Nesting Common Terns Get a New Island Home in Buffalo

The newly constructed island is a part of a larger suite of bird and fish habitat restoration projects in the Niagara River and environs.
Hands of a bird bander hold a small fluffy bird with white chest and speckled back.

Common Terns returning to Buffalo Harbor this May found a treat: A new nesting island made just for them. The island, which is a part of a larger suite of bird and fish habitat restoration projects in the harbor and in the nearby Niagara River, provides vital nesting habitat for the terns.

Nesting habitat has been hard to come by for the state-threatened species, and the birds made do with anything suitable in the area, including breakwaters in the harbor. But time and neglect made those choices unstable. Despite work done to shore up the breakwaters by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Common Tern Habitat Improvement Project, in 2019 one of the main breakwater nesting sites collapsed entirely after an eight-foot seiche (a wind-driven wall of water) and 70-mph winds inundated it. Although other breakwaters still supported nesting, habitat experts with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) recognized the vulnerability of the sites.

Timothy DePriest, a habitat ecologist with NYSDEC, said it was serendipity that the island was being built even before the breakwater collapsed.

“We knew that we [couldn’t] rely on the Buffalo Harbor [break wall] site forever. So why not build an island that’s going to be perfect for terns—built specifically for terns with all the details—and have that be the long-term solution to the local nesting populations,” said DePriest. It was just good timing on the part of the NYSDEC and on the part of the Buffalo Audubon Society, who aided in creating this new island.

Image of rocky island with tent-like wooden structures scattered across it.

Construction of the new tern island started in Spring 2020 after Buffalo Audubon past and current executive directors Loren Smith and Edward Sirianno secured funding for the project, then worked with NYSDEC to design it. Buffalo Audubon also managed the construction and execution of the project while consulting with the NYSDEC as well as local contractor LDC Construction.

The birds will now find their nesting site on a 14,400 square foot island. The island has a rock berm at the base and consists of a sand/pea gravel mixture for the terrain, with vegetation on the island. Large rocks and driftwood have also been placed on the gravel for separation and structure among the nesting terns. There are also ‘chick protection structures’ on the island which are specially designed wooden “tents,” and will be installed each year by the DEC.

small fluffy beige and white bird hunkers down in gravel next to a wooden shelter

The site, which is about one-third of an acre and was built with a rock berm base and a sand/pea-gravel mixture for terrain, took about half a year to complete and is part of a collection of habitat islands, including Frog Island and Strawberry Island, near and in the Niagara River.

In addition to good nesting substrate, says Sirianno, current executive director of Buffalo Audubon, the island features specially designed wooden “tents” to protect newly hatched chicks that were made by volunteers and Buffalo Audubon chapter members.

“In May, we started seeing terns coming up the Buffalo River and coming into the Niagara River,” said Sirianno. “By middle of May, we were able to take down the gull deterrent wires open the island up for the terns and the terns inhabited that island. By the first of June we had over 102 pairs.” According to Sirianno, the island maxxed out its inaugural year with approximately 150 nesting pairs, but the island is calculated to hold between 1,000 and 1,500 nesting pairs once the colony gets established. 

a bird with a light grey back, white chest, black head, and bright orange bill stands on a white post

"The project is a tremendous accomplishment by Audubon’s network, contributing to Audubon’s vision for conservation in the Great Lakes region through habitat restoration," writes Andrew Hinickle, senior manager of Wetland Conservation at Audubon Great Lakes. "It offered an opportunity for expanded collaboration between the chapter and state office staff, creating high quality nesting habitat for Common Terns while infusing the fringes of the island with native emergent and submergent marsh vegetation which can utilized by other  priority water birds."

The NYSDEC currently monitors the island on a weekly basis and ensures that there are little problems on the island. They are out on the island keeping track of bird counts, monitoring boaters, ensuring predation from minks or cormorants is kept to a minimum, and dealing with the science behind taking care of these birds. Volunteers on the island also help monitor and band the terns, as well as create the wooden shelters for the birds while they summer in New York.

“It’s a big picture thing. It’s not just an island for terns, it’s an island for an entire ecosystem,” Sirianno says. “I mean, it’s amazing. These birds migrate from South America—that’s 3,800 miles—to come to this island and build their nest.”