Elegant Terns expanding in California

The U.S. breeding population of elegant terns, which first appeared in the 1950's,  is increasing. Last year there were 10,000 pairs at Bolsa Chica, and in 2010 there were 20,000 pairs at the San Diego Salt Works, the other U.S. breeding site. They have also been showing up in increasing numbers in northern California.  (Photo of elegant terns at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve by Mike Horn)

In September 2010, Richardson Bay Audubon Sanctuary Manager Kerry Wilcox recorded 700 individuals, the highest number of post-breeding elegant terns ever measured at the Sanctuary. This one sighting represents just a tad under 1% of the estimated total global population, suggesting that Richardson Bay is an important wintering site. Non-breeding terns have also recently been observed at Batiquitos Lagoon, according to Fred Sandquist, president of the Batiquitos Lagoon Foundation.

The biggest elegant tern colony in the world, Isla Rasa in the Gulf of California, has recently been freed of rats, thanks to Mexican conservation hero Enriqueta Velarde.  The island is home to 95% of the world’s elegant terns and most of the world’s Heerman’s gulls, and for this we can thank Enriqueta and a handful of other dedicated conservationists. The island is now protected as part of the Islas del Golfo de California Biosphere Reserve.

There may be more opportunities to stabilize and grow the population of elegant terns. California’s Trustee Councils, which have invested millions in seabird restoration, recently awarded a bi-national grant to several recipients, including Audubon, to restore a number of seabird breeding islands in Baja, including historic elegant tern breeding islands Asuncion and San Roque. These islands have been freed of introduced predators and await restoration activities to bring back the seabirds.

In the U.S., Bolsa Chica and Batiquitos lagoons were recently designated state marine reserves, by way of the Marine Life Protection Act. Audubon California and chapters including San Diego, Sea & Sage, and Los Angeles recently successfully partnered to support the inclusion of these important bird areas in the reserve network. Now, as of January 2012,  thanks to this activism, no fish or other life may be removed from these areas, which will bolster the terns' forage base.

In the meantime, please use ebird to share your observations of elegant terns!

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