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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Connecticut: Shoring up a Shrinking Island for Endangered Roseate Terns

Aerial view of Falkner island, a 4.5 acre crescent shaped island with a rocky coast

An aerial view of Falkner Island, home to the only roseate tern nesting colony in Connecticut Photo: U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary

The roseate tern is a federally endangered seabird whose favored nesting areas are found on rocky offshore islands and barrier beaches along the north Atlantic coast of the U.S.

Unfortunately, the tern is losing some of its prime seacoast habitat. The land is disappearing due to erosion that may be made worse by climate change. Increasing atmospheric temperatures are linked to rising seas and more intense storms, which eat away at the shore.

Falkner Island, off the Connecticut coast in Long Island Sound, is home each spring to 40 to 50 pairs of nesting roseate terns – the only colony remaining in the state. Most of the terns nest on the north spit of the island, a sand and cobble environment.

Falkner Island is a unit of the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge in Connecticut. Refuge Manager Rick Potvin estimates that the island is losing about 300 to 400 square feet of land each year due to erosion. He predicts that in the next few years the north spit nesting area will revert to tidal zone and will become unsuitable habitat for breeding terns.

“If we look at the predicted effects of climate change we are going to lose more and more areas that are important to terns,” says Potvin.

Roseate terns are white with gray wings, a black cap, and a thin, pointed, black beak

Roseate terns favor nesting areas on rocky offshore islands and barrier beaches, environments that are diminishing along the Atlantic Coast due to sea level rise and other factors. Credit: Kirk Rogers/USFWS

Already, roseate terns are abandoning their primary nesting grounds along the Atlantic coast and are moving to less desirable, often inadequate, locations. As a result, overall nesting success has decreased and fewer birds are fledging, causing concern among biologists.

Many individuals and groups, including the Roseate Tern Recovery Team, are coming together to try and save the terns and protect their habitat. A main goal in recovering tern populations is to look at secondary, less-desirable habitats, and make these areas more attractive and suitable for terns.

“On Falkner Island, we are adapting habitat to more closely resemble the terns’ preferred nesting areas on the north spit,” said Potvin. “Last year we watched the birds and identified the best sites on the island for the project. This year we’ll install bird nesting structures, sand, gravel, and cobble at these locations to provide attractive new nesting habitat on the refuge for the terns.”

His hope is that the “if we build it, they will come” tactic will give the rare terns a leg up in boosting their population.

Climate Change Focus: Adaptation

Author: Maggie Freleng, USFWS


Rick Potvin, USFWS, 860-399-2513, Richard_Potvin@fws.gov

Terri Edwards, USFWS, 413-253-8324, Terri_Edwards@fws.gov

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