Terns like open water

By Jay V. Huner
Journal Correspondent

Terns are small to large, graceful, swept-winged birds associated with open waters where they often dive from some height to catch fish and crustacean prey. With one exception, our terns are gray above and white below. During breeding season, adult terns have distinctive black crowns but have much less black on their heads the rest of the year.

Along the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico, you can expect to find, in the correct season, Caspian, Royal, Gull-billed, Common, Forster's, Sandwich, Black and Least terns. But, inland, Caspian, Forster's, Black and Least terns are more likely to be encountered. The Caspian Tern is a large, red-billed tern. Forster's Tern is a medium-sized, fork-tailed tern. Black Terns are smallish terns that are black during breeding season but mottled black and white the rest of the year. The Least Tern lives up to its name by being the smallest tern found in North America. A bit larger in size than a Purple Martin, the Least Tern has a very distinct yellow bill with a black tip.

There are distinct populations of Least Terns in our region. One nests along the coast and is abundant. The other, however, is rare and found along inland rivers where it nests on sandbars. The interior Least Tern is a species of great concern to conservationist. It is so rare that it was declared an "endangered" species in 1985.

Hubert Hervey, a retired Stonewall, Louisiana dairy farmer, has taken it upon himself to work diligently to monitor the interior Least Tern population found along the Red River from central Louisiana northwesterly into Arkansas. Now in his 80's, Hubert has begun his 2014 surveys. This can be especially dicey with strong currents during high water periods.

Least Terns have an elaborate courtship ritual. A male will catch a fish while being chased by one or two prospective mates. Upon landing, the male will offer the fish to a female. If she accepts the offering, the pair will mate. The 3-4 camouflaged spotted eggs are laid into a depression "nest" in the sand on the sandbar. This leads to the major problem that brought the endangered species designation. Flooding destroys the nests. Flooding episodes that destroy the nests are much more common in the areas between dams on inland rivers including the Red River. According to Hubert, the most successful interior Least Tern colonies are located north of Lock and Dam No. 5 but are threatened by plans to add more dams north of Shreveport.

Sandbars are popular locations for stopping and camping on the Red River. Readers who visit the Red River are encouraged to look for the noisy, aggressive little terns. The terns will hover over "predators" making very distinct "kit and zeep" calls. If the terns are clearly present on a sandbar, please pass it up and don't disturb the nesting birds. The nests with eggs and hatchlings are so hard to see that walking in a Least Tern colony is sure to destroy nests and contents.

Hubert informs me that the population of interior Least Tern varies from 1,000 to 2,000 annually along the Red River. Two years ago, high water resulted in breeding failure which was reflected in a 25% reduction in numbers last year. This beautiful little tern is a natural treasure. It is good that Hubert Hervey is working to sustain the species.

Jay V. Huner
Boyce, Louisiana