All Photographs by Patti Mondore. Click to Enlarge
I was out for an early morning kayak ride. I was passing by one of the neighboring islands when I heard a ruckus in the sky. Two adult terns were flying in low circles, shrieking as they flew. I decided to paddle a little closer to see if I could figure out what all the fuss was about. I knew that not too far from the island was a protected nesting area for terns. Perhaps one was wounded or in distress. As I rounded the bend, sure enough, I spotted a young tern standing on a rock near the island. He was shivering and repeatedly shrieking back at the adult birds circling around him. I couldn’t tell if he was injured or not. As I paddled closer, the shrieking of the adult terns only crescendoed. Clearly, this was their young tern and he was in some kind of trouble. At least he seemed to be in a secure place there on the small rock.
I might point out that seeing (and hearing) terns out there on the water, was not the least bit unusual for me. A few summers ago, I had been out on a similar voyage when I first started hearing what sounded like the raucous calls of hundreds of birds. As I paddled toward the sound, I eventually realized it was coming from a channel marker, just north of Ironsides Island. As I got closer, I realized that I was, indeed, hearing the sound of hundreds of birds. When I had almost reached the channel marker, I had apparently crossed some magical tern comfort zone line because suddenly the entire flock flew up off of the channel marker, en masse, and soared right over my head, screeching loudly as they did. I had the sense they were not at all pleased with me, and that I had just given new meaning to “angry birds”.
I backed a little ways off and watched as they swirled around in the air for a few moments, but then all quickly settled back on the channel marker. Apparently, those hundreds of terns were calling Channel Marker 180 home. I later learned that several “tern houses", similar to Channel Marker 180 had been built by volunteers for nesting. I guess one good tern (house) deserves another.
I was, of course, curious about who these volunteers were, and why they would spend their time building tern houses on channel markers. I was somewhat surprised to hear that terns are actually on the “threatened” list in New York State. That means terns are considered, “a native species, likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future in New York.” I was not at all surprised when I discovered that the whole tern-key operation was another project taken on by Save The River and TILT (the Thousand Islands Land Trust).
Terns are graceful water fowl that are closely related to seagulls. The terns on the channel markers are “common terns” which is the most widespread tern in North America. It is a medium-sized white or light gray tern with a black cap, white under parts, white wings with dark tips, and a long, deeply forked tail. The average common tern is 13-16 inches in length and has a wingspan of about 31 inches. Like many of the other water fowl on the River, terns are aerial fish feeders. They can be seen plunging into water to catch small fish. They make harsh, single-note calls, which sound all the harsher when they are being disturbed by a kayaker in the middle of the main channel.
Terns are migratory birds that winter on the southern Atlantic Coast, to as far south as Ecuador and Brazil, and return to their northern breeding territory from late April to mid-May. These colonies may contain
several hundred to several thousand birds. Though most of the common terns in New York nest on Long Island, some breed on small natural or artificial islands (like channel markers) in the Great Lakes and the River.
But, tern-ing my attention back to the situation at hand, the young tern's temporary reprieve came to an abrupt end when one of the waves from a passing ship washed the little bird off of the rock and sucked him out into the River. I was horrified. I was trying to keep my own boat stable, as the waves passed, but paddled alongside the struggling tern trying to figure out if there was anything I could do to help. At first, I thought maybe I could nudge him gently back toward shore and perhaps help him get back on the rock. I gently reached out the paddle and touched the little bird and to my surprise, instead of moving away from the paddle, he hopped up on it. I lifted it up out of the water and the two of us stared curiously at each other. “Hello!” I said to the tern. He cocked his head and seemed very content there on my paddle. However, this raised a new dilemma.
If you have never tried to navigate a kayak with a soggy tern sitting on the end of your paddle, I have to tell you that it has its own very unique set of challenges. For starters, the waves were washing me toward the island, and there was no way to paddle to avoid a crash landing. And the tern was clearly in no hurry to leave. So, I very carefully lifted the paddle up over the bow of the kayak and tried to see if the tern might be willing to temporarily relocate. To my relief, he hopped off of the paddle and onto the bow just in time for me to be able to pull back from the shore, before the inevitable bump. Once again, the tern and I stared at each other. “Now what, little bird?” I asked. I thought that perhaps I could drop my precious cargo on shore.
