Monday, July 27, 2009

Royal Tern Bird Banding Experience

As an international student from Honduras, interning for Maryland Coastal Bays Program has presented several opportunities to further my knowledge of the area’s abundant wildlife. A few weeks ago under a clear blue sky at 9:15 or so, I boarded one of two boats headed from the West Ocean City Marina to a small Island near the Route 90- bridge in Ocean City with the goal to band juvenile Royal Terns that inhabit the island.
About a dozen people from the Maryland Coastal Bays Program and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as well as several volunteers, traveled to the small island. As the boats approached the island, colored in shades of white and black feathers, hundreds Laughing gulls and Royal Terns, as well as a single Sandwich Tern, took wing above.
Banding is an indispensable technique for studying movement, survival and behavior of birds. It consists of placing a uniquely numbered metal band around the bird’s leg then releasing it. The bander records where and when each bird is banded along with any other information (age, sex) and sends the data to the Bird Banding Laboratory at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Maryland. The Laboratory is jointly administered by the US Department of the Interior and the Canadian Wildlife Service and issues permits that allow people and organizations to band birds and maintains the data collected by the banders.
Royal Terns are gull-like, mostly white birds which often also have some black on the tips of their wings. They have slender orange beaks and short forked tails with black feathers on the back of the head that if I didn’t know better looked a lot like human hair. They can be readily seen during summer flying over water with their bills pointing down as they plunge into the water to catch fish.
They can be found along shorelines in North, Central and South America. Nesting occurs on the ground of low-lying islands in colder area during summer - from the coast of North Carolina to New England in North America and the coast of Argentina in South America. . They spend their winters in the warmer climates from North Carolina and California southward to the Caribbean and Brazil. They prefer saltwater habitats such as coastal areas, beaches, bays and don’t usually travel inland.
It is believed that their population is generally stable. However, since their only known nesting area in Maryland is in the coastal bays, scientists are concerned about their status.
Human interference could affect the breeding birds in the coastal bays. Jet skiers are often seen riding by the island near the young birds. In order to avoid any interference with the Royal Tern’s breeding cycle it is important to minimize disturbances. As amazing as it sounds, chicks may leave the nest one day after hatching, but it is important not to disturb adults sitting on eggs, or young birds before they are able to fly.
Placing the bands on these tiny creatures, I could feel their heart pounding through their thin coat of feathers while they pecked constantly trying to free themselves from my unfamiliar hands. Their parents hovered above closely watching what we were doing, chirping constantly. It was priceless to see the moment when the young ones were released and they made their way back to their nests.

Renee Marie Laffite is a summer intern with the Maryland Coastal Bays Program. She is from the Caribbean Coast of Honduras and will start her junior year at Loyola University in the fall.

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