Common Terns


(This 848th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on June 24, 2007.)


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A Common Tern Flying over the Buffalo Harbor


Common terns are among the most graceful of birds. Old timers along the Atlantic coast call them sea swallows, a most appropriate name for their flight is indeed swallow-like. They belong to the same family as gulls but they make our local ring-billed, herring and great black-backed gulls appear awkward and lumbering by comparison. They even outclass the somewhat similar Bonaparte's gulls.


Elegant, slender and buoyant are adjectives appropriately assigned to these delightful birds. Adults are easy to describe. They are mostly white, about a foot long with a black cap, a black-tipped orange bill and orange feet. Their narrow black-tipped wings span 30 inches. Observed more closely, some of that white is grayish, especially on the back. In flight you may also notice their notched tail.


Happily these birds may be seen in good numbers along the upper Niagara River where they patrol a few feet above the water, occasionally diving to catch small fish. Once they are successful at this time of year they fly back south to the Buffalo Harbor breakwalls where they feed their young. There their nesting colony, currently estimated at well over 2000 birds, is the largest in the entire Great Lakes region.


This status is encouraging because the common tern remains on the "threatened" list for New York State, their population having declined dramatically over the past half-century. In many areas including locally their nesting sites have been taken over by gulls and cormorants. Still earlier they were almost extirpated by collectors for the millenary trade when their feathers, like those of egrets, were gathered for use on women's hats.


A few weeks ago I visited the tern colony on the breakwall off the end of the Buffalo River. Captain Caleb Basiliko of the Buffalo State College Great Lakes Center for Environmental Research and Education managed our motorboat and he and intern Loren Ortman helped me climb onto the colony where we found nests in various stages of development. A few still had eggs, others had young birds -- usually in pairs -- and still others had larger birds, a few of which ran to the fence that had been erected to keep them from plunging off. If they did fall, they would be unable to climb up the steep sides of the breakwall and would inevitably be lost to predators or drown.


The adult terns were not enthusiastic about our visit and individuals constantly dove at us, occasionally even tapping against our helmets. Yes, helmets: the terns sometimes bomb as well as dive. We didn't want to disturb the birds and left after I took a few photographs. Thankfully we escaped still clean.


I salute our state Department of Environmental Conservation, the staff of the Great Lakes Center, Coast Guard crew members and the volunteers, many of them local high school and college students, who contribute to the management of this colony. Each year they prepare lengthy sections of the breakwalls for these terns by hauling tons of gravel to prepare nesting beds, building those fences around the breakwall edges and providing wooden shelters under which eggs and chicks may be hidden from the sun and predators.


All this work is necessary because inevitably after every nesting season all these structures are washed away by the violent wave action of winter storms. Captain Caleb told me that this problem may be solved in the future by maintaining these same structures on barges that would be taken into protected areas in winter.


On our return Captain Caleb and Captain John Freidhoff gave me a tour of the Great Lakes Center Field Laboratory, which I was surprised to learn is the only such facility in this entire watershed. Located off Porter Avenue next to the Buffalo Yacht Club, this quite remarkable Lab supports high-level research in aquatic ecosystems, water chemistry, and fish aquaculture with state-of-the-art equipment and several associated research vessels.


Much was going on that morning. College and high school students were working on experiments and a class was being taught in the nearby Richard Smith Teaching Pavilion. Largely grant supported, this is clearly an outstanding local enterprise and I hope to write more about its activities in another column.-- Gerry Rising