A Strong Partnership Protects Interior Least Terns and Piping Plovers


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Two tern chicks nestle together in the shade of a large dredge pipe. (Mary Bomberger Brown)

By Angelina Wright

The fate of threatened and endangered species lies in the hands of those willing to go the extra mile to protect and recover their vulnerable populations. Since 1985, when they were added to the federal Endangered Species List, the endangered interior least tern (Sternula antillarum athalassos) and the threatened piping plover (Charadrius melodus) have been relying on the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Nebraska Game and Parks Commission (NGPC) to restore their populations in Nebraska. The Tern and Plover Conservation Partnership (TPCP) joined the effort in 1999. In addition, since the recovery’s inception, sand and gravel mining companies in Nebraska teamed up with these organizations and have enthusiastically taken an integral role as tern and plover conservationists. Their past and future involvement just may be the answer to ensuring a positive future for these two imperiled species.

Interior least terns and piping plovers travel thousands of miles every year from their wintering grounds along the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea to their breeding grounds in Nebraska and other Midwestern states. From late April until mid-August, Nebraska hosts these birds as they return to the same nesting

areas year after year. Piping plovers arrive nearly two to three weeks earlier in the spring than interior least terns. Distinguishing features of these small shorebirds include sandy gray backs and wings, a bold black band across the chest and bright orange legs and beak. They typically lay four eggs; it takes about four weeks for the eggs to hatch and another four weeks before their chicks can fly. Interior least terns can be seen diving to capture small fish in rivers and ponds near their nesting colonies. These small, mostly white terns are recognized by the white triangle on their forehead and distinctive black crown. They typically lay two or three eggs; it takes about three weeks for their eggs to hatch and another three weeks before their chicks can fly.

Upon arrival in spring, both species seek out sparsely vegetated, sandy shorelines and mid-river sandbars where they establish territories, build nests and feed and care for their young. In Nebraska, some of the appealing and most reliable habitat of this sort is found along the beaches of sand and gravel pits.

Freshly hatched plover chicks and one egg using cryptic coloration to blend into pebble-lined nest (Mary Bomberger Brown)

Sand and gravel mining companies have been mining large quantities of high-quality aggregates at sites along Nebraska’s rivers for decades. This industry is an important part of our state’s economy as it generates millions of dollars in revenue every year and provides useful products and materials for building roads, home construction, concrete production, landscaping and glass manufacturing, to name a few. Some of the best aggregate sources in Nebraska are found along the Platte, Elkhorn and Loup rivers. Once aggregates are found, the mining process begins by removing the surface vegetation and topsoil. Next, a pit is dug, which fills with water due to the high water table, forming a lake. A dredge is placed in the lake, and aggregates are removed and separated by particle size. Excess sand is then spread around the pit, which forms the expanses of barren sand that interior least terns and piping plovers find so attractive. Because active sand and gravel mines are such busy places with a lot of large machinery and commotion, nests can be accidentally run over by equipment, loud noises can cause birds to abandon nests and windblown sand can cover nests. As a result, sand and gravel companies have made it their corporate goal to minimize the likelihood that birds encounter these man-made hazards.

In 2012 representatives of several of the leading sand and gravel companies in Nebraska (Lyman-Richey Co., Preferred Sands, Western Sand and Gravel Co. and Oldcastle Materials Midwest Co. [dba Mallard Sand and Gravel]), USFWS and NGPC prepared a Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) to establish themselves as full partners in the conservation of these two imperiled species. These agreements focused on protecting and recovering interior least tern and piping plover populations that nest at sand and gravel mines. This year (2012) approximately 310 interior least terns and 66 piping plovers occupied cooperating mines in Nebraska. To ensure the safety of these birds, extra efforts are put forth by all the parties to improve nesting habitat, implement on-the-ground management, routinely monitor bird populations and most importantly practice cooperation, open communication and coordination of efforts. For these conservation efforts to be successful, it takes the dedication and the awareness of everyone involved to work toward a measurable recovery goal. With the joining of a shared conservation interest, an appreciation of an important industry, strategic planning and intensive monitoring, this partnership has pooled their varied resources and backgrounds to create a bright future for the birds. Thanks to these sand and gravel mining companies, and their years of dedication, the interior least tern and piping plovers who inhabit active mines can rest assured that their fate is in good hands.

Image Credits: Mary Bomberger Brown

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