Common and Roseate Terns Begin Pre-Migration Staging on Cape Cod National Seashore Beaches

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Date: August 4, 2009
Contact: Carrie Phillips, Chief of Natural Resources Management, 508-957-0737

The importance of Cape Cod National Seashore's beaches to nesting piping plovers and terns is well known to most Cape residents and visitors.  However, outside of biologists and birdwatchers, the important role outer-Cape beaches play in supporting terns and shorebirds before and during migration is less widely appreciated.  Even while some least terns and piping plovers are incubating eggs and raising chicks on seashore beaches, terns are beginning to gather particularly on the barrier beaches that form Hatches Harbor, Jeremy Point, and Coast Guard/Nauset.  Terns, sometimes referred to as "sea swallows," are smaller than gulls and more graceful flyers, with forked tails and slender wings.  After nesting season, adult and fledgling terns disperse from their breeding grounds and "stage" on beaches and flats in New England before migrating to South America in early fall.  During this staging period, the terns rest and feed in order to build the body mass and fat reserves necessary to fuel their long migration.  Many staging fledglings are still being fed by their parents, and the terns often move from site to site to take advantage of the best feeding and resting conditions available.  This is a critical period for these terns and other staging and migrating shorebirds, and it is essential that these beaches and flats are free from disturbance.  Vehicles, boat landings, kayaks, dogs, and sometimes even pedestrians can flush staging birds, interrupting feeding and forcing them to expend the energy they are trying to store up for migration. 

Research initiated last year by Massachusetts Audubon's Coastal Waterbird Program, Antioch University New England, and the US Geological Survey documented the importance of sSeashore beaches for terns about to embark on their fall migration.  From July through mid-September, researchers counted from 2,000 to 20,000 terns at Hatches Harbor, Race Point, Coast Guard/Nauset, and South Beach/Monomoy beaches.  Most of the terns observed were common terns, listed as threatened by the state, and roseate terns, on both the state and federal endangered species lists.  Based on counts of color-banded roseate terns, researchers estimated that 60% or more of the entire Northwest Atlantic Coast breeding population of roseate terns used seashore beaches and mudflats. 

Superintendent George Price said "We're not sure what kind of numbers of staging terns and shorebirds we'll see this year, particularly since so many nesting areas are having such poor productivity - likely due to the cool wet early summer and the late-season nor'easter.  But seeing this stage of the terns' life-cycle is not to be missed.  We are so fortunate to be able to witness this incredibly important and visually stunning aspect of these birds' migration."  Visitors are encouraged to enjoy terns and other shorebirds from a distance and refrain from walking their dogs near staging shorebirds. 



Last updated: February 26, 2015

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