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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Andrea's Tern

Air Date: Week of September 19, 1997

Trying to bring species back from the brink of extinction is often a delicate, if not impossible task that requires much attention to detail. Even one unanticipated problem can spell disaster. That's what Andrea DeLeon, who works for Maine Public Broadcasting, discovered while covering efforts to protect the Least Tern along Maine's coast. She shares her thoughts with us in this reporter's notebook.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Trying to bring species back from the brink of extinction is often a delicate if not impossible task that requires much attention to detail. Even one unanticipated problem can spell disaster. That's what Andrea DeLeon, who works for Maine Public Broadcasting, discovered while covering efforts to protect the least tern along Maine's coast. We asked her to share her thoughts with this reporter's notebook.

(Surf)

DE LEON: Higgins Beach in Scarborough, Maine, attracts swimmers and sunbathers, surfers, saltwater anglers, and, beside the tidal river that marks the beach's northern edge, a colony of tiny least terns that come to the popular beach to nest on the edge of the dune grass. Biologists believed the endangered birds had made the right choice when they chose to nest at Higgins because the river and a neighborhood of beachfront homes keeps wild predators off the sand.

(Terns shrieking)

DE LEON: But on this day, adult birds reeled wildly over the nesting area, shrieking with alarm and occasionally diving at the 2 biologists who ventured into the colony to catalogue an avian disaster. The sand was littered with bits of speckled egg shell, tern nests were trampled, a newly-hatched chick lay flattened. The apparent culprits: teenagers throwing a beer party.

Perhaps the teens got angry when they found their favorite drinking spot roped off. Perhaps they never read the official-looking signs warning people away from the nesting site of this small endangered shore bird. Perhaps they didn't care. And very likely, they didn't see the birds at all. Nature provided the least tern with several clever means of eluding their natural predators. Their eggs are tiny and resemble the stones tumbled by the surf at Higgins Beach. Tern nests are almost invisible, shallow depressions in the sand with no grass or other material to catch the eye. And the juvenile birds naturally hunker down when they sense danger. They don't run. So it's likely those teenagers walking in the dark never saw the eggs so critical to the species' survival in Maine.

A reward for the capture of the people who trampled the colony remains unclaimed. If residents were shocked at the fate of the birds, by now they've moved on to other, fresher catastrophes. Least terns are, after all, aptly named. Tiny, indistinct to many, un-cuddly, of no measurable value to us humans. They might hardly be missed if they vanished altogether. But, as one biologist put it, no creature should disappear simply for getting in the way of the human desire to drink beer on a beautiful summer night. For Living on Earth, I'm Andrea DeLeon.

 

 

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