also provides annual elementary school Least Tern education at Alameda Schools.
  • Others, like the Center for Urban Environmental Law (CUEL) at Golden Gate University, have worked to develop their Greenspace proposal for this beautiful location.

Initiates Park District investment – To design and carry out the project will require an investment of many millions of dollars.  The city will benefit from this investment by EBRPD.

Enhances property values – Several studies show that wildlife refuges and natural areas increase values to nearby properties.

Attracts investors – The project will attract investors, spurring Alameda Point development.

Strengthens tenant relations – Current tenants will appreciate that habitat management will have a broader plan and operation.

Attracts tourism – The project – a San Francisco Bay destination point – will be a draw to local, state, national, and even world tourists.

Brings local spending – The site will attract many welcome and diverse activities (photography, birding, hiking) that will benefit local merchants.

Adopts a workable solution – This is the only solution available that will allow both CA Least Terns and the VA project to coexist as adjacent Alameda neighbors.

Satisfies community priorities – The project satisfies a strong wish of the public for natural areas and open space expressed during Alameda Point-Going Forward meetings held in 2010-2011.

Creates inner-city showcase – The site will serve the community and others as a unique opportunity for inner-city nature experience and education.

Enhances parks-to-resident ratio – Alameda’s Park Master Plan Summary (Draft, p. 25) states that the park-acreage-to-residents ratio is low (2 acres to 1000 residents; standard for CA cities is 3 to 6 acres/1000).  This proposal would improve the ratio considerably.

Aligns with park master plan – The draft Park Master Plan also states (p. 37), “Alameda Point is anticipated to be the location for passive parks operated by EBRPD.”

Builds on existing park district partnership – EBRPD has been a good partner managing Crown Beach, relieving Alameda of difficult tidal shoreline and beach management.  We can count on them for similar assistance at Alameda Point.

In conclusion:  The CA Least Tern colony can’t be moved, and the VA facility can.  The willingness of this unusual collaboration of stakeholders to work together is a testament to the importance of the project.  It is rare and refreshing to see that people with diverse goals have the ability to work together to find a solution that satisfies multiple valued needs in difficult times.  With the acceptance of this proposal Alameda will be a giant step closer to moving Alameda Point toward a promising future. We must not let this opportunity escape. The alternative would be tragic, a prolonged stalemate and unknown future.  Alameda’s City Council can make this work.  It will be a historical decision.

Read more about this issue here.

Least Tern chick and adult - Summer 2011