Young Terns Prepare to Leave Barge Nest

An unusual colony of sea birds is thriving in an unusual place: an abandoned barge in Long Beach harbor. KPCC's Molly Peterson reports that hundreds of Caspian terns may be doing well enough there to migrate safely within weeks.

Molly Peterson: It's an icebreaker barge, about 300 feet long, its surface about 40 feet out of the water: moored at a buoy. Since May, state Fish and Game scientists have trekked to that buoy each Monday, leaving yawningly early from a dock on Pier D.

Tug Captain: Sorry we don't have any doughnuts or bagels, but there is a fresh pot of coffee down below for anyone who wants it.

Peterson: The tugboat Arapahoe is owned by the Sause Brothers, of Coos Bay, Oregon. They give the biologists a lift. The company's Tim Young says they do that because they also own the barge where the birds are squatting.

Tim Young: And we realized we didn't want a repeat of what the other company had done last summer.

Peterson: A year ago, more than 400 Caspian and elegant tern hatchlings dropped off the sides of two other barges. They were found, drowned, on shore. Fish and Game investigated for seven months; elegants are scarce, and both species are protected under migratory bird laws. Three men face animal cruelty charges. And so Young raises his palms, saying Sause Brothers decided to help any way it can.

Young: We could have done what the company did last year and just hosed them off. Once we found out the terns were nesting, we made the decision just to leave the barge here.

Peterson: Fish and Game and the Coast Guard have been warning pleasure craft, jet skis, and working vessels to stay 100 yards back from the birds. The Arapahoe gets a bit closer, monitoring, but the captain cuts the engine to sneak up a little. Perched fore of the wheelhouse, Fish and Game biologist Kim McKee turns her field glasses on the barge iced with bird droppings.

Kim McKee: The parents are just going out and coming back, and they certainly don't like disturbance. And that's why it's important to let everybody know to keep their distance.

Peterson: The birds do that too.

[Sound of birds]

Peterson: The tug's about eye level to the barge. To check nests and count birds, biologist Charlie Collins climbs even higher, a narrow ladder up to the top of the tug.

[Sound of bird]

Peterson: Twenty minutes later, Collins descends with a verdict.

Collins: The Caspians are nesting, nesting very successfully.

Peterson: No elegant terns, though. Collins believes they migrated to the Bolsa Chica wetlands instead. He and biologist Wally Ross see about 160 adult Caspians, and 75 or so young ones.

Collins: ...the majority of which were approaching flying stage and some are flying. We had four to five that took off and flew and circled around. And maybe 50 to 60 of that 75 are either flyers or very close to it.

Peterson: Good news, but Collins says nesting on a barge is a stopgap, as harbor development takes hold where good terrain once was. Dirty barges mimic ideal nesting ground.

Collins: Typical site is a sand island, sand beach type arrangement; this is a flat surface with debris and right next to a food supply. What else could you want?

Peterson: The colony will head south, probably next month. Until then, Collins says, chicks will test their new wings as fledglings at this precarious site.

Collins: If they make a flight from a barge and they're not quite as strong as they think they are and don't have enough altitude to get on board, they got a problem.

Peterson: Another observer points out a tern in the water, the nests 30 feet above it, and asks how long the baby chick can last.

Collins: In the water? One day.

Observer: One day?

Peterson: Collins says it's too risky to rescue it. Next season, Fish and Game says it plans an aggressive education campaign: Telling owners of barges to use 'em, move 'em, or clean 'em. The agency hopes to prevent more nests like this in the future. Biologists say they'd prefer that terns colonize their real habitat. Today, the best choice is to return to land as quietly as we can.