Under a bright blue sky streaked with white clouds, a battle forms over Gould’s Inlet. Three or four least terns keep after a crow in what at times resembles military air combat. The crow — larger and more powerful, but outnumbered — eventually escapes the area by heading inland.
“That’s a fish crow, flying in there,” said Abby Sterling, shorebird biologist with Manomet. “That’s one of the predators, so that’s one of the reasons these guys nest in such big groups like that, is so that they can all team up on them and drive them out. And so, last year (the colony) wasn’t successful at all because fish crows came in. Fish crows do really well when there’s people around, but these terns don’t do that well when there’s people around, but these guys are totally winning.”
The sizable fenced-off portion of dunes and vegetation allows for better nesting in this area of St. Simons Island, which is key for these shorebirds.
“This is the largest least tern colony in the state, that I know of,” said Tim Keyes, a biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources. “There’s none on the dredge islands here, the Pelican Spit washed over. There’s 12 or 15 colonies, and 12 or 15 pairs, on Ossabaw, Blackbeard and Cumberland.”
Sterling said there are other small groups also on Little Cumberland and Little St. Simons islands.
“One of the things the chicks are doing is kind of hiding in the vegetation, because when they’re small, they can’t regulate their body temperature well at all, so the adults have to be on top of them, keeping them protected from the sun, otherwise they overheat,” Sterling said. “When the adults are out fishing and they’re a little bit bigger, then they stash the chicks in the vegetation. That’s why having open spots like this, where they can nest, and then little clumps of vegetation, is really good.
“To make it even better, Wilson’s plovers nest here, too and they eat fiddler crabs, like Lydia said, so that back part of the beach, where it’s mud — that’s the jackpot. There’s a million fiddler crabs back there, so a lot of times we’re seeing chicks move with their parents from this area to the back part, where they’re feeding.”
Sterling, Keyes, volunteer coordinator Lydia Thompson and others were out over the recent holiday period for the Georgia Bight Shorebird Conservation Initiative to see how nesting season was progressing and to engage with beach visitors to make sure everyone can enjoy the area while helping local wildlife.
“It was a great opportunity to help people understand that they’d stayed out of this area, and now there’s chicks and not even just small chicks, but birds that are brand-new fledged, that are able to fly, totally successful … this year, because people were able to give the birds the space they needed, and kind of share the beach with the birds,” Sterling said.
Of course, people need to be aware of where they can and where they cannot take their pets.
“Our biggest concern here, most people are going to respect the ropes. Dogs are not,” Keyes said. “And despite the article you had in your paper a few days ago, we’re really concerned about dogs out here because a flightless chick is just irresistible to a dog, even a very well-behaved dog.
“I haven’t looked at the notes from this season, but in past seasons when we’ve had observers out here … there wasn’t a single day where they didn’t report dog infractions.”