Audubon Oil Spill Response Team Update: Volunteers give Least Terns a chance

Least Tern, Sternula antillarum
An adult Least Tern (Sternula antillarum) flies over a nesting colony on Grand Isle, Louisiana. David J. Ringer/Audubon

Raucous shrieks erupted from tiny white slivers hurling themselves through the sunlight. With the grace of butterflies and the speed of dragonflies, tiny Least Terns went about their business while, a few hundred yards away, big-name music acts went about theirs on temporary stages erected on Grand Isle's beach.

The small Louisiana beach community is reeling from devastating effects of the oil disaster; the concert, "Island Aid," was put on to benefit the town.

But the terns are reeling too -- unintended victims of oil cleanup operations and protection efforts. Least Tern colonies on Grand Isle have lost eggs and chicks this year because of all the disturbance.

The colonies are fenced now, and though the breeding season is wrapping up, some birds still have young, flightless chicks. Many people feared that extra traffic brought in by the concert would further harm the Least Terns.

So Audubon posted volunteer beach stewards at the two colony sites closest to the stage, bringing human reinforcement to the fencing and signs that marked the colonies.

Audubon volunteer beach stewards
Audubon volunteer beach stewards pass fencing that protects a Least Tern colony. David J. Ringer/Audubon

One such steward was Jacob Watson, Jr., a lifelong resident of New Orleans who retired in 1986 from his job as research associate at the Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine.

Jacob Watson
Jacob Watson, Jr., volunteers with Audubon in Louisiana as a wildlife transport facilitator and beach steward. David J. Ringer/Audubon

"My history with birds goes back to when I was a child. I was always a naturalist," he told me.

"My reason for being here is just to give help in any way that I possibly can," he said. "It's a good feeling to know that you're helping a cause for the animals that suffered so great with this manmade catastrophe."

High above and out to sea, Magnificent Frigatebirds soared on bowed wings or engaged in prolonged, twisting pursuits of ineffable beauty. A Ruddy Turnstone zipped between Laughing Gulls, who've already started losing their dark summer hoods, and fuzzy Least Tern chicks tottered across the sand. Jacob exclaimed over them all.

It was a beautiful afternoon, and it gave me hope. Hope because even in the midst of chaos and devastation, life is going on. Terns are growing up. Laughing Gulls are growing older. Frigatebirds soar.

We are in the midst of a disaster whose effects are very grave. This should never have happened, and we must fight to keep it from  happening again.

But life is tenacious here where the river meets the sea. Life is strong. Life has a tremendous capacity to heal.

We may never be able to restore what we have lost, what we will lose as oil continues washing ashore.

But we can work to let life renew itself. Renew. Recover. Heal.

That's what Jacob -- and all the other volunteers who came out on Saturday -- are working for, even before the disaster ends. Renewal. Giving life a fighting chance.

Least Tern, Sternula antillarum, by David J. Ringer


Stay abreast of Audubon

Get updates about our conservation work and how to help birds.