I pulled the bow right up to a branch he could have easily hopped to. But it was clear that the little tern was perfectly content where he was, and had no intention of disembarking. At that point, I had no idea what to do. Perhaps try a more inviting location on the island? I backed away from the island, and I and my little hood ornament proceeded to take a ride along the shoreline. I noticed that he was starting to dry out in the morning sun, and actually looked a little more perky.
Meanwhile, the adult terns were beside themselves, diving down toward my boat as they continued to shriek. The little tern answered back but did not seem overly concerned about his present circumstances. I was starting to wonder how this little adventure was going to end, when suddenly another wave hit the kayak and the little tern was thrown back into the River. The aerial terns shrieked, I shrieked, and the young tern shrieked.
I couldn’t think of anything else to do but try to pick him up again with the paddle. I lifted him partially out of the water when, to everyone’s delight, he lifted off of the paddle and flew into the sky! He joined the adult terns circling in the sky above me briefly before falling back into the water, but this time he knew what to do. In a few moments, he took off again and the three of them flew off together. My morning adventure had taken a dramatic tern for the best which concluded with a very happy ending.
What a lovely morning, I thought to myself. I had not only helped to save a little tern, but the whole experience also reminded me of one of my very favorite passages of encouragement and hope: “The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth. He never grows weak or weary... He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless. Even youths will become weak and tired, and young men will fall in exhaustion. But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint” (Is. 40:28-31).
There will be tough times each of us will occasionally have to go through, when even our family and friends can’t help us. It may feel as though the waves of difficulties might wash us away. Thankfully, if we cry out to him for help, God has promised to carry us safely through the storms, and then enable us to soar once again, maybe even higher than before.
I wonder if the tern will recognize me when I’m out there again and he is soaring overhead. It would be lovely if he ever decided to stop in for a visit. We could go for a little paddle ride together again, just one good tern for another.
Terns in the Thousand Islands
In the early 1900s, the common tern was almost wiped out, but thanks to protective legislation in 1918, they made a comeback in the 1920s and 1930s. Today, the common tern is once again considered a threatened species, in New York State, due to a loss of natural habitat and competition for nesting sites with sea gulls, according to the state DEC. Fortunately for the common terns, some private and public conservation organizations and concerned volunteers have started taking action through annual census and construction of tern houses and gull enclosures to protect their nests.
Here at the River, Save The River and TILT have formed a cooperative effort, in conjunction with Dr. Lee Harper, of Riveredge Associates, to monitor Common Tern nesting areas on the River. But beyond mere monitoring, they have taken action to hopefully once again get the Common Tern taken off of the threatened list. Part of their work involves organizing volunteers each year to participate in the annual Common Tern exclusion grid installation.
The Tern Program originated in the late nineties and works to monitor nesting Common Terns annually, to assess the population. Additionally, volunteers participate in habitat restoration initiatives such as grid installation, placing nest boxes and chick shelters on nesting sites and adding gravel to areas, to make suitable and safe nesting habitat for terns. All of these efforts have helped to increase tern populations on the St. Lawrence River.
In 2014, TI Life author, John Peach, wrote about the Common Tern Project and noted that: "In spite of all the challenges thrown up by Mother Nature and population encroachment, the Common Tern is making an amazing comeback in the St Lawrence River region."
In 2015, in a follow-up article he wrote: "These management efforts have been successful. In 2014, the average nesting productivity of tern colonies (downstream of Ogdensburg) was double that recorded in 2013 and approximately equal to the long term average."
You might say that the situation of the Common Tern here at the River has taken a tern for best!
By Patricia Mondore
Patty Mondore and her husband, Bob, are summer residents of the Thousand Islands. Patty is a published author and a singer/song writer. Her most recent books include “River Reflections: A 90-Day Devotional for People Who Love the Water” and its two sequels, "Nature Reflections" and "A Bird Lover's Reflections”, and "A Good Paddling". She and Bob co-authored “Singer Castle” and “Singer Castle Revisited” published by Arcadia Publishing, and co-produced "Dark Island’s Castle of Mysteries” documentary DVD, in addition to a Thousand Islands music DVD trilogy. Patty is a contributing writer for the “Thousand Islands Sun.” Her column, "River-Lations", appears in the Vacationer, throughout the summer months. She is planning on a spring release of a new book, River-Lations Revisited". The Mondores are online at www.gold-mountain.com. (PS: Be sure to also visit Bob Mondore’s singercastle.blogspot.com). The Mondores are online at www.gold-mountain.com.