Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Effort underway to make common tern more, well, common at Ashtabula Harbor

The objective of a federal-state-non-governmental conservation organization project at Ashtabula Harbor is intended to help ensure that the common tern becomes far more ubiquitous across Lake Erie.

Listed as a state-endangered bird species, the common tern is not so common an Ohio resident after all. The species' nesting habits have made it vulnerable to a more aggressive gang of avian bullies – the various gull species along with various raptors like hawks and owls.

While once a frequent colony nester amongst the limestone island chain of Lake Erie's Western Basin, common terns now only hop-scotch along them and around the water's south shore. The birds know they are not welcome by the mean-spirited and predatory gulls which also elbow out the terns for any available breeding sites.

So while common terns are, well, common during their seasonal migrations along Lake Erie's south shore they seldom stick around to nest and produce young. Only a smattering of artificial nesting sites exist in the Western Basin and in 2012 these locations yielded a crop of only around 400 chicks.

Consequently the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is embarking on a common tern-nesting habitat-enhancement project at Ashtabula Harbor in extreme Northeast Ohio. It is the Corps that is responsible for maintaining the harbor's stony breakwater.

The Corps has worked on similar projects elsewhere, too. Among them was an effort in 2006 to enhance common tern and roseate tern nesting at Bird Island at Cape Cod, Mass.

Another such undertaking was worked out in 2009 with the New York Power Authority in the Buffalo Harbor. This project even involved the construction of a barge onto which was established a tern-nesting colony site.

In short order the newly built tern-nesting complex was being utilized and yielded some 550 tern nests, the Port Authority said.

Working with the Corps on the Ashtabula Harbor effort is the Ohio Department of Natural Resources with the project's $60,000 funding being provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the auspices of the Congressionally approved Great Lakes Initiative.

Also assisting is The Nature Conservancy, a non-governmental organization, or a “NGO,” as such entities are oft-times called.

The Conservancy's field staff and a cadre of eager hands-on volunteers are centered at the NGO's Northeast Ohio field office. This unit is housed at the Conservancy's Morgan Township complex in Ashtabula County, the former summer camp once owned by the City Mission in Cleveland.

Each involved party has a responsibility in the project, the various components fitting in an environmental tongue-and-groove fashion.

It has been left to the Corps to construct the main 250 square foot edifice along Ashtabula's outer harbor that will become the nesting site's castle, so to speak.

Constructed of concrete are the eight-foot-long so-called “cap stone” blocks stationed along the crest of the breakwater. Thus the nesting colony site will rise high enough to protect any curious chick from tumbling into Lake Erie, help keep at bay the wave wash of water, and also aid in discouraging marauding winged predators.

Tern decoys will be added as an enticement for the real deal to set up their colony.

As for nesting material, the sort-of catwalk is primed with a layer of small gravel into which a female tern will scoop out a shallow depression and there to deposit two or three appropriately sized spotted olive-brown eggs.

From these eggs will come chicks, the process taking three to four weeks, the colony's clutch beginning to be laid anywhere from May to June. In just less than one month the chicks will fledge, graduating to become next year's parents.

Hopefully at the same location.

To aid the chick's survival during their short pre-fledged portion is where the Nature Conservancy comes into play.

The NGO is being tasked with constructing 200 common tern chick shelters. Each shelter consists of two one-by-six-by-24-inch long wooden slabs screwed together in an L-shape.

Inverted, the shelters will harness the power of stealth to help the chicks evade any sour Lake Erie weather as well as the prying eyes of hungry predators.

This project is intended to “demonstrate how the Corps can incorporate additional environmental or social benefits” into the coastal structures under the agency's command, also says Lt. Col. Owen J. Beaudoin, the commander of the Corps' Buffalo District under which Ashtabula Harbor falls.

“And it's an opportunity to bring the common tern back to the Ashtabula area where it was once locally common, but has not been recorded as nesting there for decades.”

More than happy to oblige and lend a hand is the Conservancy, says Karen Adair, head of the Conservancy's Morgan Swamp complex.

“This is a great opportunity for us to partner with the Corps on a very important project to help enhance common tern populations through artificial nesting,” Adair said during a recent shelter-building project.

“It is our hope and expectation that the terns will establish a nesting colony at Ashtabula Harbor.”

As for the shelters' construction material, the Conservancy is using wood stripped from formerly used overnight youth cabins left behind when the property passed into the hands of the NGO.

“We were going to tear down some of the cabins anyway so this is a good recycling opportunity as well,” Adair said.

Adair said the Conservancy's original intent for establishing its foothold at the Morgan Township location was to work on aiding the protection of the Grand River Watershed. That aspect was expanded to enfold the adjacent Ashtabula River Watershed, Adair says.

“We've also worked with the city of Ashtabula on a beach enrichment project,” Adair said. “And we've done work helping to eradicate invasive plant species along the Ashtabula River so this latest project is a natural next step for our involvement within the watershed.”

While the dozen and one-half volunteers built about 200 shelter units, only 50 will be installed later this month. The rest will be held in reserve, Adair said as well.

“There's no exchange of money involved,” Adair said additionally. “We have a wonderful and strong volunteer base that we can access via e-mail and even word of mouth.”

- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn

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