We have some good news to share this week. On July 1, 2009 we received word that one of the Caspian Terns chicks that IBRRC staff and volunteers nursed back to health in 2006 was spotted recently at the Bolsa Chica Wetlands colony near Huntington Beach, CA.
This banded bird was one of two dozen baby terns rescued after their nests were washed away by crass barge workers cleaning structures in the harbor. The spotted tern also appears to be a breeding bird. (Note: Photo above from release in 2006)
Many people may remember that in the summer of 2006, approximately 2,000 Caspian and Elegant terns nested on two empty barges in the Long Beach, California Harbor. The colony was the northernmost breeding colony in the world and the first recorded colony established on barges. News of the rare colony spread quickly and stories began appearing in newspaper, television and birder blogs.
On June 28, 2006 IBRRC received urgent reports of dead baby terns washing up on some beaches in Long Beach. Our rehabilitation staff immediately went to investigate and found over 300 mostly dead baby terns, some only a day old, littering the beach. 13 live baby terns were rescued and rushed to our center in San Pedro. It was clear that somehow these birds were pushed off one of the barges! News crews recorded the crime scene while USFWS and California Dept. of Fish & Game began investigating.
The next night, Thursday, June 29, the second barge of terns was moved and all the baby terns from that barge were again swept into the harbor. On Friday morning hundreds more dead and dying tern babies littered the same beach. Our staff responded again. All in all a total of 24 baby terns were rescued alive and 405 dead baby terns were collected and kept as evidence.
It was a tragic and heartbreaking ending to what had become a thrilling sight for everyone who saw the thriving colony. IBRRC staff cared for the live birds and also took on the gruesome task of counting every body as evidence. (Migratory birds are protected by both state and federal laws and animal cruelty is a felony in California.)
We ended up raising and rehabilitating ten elegant tern chicks and 15 Caspian tern chicks. Six weeks later the elegant tern chicks had caught on quickly to feeding on live fish and grew to be strong and capable hunters; but the Caspian terns continued to beg and did not feed as aggressively as the elegant terns did. Tern biologists told us that it is typical for them to act lazy and beg to their parents for long periods of time. The decision was made to release the two species separately, at two different locations.
On August 14, 2006, nine elegant terns were released at Cabrillo beach, where other of their species were feeding. They had been fitted with double bands, one Federal and one color and also had been marked with a bright green dot, so birders could easily identify and report the sighting of them.
The bird seen at Bolsa Chica had been released at the Salton Sea with the rest of the chicks on August, 19, 2006. We worked with tern biologist, Kathy Molina, who banded the chicks with both with a service band (# 925-76178) and an alphanumeric band (C-45). This bird was missing the plastic alphanumeric band at Bolsa Chica, which is not surprise as they don’t always last that long. When released at the Salton Sea, it was of mid-weight and spotted hanging around for a week afterwards, then it wasn’t seen again.
The following Saturday, the 15 Caspian Terns were driven to Salton Sea where thousands of their species were nesting, feeding and their was an abundance of small fish to feed on. We felt that being among other Caspian’s would give them the best chance of survival.
The company charged for pushing the terns chicks off the barge admitted their crime and said that they wanted to clear the barge decks so that they could fire off fireworks for the 4th of July. In 2008 the company was found guilty of cruelty and was only given a $15,000 fine that went to the National Wildlife Federation. IBRRC was NOT REIMBURSED for a single penny of the $30,000 plus that it cost us to pick up the dead birds, save them, rehabilitate the live chicks, work with agency people to build a case and deal with the emotional effects of this tern massacre!
Looking for the silver lining
This is a significant sighting, three years later, and although it is only one bird it implies that more may have survived and that our techniques in rehabilitating tern chicks works. The tern colonies in Long Beach Harbor have since taken up nesting on a good landfill area in the harbor and seem to be doing well.
The silver lining to this story is that at least one these chicks has made it. We can assume and hope that others may have survived as well. IBRRC bands all its released birds and receives less that a 1% sighting of banded birds.
From our website in 2006: Rare tern colony decimated