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Return of the Terns

Three buses made the trip from Crab Cove to the California least tern colony at Alameda Point on Sunday, July 16. Each bus was full of eager participants that had registered online to get a look at one of our iconic birds. Tiny and quick, all of them were nesting on the ground in an unlikely area of the old Naval Air Station—between aircraft runways. That area, where military aircraft once were active with all the ancillary support to sustain an airbase, is now a protected reserve for our smallest tern, weighing in at just 42 grams, about an ounce and a half.

I got on the first bus and listened to the excited talk of experienced birders and those who were just beginning to get hooked. The least tern is one of my favorite birds despite the challenges it poses for a photographer. It’s difficult to capture in flight as it darts about, changes direction, and then plunge-dives into the water and then rises, shakes off the water, and speeds away. A photographer is left trying to figure out how to focus more quickly. (Good luck.)

Alameda Post - a California least tern in flight
The adults fly to and from the nesting grounds to retrieve small fish for their growing chicks. They also fly up in a huge mass if a predator threatens the colony. Photo Rick Lewis.
Alameda Post - a California least tern in flight
Photo Rick Lewis.

Many thanks to all those who work behind the scenes to nurture and protect these small, resilient, and entertaining birds. It’s a multi-pronged approach with partnerships that collect data, observe behavior, count adults and young birds, maintain the Tern Reserve, and patrol the perimeter with the goal of maintaining suitable habitat for least terns. These agencies are primarily the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) with support from volunteers at the Friends of the Alameda Wildlife Reserve (FAWR), which is a Conservation Committee of the Golden Gate Audubon Society, and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which owns the land. On the day of the event, naturalist staff at the Doug Siden Visitor Center at Crab Cove (East Bay Regional Parks District) coordinate buses and register participants as well as host the pre-trip education program.

Alameda Post - a small group of people listen to a presentation at Crab Cove
EBRPD Crab Cove Naturalist giving a least tern presentation to attendees just prior to boarding the bus. Photo Rick Lewis.
Alameda Post - people boarding a yellow school bus at Crab Cove
Boarding the bus at Crab Cove for a tour of the California least tern nesting grounds. Photo Rick Lewis.

This year, USFWS Wildlife Biologist Susan Euing boarded the bus at the colony entrance at VA Alameda Point. She described the location, habitat, behavior, and some of the particulars of the challenges facing the terns from predators, weather, and the availability of properly sized fish that the chicks can swallow whole. Then the bus began its tour of the colony, allowing passengers on both sides to get equal viewing access.

Alameda Post - an adult California least tern with two spotted chicks in the sand
California least terns usually lay two eggs, though one to four eggs may be in a “clutch.” Both male and female least terns take care of the eggs and young. Photo Rick Lewis.
Alameda Post - a California least tern with a small head of a baby peeking out from under the adult
Adult least terns provide shade and protection as well as food for their young. Photo Rick Lewis.
Alameda Post - an adult and baby California least tern. The baby is almost unnoticeable and blends in with the sand and gravel
The nesting grounds have oyster shells for camouflage as well as shade shelters that help protect the young birds from heat and predators. Photo Rick Lewis.

The California least tern colony was first noticed in 1976 on the Naval Air Station. It remains a very important breeding site for the endangered species and is northernmost in the California least tern’s range. Read more about the work of FAWR and the least terns at the Alameda Wildlife Reserve web page on the Golden Gate Audubon Society website.

Rick Lewis is a longtime member of the Golden Gate Audubon Society, along with other environmental organizations. He contributes his amazing photographs often to Bay Area and Central Valley birding groups that promote wildlife and habitat conservation. Learn more about our area’s birds at Golden Gate Audubon Society.

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