Terns vs. Bridges: Terns 1, Bridge 0


(This 894th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on May 11, 2008.)


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Common Tern over the Buffalo Waterfront


Less than a year ago I wrote a column about common terns. Now, since these unpretentious birds are central to a controversy over the design of the projected international bridge between Buffalo and Fort Erie, I draw upon that column to reintroduce this species and comment on their unfortunate role in that controversy.


Common terns are among the most graceful of birds. 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 and 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, during spring and summer 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. During breeding season once their fishing is successful 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 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 here over the past half-century. They are similarly listed in several other Great Lakes states but are not of similar concern nationally.


Last June  I visited the tern colony on the breakwall off the end of the Buffalo River where I found the birds doing very well indeed. Our state Department of Environmental Conservation, the staff of the Great Lakes Center, Coast Guard crew members and volunteers 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 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. I was told that even this problem may be solved in the future by maintaining these same structures on barges that would be taken into protected areas in winter.


Now let me explore the controversy over these birds. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service commissioned a Great Lakes management study for them because of their declining populations. Their conclusions: "Common Terns are affected by a diversity of threats in the Great Lakes region. The most serious problems include destruction and modification of habitat and predation. Habitat loss is caused by competition with Ring-billed Gulls for nest habitat and annual variation in amount of available habitat based on fluctuating Great Lakes water levels. Other important threats include human disturbance and contaminants."


You will immediately notice that no bridges are mentioned in that analysis. But the proposed local bridge design is cable supported from high shoreline towers. What worries [their operative word] the design opponents is the fact that the terns do not fly under bridges and must therefore fly over them to seek fish downstream in the Niagara River. The concern that has been expressed about the bridge design is not that these birds will fly into the cables for they are daytime fliers; rather, it is that they will be forced to fly much higher to get over the bridge. I frankly do not agree with this concern because at mid-river the cables are at road level, thus providing a passage for the terns. Interestingly, no data supports arguments on either side.


It is clear to me from my discussions with local conservationists that the required Environmental Impact Study was poorly prepared and may indeed require more work. But for the Federal Highway Administration to place the blame for absolute design rejection or further delay on these graceful terns is I believe, to use a cliche the birds themselves might understand, a Niagara River red herring.-- Gerry Rising