US Army Corps of Engineers
Buffalo District

USACE Buffalo District Biologists Repair Common Tern Nesting Habitat

Published May 5, 2016
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Buffalo District Environmental Analysis Biologists Richard Ruby and Jay Miller, along with the Floating Plant Crew captained by Tim Colburn, were at the Ashtabula Harbor east breakwater, Ashtabula Ohio, May 4 repairing storm-damaged common tern (Sterna hirundo) habitat.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Buffalo District Environmental Analysis Biologists Richard Ruby and Jay Miller, along with the Floating Plant Crew captained by Tim Colburn, were at the Ashtabula Harbor east breakwater, Ashtabula Ohio, May 4 repairing storm-damaged common tern (Sterna hirundo) habitat.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Buffalo District Environmental Analysis Biologists Richard Ruby and Jay Miller, along with the Floating Plant Crew captained by Tim Colburn, were at the Ashtabula Harbor east breakwater, Ashtabula Ohio, May 4 repairing storm-damaged common tern (Sterna hirundo) habitat.

The common tern habitat was constructed two years ago in an effort to establish an additional breeding location along the southern shore of Lake Erie. The tern has been absent from this area for decades due to the lack of suitable habitat.

Common tern nesting colonies are rare.

“Currently, the only existing nesting colonies are located at Buffalo Harbor and the western Lake Erie basin. Ashtabula Harbor is equidistant between Buffalo Harbor and the western Lake Erie basin breeding colonies, and so provides the perfect spot to establish a new nesting colony,” said lead Biologist Richard Ruby.  

Scheduled Ashtabula Harbor breakwater repair work provided the perfect opportunity for the Environmental Analysis (EA) team, directed by Biologist Richard Ruby, to set up breeding habitat as part of Corps of Engineers’ “green breakwater” initiative.

The Ashtabula Breakwater Tern Nesting Habitat Demonstration Project is an example of the Corps of Engineers’ Engineering with Nature (EWN) Program, which is the alignment of natural and engineering solutions that beneficially integrate engineering and natural systems to deliver economic, environmental, and social benefits through collaborative processes.

Corps of Engineers biologists have employed a slew of tactics to encourage the state-endangered common tern to nest on the Ashtabula Harbor east breakwater.

“Selecting appropriately-sized gravel, which not only will be accepted by the terns as suitable nesting medium, but will also withstand storm-driven waves, has been the most challenging aspect of this project,” said Biologist Jay Miller.  

The nesting habitat seems to include all the elements needed to establish and maintain a nesting colony: wire perimeter netting to keep prospective chicks from tumbling to their deaths on the rocks below; predator deterrent features; driftwood to provide cover and to simulate natural beach conditions; decoy birds scattered throughout the habitat; and a continuously-looping recording of common tern vocalizations. The only thing that seems to be missing are the terns themselves.

A strong late winter storm brought waves crashing onto the habitat, which washed away almost all of the nesting gravel and flooded the electronic devices used to monitor the habitat. Before the storm, terns were observed investigating the area possibly for the purpose of nesting.

Buffalo District biologists will perform maintenance and monitoring of the habitat for one more year before handing the project over to the Ohio Nature Conservancy. If the project is successful, it will provide a means of returning the common tern to the local avian community.