Wildlife Watch: Helping the common tern take flight in Vermont

Published: Jul. 23, 2019 at 3:40 PM EDT
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Vermont Fish and Wildlife says there are more than 50 animals in Vermont that are listed as threatened or endangered. One of those is the common tern. But something is being done about it and you may have even seen it.

In this Wildlife Watch, our Ike Bendavid visited an island where humans rarely set foot to see how Audubon Vermont is helping the tern population take flight.

Lake Champlain has dozens of islands. Some are used for vacations but humans can't go on others.

Mark LaBarr is the Conservation Program Manager for Audubon Vermont. He oversees one island filled with birds.

"This is Poppasquash Island," LaBarr said. "It is the largest-- the only breeding island for common terns on Lake Champlain. The common terns are endangered."

The short boat ride from the shores of Northern Lake Champlain brings us to the island that LaBarr visits once a week in the summer. The island is owned by Audubon and is protected by the state.

"We will look for nests, we will mark the nests, so we will give them a number and follow those nests through hatching. After the chicks are hatched, we will band them and follow the chicks to the point that they can fledge," LaBarr said.

Terns' primary food is fish and they're in the same group as seagulls, but they can be easily identified when you know what you're looking for.

"Terns have much more slender wings, forked tails, a little black cap with a pointy bill and they are quite a bit smaller than the gulls that are here," LaBarr said.

As we approach the island, the terns scatter in the sky. LaBarr says they do this to protect their eggs.

"They nest colonially, which means that they nest altogether. They tend to lay at the same time, they tend to hatch at the same time. They all tend to work really hard to defend the colony from intruders," he said.

Once on the island, the chicks are easy to spot.

Reporter Ike Bendavid: How old is this bird?

Mark LaBarr: Maybe five days? It still has the little white egg tooth and that's what they use to break out of their shell. That white dot will fall off. And these chicks they are very cryptically colored now so they blend in with the surface of the island.

LaBarr says these terns head to Central America during the winter. Predatory birds and overcrowding have lowered numbers in Vermont. The work they are doing on the islands like this one helps the endangered birds' population grow on Lake Champlain.

With help from his daughter, LaBarr scoops up multiple chicks and bands them for research. Some chicks are too young to band.

Ike Bendavid: When you think of the invasive bird sometimes here, why are they not nesting here?

Mark LaBarr: We did have a cormorant problem on this island about 10 years ago... By stringing up these wires, we are literally able to keep the cormorants from nesting on top of the island. Gulls will nest here but this simple wire system that goes around the outside edge of the island-- for some reason the cormorants don't like it and they will stay close to the shore over there.

After spending some time cataloging and checking the health of the birds, it's time to head back to shore.

"The birds are now coming back. They are feeding their chicks. They will bring back fish the same size as the [chick]. Those chicks will develop and eventually fledge from the island but they are very protective of those chicks when they are up there," LaBarr said.

LaBarr says there are just about 200 pairs of common terms in the state of Vermont. Numbers are up but for them to be off the endangered species list there must be at least 300 for five years. He says his work on the island is helping the process.