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Tern Colony on Road to Recovery!

Parks Canada and partners appeal to Gaspé area public for co-operation on rehabilitation efforts

Gaspé (Quebec), July 11, 2013 – Last June 21, the “Groupe de travail sur la réhabilitation de la colonie de sternes pierregarin de Sandy Beach” [Task force on the rehabilitation of the Sandy Beach common tern colony] performed a count of stern nests on the Sandy Beach bar, located in the municipality of Gaspé. This operation served to confirm that this stern colony, the Gaspé Peninsula’s largest, continues on the road to recovery. Nevertheless, some major challenges still lie ahead for these beautiful “sea swallows.” As a partner of this project, Parks Canada joins with the task force in urging the public to contribute to this collective effort by refraining from frequenting the Sandy Beach spit (located at the end of the sandbar) during the next few weeks.

Caution: fragile!

Common Tern Common Tern
© Parks Canada / Antoine Haimeur

The common tern, sometimes informally referred to as the sea swallow, makes its nest in high grass or even directly on the beaches of islands or peninsulas. In the 1980s, the Sandy Beach sandbar was home to close to a thousand tern nests. However, by the end of the 1990s, the Club des ornithologues de la Gaspésie [Gaspé ornithologists club] noted that the sterns had practically deserted the site.

In response to this alarming situation, a task force was set up for the purpose of developing a project to restore the Sandy Beach common stern colony. Five years later, in 2005, their actions first began to truly pay off: the tern colony now numbered 165 nests as well as several chicks and juveniles. In 2009, it had grown to become the biggest common stern colony on the Gaspé Peninsula. The colony has continued to expand since, reaching 685 nests in 2012. In contrast, the other two Gaspé stern colonies number are home, respectively, to 61 active nests (Saint-Siméon barachois) and 49 active nests (Saint-Omer). It also appears that the Sandy Beach bar is the only site on the Gaspé Peninsula where terns build nests year after year. The tern colonies on the Carleton Beach Ridge, Taylor Island (New Richmond) and the Paspébiac marsh have now completely disappeared.

At this time, the Sandy Beach tern colony numbers 526 nests. “The colony is currently in the midst of the nesting period, and any disturbance caused by people walking or swimming, or by pets, during the next two weeks is likely to jeopardize the success of our efforts,” explained Jean-Marc Hardy, task force co-ordinator.

Tern eggs
Tern eggs 
© Parks Canada

It’s important to keep in mind that though the Sandy Beach tern colony is on the road to recovery, it nevertheless remains fragile. The task force is currently attempting to assess the long-term sustainability of the colony without human intervention. The main problem is that the common tern is highly sensitive to disturbance. When it is disturbed during the nesting period, it abandons its nest, leaving its eggs and young to the mercy of predators (such as seagulls). In addition, its eggs, which are often laid directly on the sand, are highly vulnerable to being trampled underfoot. One way to actively contribute to the recovery of this tern colony is simply to avoid going to the Sandy Beach spit whenever sterns are building their nests and feeding their young – i.e., from May until the end of July.

It takes a team

To a very large extent, the success of efforts to “rescue” this bird colony rides on the sustained, concerted contributions of numerous partners.

Over the last several years, the task force has brought together a great many enthusiastic, dedicated volunteers, as well as representatives of various local organizations, including: the Club des ornithologues de la Gaspésie, the Société de la barre de Sandy Beach, the Gaspeg Micmac nation, the Comité de concertation de la baie de Gaspé, the City of Gaspé, the Comité de la Zone importante pour la conservation des oiseaux (ZICO) de la Baie-de-Gaspé, the Canadian Wildlife Service, the Quebec Ministère des Ressources naturelles, the Quebec Ministère de l’Environnement, de la Faune et des Parcs, as well as Parks Canada.

Oisillon protégé par sa mère
Mother Tern protecting it's baby 
© Parks Canada / Delphine Legault

On the other side of Gaspé Bay, the team at Forillon National Park is proud to contribute to this collective effort, in particular through its conservation actions on the Penouille peninsula and its support for the Sandy Beach tern colony task force. “Everything is interconnected in nature,” explained Daniel Sigouin, an ecologist at Forillon Park. “There are no chain-link fences in the sky! Birds freely enter and exit park territory the same way that whales swim in and out of park waters or moose travel back and forth over land. Terns build their nest on the Sandy Beach bar and then simply wing their way across the bay to feed in the Penouille saltmarsh. ‘As the crow flies’ – it’s as simple as going from your bedroom to the kitchen.”

Furthermore, the recent study on the coastal dynamics of the Penouille peninsula, conducted in conjunction with the Université du Québec à Rimouski, has helped to improve understanding of the evolution of this fragile habitat and to identify the best management options. Beginning this summer, a wooden bridge will be built along the length of the neck, thus maintaining access to the peninsula while also protecting the barrier beach. “When we protect the Penouille barrier beach, we are also protecting the saltmarsh, which is a part of the ‘food locker’ of many seabirds. Terns are an integral component of the coastal ecosystem protected by the park. So we are delighted to see that this outstanding local initiative has met with such success. And equally delighted that our visitors can once again see these ‘sea swallows’ flying and hovering over Penouille,” concluded the park ecologist.

Parks Canada hails the dedication, perseverance and high degree of professionalism demonstrated by the Groupe de travail de réhabilitation de la colonie de sternes pierregarin de Sandy Beach task force.