BILOXI, Miss. — Thousands of tiny, black-capped terns, preparing to hatch their next generation, face the danger of well-meaning citizens cleaning Coast beaches.
The least terns, the smallest of the North American species, use debris and trash on the beach to protect themselves and their eggs from the weather conditions, hungry predators and inquisitive humans. Jan Dubuisson, with Mississippi Coast Audubon, hopes to warn volunteers and workers to be mindful of the posted least tern colonies along Harrison County beaches and on Deer Island and to stay out.
As the oil spill in the Gulf creeps closer to Mississippi shores, volunteers and BP-contracted workers gathered excess trash and debris last week in preparation. While Dubuisson doesn’t think the tern nesting areas were disturbed this time, she wants to keep it that way.
The coastline at one time could boast more than 6,000 nests annually. That number has dwindled, though it improved this year.
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During a recent survey by Pascagoula River Audubon Center authorities, more than 900 nests were flagged. A few nests can be found in Jackson and Hancock counties, and in the beach area between DeBuys and Cowan roads, which is the sanctuary designated for the terns by Harrison County supervisors since the mid-1970s.
The birds are federally protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
The terns returned to the beach across from Beauvoir for a second year, choosing that quarter-mile stretch to wallow a shallow depression in the sand for their nests.
Males chose their mates in early April, the females laid their eggs — three to five per nest — and now the parents are sharing incubation duties over the next few weeks. Many of the eggs could start hatching any day, she said.
The birds take turns wetting their tail feathers in the Gulf, which keep the eggs cool while being incubated. Without the cool baths, the eggs will bake in the sun, Dubuisson said.
Anything that upsets the birds will cause them to leave the nests, which exposes the eggs to the elements and predators.
Spotting the least terns’ colonies is easy. The nests are marked with tiny red flags, and the Sand Beach Authority also identifies colonies with warning signs.
It’s important to stay out of the areas, Dubuisson said.
Dogs, which are not allowed on Mississippi beaches, agitate and distress the birds, while their human counterparts sometimes step on the camouflaged eggs in the sand divots.
Dubuisson invites birdwatchers to peek at the nesting birds through binoculars from the boardwalk area.
“They’re fascinating,” she said.