The Gulfport IBA is open beach habitat along the Gulf of Mexico, which is used by both beach-goers and breeding least terns and black skimmers.
Gulfport is a combination of five previously separate IBA?s (Biloxi Beach, Gulfport East, Gulfport West, Long Beach, and Pass Christian). The close proximity of these IBA?s within Harrison County necessitated combining into one easily identifiable IBA.
Historically, Least Terns nested on the barrier islands of Mississippi, but were first discovered nesting on the mainland in 1936. Most of the mainland nesting sites were man-made dredge spoil areas or construction sites under bridges. With the construction of the world's longest man-made beach along the Mississippi Sound in 1952, the terns found a paradise for nesting. The sheltered waters of Mississippi Sound provided good fishing, and the busy highway U.S. 90 selects heavily against dogs and cats that might otherwise find an easy lunch. This site is owned by the state of Mississippi?s Office of Tidelands and is managed by the Harrison County Beach Authority.
The Mississippi coast has one of the largest, albeit shrinking, Least Tern nesting colonies in the United States. It used to be much larger. Biologists do not know exactly why the tern population is declining, but they suspect that increased disturbance plays a significant role.
Throngs of beach goers continue disturbance of mainland colonies. Despite efforts to protect nesting areas, the Fourth of July has always meant trouble for the terns. Fireworks turn the colonies into war zones. Jet ski rental businesses now attract more people to the beach. Jet skies may also make feeding more difficult for terns because of increase wave action that reduces prey visibility. Other threats are construction projects such as board walk repair and maintenance and commercial and recreational development along beach front property. Ruddy Turnstone predation and disturbance from pets also cause problems.
The protection of the Least Tern and its nesting habitat on the Mississippi Gulf Coast has been nationally recognized as a model conservation effort. This site has also been designated as a Globally Important Bird Area because there are more Least Terns nesting on the beaches of Harrison County than any other site in the world. The beaches of Harrison County are one of its last strongholds. 3,000 nesting pairs used the Harrison County beaches as early as 1973. Efforts to conserve the nesting habitat began when the Harrison County beach crews were instructed by the County Supervisor to halt beach cleaning operations. On these two one-mile stretches of beach designated as the Tern Sanctuary, Sea Oats and other beach vegetation were planted and signs were erected warning visitors and beach goers of the presence of breeding birds. The Harrison County Board of Supervisors was largely responsible for the initiation and success of the Least Tern Protection Project on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Also, in 1974, concerned citizens began marking tern nests and urging their protection. In 1975, more than 1,000 pairs nested on the mainland beaches; in 1983, more than 6,000 pairs. From 1983 to 1994, the main nesting colony in Gulfport has annually supported from 2,000 to more than 3,000 pairs, making it the largest Least Tern colony in the world (Jackson, 1994). However, their numbers are rapidly diminishing and have declined from more than 5,000 nests in the mid-1980's to as low as 1,250 nests in 1999. In part, this is because of increased public use and erosion of the nesting beaches.
In the mid-1970's, three designated nesting areas were established on the beaches in Harrison County to provide suitable nesting habitat for the terns. During many of the following years, some terns have established satellite colonies at other areas along the beach. Once these terns have started nesting they are protected by law and cannot be disturbed.