Over the July 4 weekend, a wildlife researcher named Andrew Haffenden was conducting a bird survey on a spit of land just off the south side of Dauphin Island, a barrier island in the northern Gulf of Mexico that helps form the entrance to Alabama’s Mobile Bay, when he noticed a number of boats docked off Sand Island, about a mile offshore. A closer look with his scope revealed several tents and a volleyball net. Worried that the revelers might be disturbing any coastal seabirds that could be laying their eggs in depressions in the sand, Haffenden set out for the island in his boat.
Yes, he found bird nests. But he also found that the beach volleyball players had taken all the eggs from some of the nests to clear out an area for their court, which is a Very Bad Thing for birds known as least terns, cardinal-size creatures with white and gray feathers and black caps.
“The people had actually made a little dome of sand and placed the eggs around it to decorate it,” Haffenden told AL.com’s Ben Raines.
Female least terns sit on their grape-size eggs not to keep them warm but to keep them cool; otherwise, the chicks quickly will bake if left unprotected from the sun. But the volleyball players decided that the eggs were in their way, and the Sand Island hatchlings — hundreds of them, Haffenden estimated — didn’t make it.
“The thing about the eggs, people think, ‘Oh, they’re eggs,’ but they are also almost fully formed chicks inside. They can walk almost as soon as they hatch,” Haffenden told Raines. “In that pile of eggs, there were a number that were about to hatch. In fact, if you look at the pictures of the pile you can see an egg that showed pipping [cracks where a chick is pecking its way out of the shell]. What the people did was take those eggs away from the protection of the parents from the sun. So we had dozens of functional chicks die by being baked. It’s pretty nasty.
“But it’s not just the eggs in the pile; the amount of disturbance to the colony while playing volleyball, standing or sitting and watching the players would have at least a couple of hundreds females off the nest, which certainly caused the death of their hatchlings and about to hatch and developing eggs,” Haffenden added. “There were 17 boats on that tiny island.”
Haffenden works for Birmingham Audubon, which put up ropes and signs to remind people of the federally protected least terns the next day. Officers with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources also were alerted and have added the island to their patrols.
“Ever since we put the fencing up, everyone has been very respectful. We have not seen a human footprint in the area. Boaters have not pulled up to that area,” Katie Barnes, chief biologist for Birmingham Audubon’s Coastal Program, told Raines.
Even after the volleyball massacre — and storms during the third week of July that pushed the gulf water over the nests — it’s still shaping up to be a pretty good year for least terns and black skimmers, which also nest on the island. Birmingham Audubon found 520 active least tern nests and 13 black skimmer nests in a survey.
“What we’ve heard from the state is that may be the largest least tern colony on record for the state of Alabama,” Barnes said. “Even with all the eggs that were lost, this site has still been a huge success for the birds.”
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