The Least Terns that didn’t drown need to be left alone by humans, experts urge

A newly hatched Least Tern chicks are downy. These are from one of the Mississippi colonies before Tropical Storm Cindy. Sadly, most of them didn’t make it through the storm.
A newly hatched Least Tern chicks are downy. These are from one of the Mississippi colonies before Tropical Storm Cindy. Sadly, most of them didn’t make it through the storm.

Their nests have been devastated and Tropical Storm Cindy scattered them.

But don’t pick them up.

The worst thing you can do for these little chicks is to take them to wildlife rescue or rehabilitation, bird experts say.

Their best shot at survival now is to stay on the beach.

These little migratory shore birds — Least Terns — have a whole Audubon team watching after them.

And Sarah Pacyna, head of the effort, said there are signs of hope coming out of the disaster wrought by this week’s storm.

There are 15 colonies from Biloxi to Pass Christian that the Mississippi Coast Audubon Society monitors during breeding and nesting season.

The storm took out 99 percent of the nests. Hundreds of downy chicks and eggs washed away.

One of the largest colonies lost 250 of the tiny chicks. The good news is that about 1/3 of the older, feathered chicks survived.

“We’re seeing a lot of signs of hope,” Pacyna said. “The surviving older chicks are being cared for by their parents. Some of the adult birds are displaying courtship behaviors and building nests. We expect to see some new eggs.”

“People think they are helping in trying to rescue these chicks, and really they are doing a lot more harm at this point by picking them up and trying to bring them to rescue organizations.”

These are migratory birds that need to be taught by their parents to fish and then to migrate back to Central America and Mexico.

To feed and raise one of these in captivity would be labor intensive, and there’s no guarantee they would be able to survive in the wild, she said.

“We need people to stay out of the colonies.”

Alison Sharpe, director of WIldlife Care & Rescue Center, rescues baby brown pelicans along the Coast on Thursday, June 22, 2017. Sharpe says the babies have most likely been blown off their nests near the Chandeleur Islands in Louisiana waters.

Pacyna is part of the Audubon team that consists of five full-time staffers, two part-time staff, three interns and a gaggle of dedicated volunteers. They watch and advocate for the nesting Least Terns during the summer, focus on the fall migrations and otherwise monitor coastal birds.

The official Least Tern program started in 2014. The Pascagoula River Audubon Center has done some stewardship, but the program springs from the local chapter of the Mississippi Coast Audubon Society that has monitored the terns since the mid-1970s.

It started with local birder Judith Toups, Pacyna said. “We’re really building on her legacy.”

Tern numbers have been holding steady over the past few years. But these little birds have so many threats — people walking their dogs off a leash, predator birds like laughing gulls and crows and general human disturbance.

People walk by causing the parents to fly off the nest, Pacyna said. That leaves the chicks and eggs exposed to the heat and predators.

Then there’s the weather.

As Cindy hit, rain and waves bombarded the beaches. Water pooled in the nesting areas, some nests were eroded by wave action. It was a double whammy.

As it scattered the smallest chicks, the older ones were able to get to high ground and hide in the dunes to ride out the storm.

A few nests survived and a few chicks have hatched during the storm and survived. But the biggest colony had 302 chicks on Monday and by Thursday, there were 58.

“Do not pick up these babies. This is our fighting chance to give them the rest of the season. They’ll begin fledging soon. They’ll get out there and learn how to dive and fish, and they’ll be ok,” Pacyna said.