By Seth Daniel
For the Transcript
Winthrop’s beaches are taking a turn to the birds, a Least Tern that is.
For the past couple of years, endangered bird species have returned to Winthrop Beach and Yirrell Beach – a development that has surprised just about everyone in the birding world and Winthrop residents as well. However, this year, Winthrop Beach has also become home to one of the largest Least Tern bird colonies in the state.
A few years ago, the delicate Piping Plover showed up on Winthrop Beach and blew everyone’s mind. Protective fences went up to guard their nesting grounds and people were warned to keep their dogs away. This year, the federally-endangered Piping Plovers are back on Winthrop Beach, and they’ve also moved on Yirrell Beach, with both groups of Plovers hatching a fledging (meaning that they’ve been raised to be self-sufficient).
A similar story on Revere Beach has also played out with Piping Plovers, making the area one of the more unbelievable stories for those who monitor state and federally endangered birds.
“Both beaches in Winthrop and Revere Beach continue to be really productive for Piping Plovers, which is kind of amazing since they are urban beaches,” said Becky Harris, director of the Coastal Waterbird program at Mass Audubon – the state’s foremost authority on birds. “Overall, there are four pairs of Piping Plovers on Revere, Winthrop and Yirrell beaches and they’ve hatched 14 chicks this year. That’s about 3.5 per pair, which is unbelievable. I think the state average is probably not more than one chick per pair.”
Susannah Corona, the North Shore coordinator for the program, said to have the Plovers and the Least Tern colony is almost enviable, though the terns aren’t quite as endearing as the small, quiet, fragile Plovers. She said the bird development has made Winthrop and Yirrell beaches an urban birding sanctuary for endangered species.
“It’s there and it’s quite unexpected and it’s not like that in other beaches,” she said. “There are other beaches around that one would think would be more suited, but much to the dismay of people at those beaches, the birds don’t go there…There’s this tern colony that came in and was totally unexpected. They started nesting in the Harbor Islands, and we suspect that the colony that was on Lovell’s Island has moved to Winthrop Beach. It’s done very well, and so have the Piping Plovers. Yirrell Beach had a successful Plover nest, too.”
As Corona said, the terns have become a large group, and while they’re not as cute as the little Plovers and they have taken up a good chunk of the beach, they are still on the state endangered list and their appearance in Winthrop is a very important development in the comeback of the species.
“The terns are very unexpected and unique,” said Corona. “This is the largest tern colony between Duxbury and Crane Beach. It’s certainly an opportunity for education…In Winthrop, they’ve given up half the beach to these birds this year. It’s caused some angst, but people have been good for the most part. There aren’t too many places these birds can find sanctuary.”
In the 1980s, strict conservation protections were put in place for nesting Piping Plovers, which is the genesis of the fencing laws that have been seen lately in Winthrop. When first protected, the Plovers were nearly lost in Massachusetts. Now, however, they have begun to thrive, and there are nearly triple the numbers of nesting pairs in Massachusetts today. The state contains about 15 percent of the world population, and the birds nest on beaches from North Carolina to Nova Scotia.
The Least Tern has a much longer history in the state. The species was nearly completely lost at the end of the 1800s as the birds were slaughtered in huge quantities to provide decorations for ladies’ hats. Protections were put in place not long afterward and the terns did come back, but much more strict protections in the late 1970s have increased the numbers more substantially.
Harris said the appearance of birds on these beaches speaks to the success of aggressive protections. However, she added, their appearance speaks to the resurgence and cleanliness of the area’s urban beaches – a product of the mandated Boston Harbor cleanup.
“Definitely, it’s a great thing for the whole program that they’re doing better and spreading to new habitats,” said Harris. “It’s clearly a positive for the beaches that they’re clean enough and have enough food – foods like invertebrates and bugs that require a clean environment. It’s a good indication of the state of the beaches.”
Said Corona, “In the case of the Piping Plover, I think the protections put in place years ago have worked and created more Plovers who are moving out to colonize their ancestral beaches. They’re moving up because there are more of them. They’re not out of danger, but it speaks well to the fact that protections do work.”
Corona also said there are some unexpected benefits for people, too.
As she watched two young boys on Winthrop Beach last week, she noted that they were playing as if they were soldiers and the terns were airplanes dive bombing them. It seemed as if the terns were playing along – so that both humans and birds were interacting together in a very positive fashion.
“These kids will remember that their entire life,” she said. “Zoos pour millions of dollars into exhibits that aim to have people and animals interacting. This is real interaction. They’re talking with you and communicating with you…That’s real interaction with wildlife that’s not mediated with a zoo or anything else.”
For those interested, the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) will be running a program entitled “Protecting the Piping Plover” on Winthrop Beach, on Saturday, August 22, from 10 to 11 a.m. at Shore Drive and Dolphin Avenue.