Saturday at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge in Sherman was all about birds. Austin College Professor Wayne Meyer gave a presentation about least terns as part of the refuge’s Second Saturday program.
The endangered bird can be found on the refuge and in other areas around North and South America.
Least terns can be recognized by their yellow bills that have a black tip. They also have a white forehead patch above their bills, yellow to orange legs, and one or two black outer wing feathers.
To avoid confusion, Meyer quickly pointed out that least terns and little terns are different tern species and can be found in different parts of the world. Meyer also said that least terns are protected bird species under the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
“They are endangered and they need to be protected from flooding,” he said. “They need to have places with wide open sand and gravel to nest in. They do not like vegetation. They do not want anything that hides a predator. They are very nervous about predators.”
Meyer also explained that least terns often have one clutch per year with two or three eggs. Incubation is generally 20 days and they fledge after the eggs hatch. Parents care for their young for up to 60 days.
“If something happens where the parents lose their young, however, they may have another clutch,” Meyer said.
While Ann and Mariann Cunningham attended Saturday’s program because they like to attend presentations by Meyer, they both said they learned a lot about least terns.
“I did not know how to identify the least terns,” Ann Cunningham said. “I did not know the difference between seagulls and least terns, so that was very interesting.”
Both ladies said their favorite Second Saturday program was on owls, but if more people knew about least terns then they would have attended Saturday’s program.
“I do not think people know that they are endangered,” Mariann Cunningham said. “I think that people need to know that.”
Meyer emphasized least terns are coastal birds.
“We used to have freely flowing rivers and those rivers used to generate sandbars in certain areas,” he said. “Probably the most important thing to keep in mind now is that we have built dams and we have channelized the rivers. So there are not these sandbars anymore. These birds are desperately looking for places like this to nest.”
He also explained the coastal birds love rocky areas for nesting.
“Here they are nesting on the oil well paths,” he said. “That is a place where there is gravel and very little vegetation. The problem is that the oil companies have to come and check the wells several times a day so that would disturb the nests.”
Meyer explained Hagerman is working to protect the least terns.
“Here at the refuge, we have tried to make these pontoons to put out in the water,” he said. “This keeps the land based predators away. There is gravel to build a nest. There is shade. There is structure for the chicks to run away from the predator. The problem is that we have not been able to convince them that this works. What we really need to do is put a lot of decoys out there so that when the least terns arrive, they are like, ‘Oh look. There are other terns already there. Let’s land there and build our nests.’”
Another important point Meyer made about the least terns was that they nest together.
“We know that when they nest on the oil well paths, they tend to all nest on the same path or paths that are next to each other,” he said. “They like to nest together. If there are more nest together then that means that there are more adults together and they have a better chance of being able to fight off predators. They want to protect each other.”