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MPR Video: On this island off Duluth, a race to save a threatened bird

Jun 15, 2019 09:16AM ● By Editor
The Minnesota DNR and other agencies have worked for 30 years to protect the threatened common tern. There are fewer than 900 nesting pairs in the state. Dan Kraker | MPR News

By Dan Kraker of Minnesota Public Radio - June 15, 2019

There's a little island in the St. Louis River Estuary between Minnesota and Wisconsin that's almost completely covered with thousands of white ring-billed gulls. 

For decades, in the middle of this teeming, screaming mass of birds, scientists and wildlife managers have worked to preserve another bird — the common tern — one that's threatened in Minnesota, and endangered in neighboring Wisconsin. 

Shoreline development around the estuary has destroyed nearly all suitable nesting habitat for the tern. But this tiny island, created in the 1930s with sediment dredged from shipping channels, has created a man-made solution to a human-caused problem. 

Every four or five days in the early summer, Fred Strand steers a little motorboat across the St. Louis River Estuary to Interstate Island. Over the past 30 years, he said, he figures he's taken about 500 trips to this little pile of sand and gravel that sits squarely between Duluth and Superior, Wis. 

Fred Strand studies common tern nests on Interstate Island
Fred Strand studies common tern nests on Interstate Island, looking for birds to capture and outfit with radio transmitters.  Photo:Dan Kraker | MPR News

The island itself is only about 5 acres — about the size of four football fields. And almost every foot of it is covered with ring-billed gulls. There are about 7,000 breeding pairs there this year, plus a few fuzzy gull chicks that have already hatched. 

The birds are about the size of pigeons, with white backs, gray wings and a black ring around the tips of their bills. This time of year — just as hatching season begins — their small, spotted eggs cluster in the shallow cups of nests in the sand.

When Strand, who used to work for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and now volunteers for its Minnesota counterpart, and Annie Bracey, a graduate researcher with the Natural Resources Research Institute at the University of Minnesota Duluth, visit the island, they wear hard hats to protect their heads from swooping gulls and towels on the backs of their necks. Poop protection. 

But in the middle of this squawking, flapping mayhem, there's an oasis of relative calm. At the center of Interstate Island, Strand has built a series of narrow runways separated by string to provide a safe place for its common terns to nest. 

A few gulls make it through, but the terns are smaller and can more easily navigate the string. About 160 pairs of them are nesting on the island this year. 

Without the protection of his string runways, Strand says the terns wouldn't stand a chance, because gulls eat their eggs and even their chicks. 

Minnesota DNR volunteer Fred Strand gently holds a common tern
Minnesota DNR volunteer Fred Strand gently holds a common tern on Interstate Island in the St. Louis River Estuary. Strand helps maintain a protected nesting area for terns on the island to protect them from thousands of ring-billed gulls. Photo:  Dan Kraker | MPR News

"They're a nest site competitor," he said. "They return earlier in the spring than the common terns do, and begin nesting earlier. They'll use the same habitat."

Thirty years ago, the Minnesota DNR cleared Interstate Island's vegetation to expose the sandy habitat terns need to nest. And it worked. But it also created a perfect nest site for gulls. As many as 13,000 pairs have nested in recent years. 

The rivalry between the terns and the gulls has recently intensified because high water levels have submerged part of the island. Now, they're competing for even less space.

That's a big problem for terns, because Interstate Island is home to one of only two tern colonies in all of Lake Superior. The other is in Ashland, Wis., also on a man-made island, which provides protection from predators like mink and weasels.

To read more of the original article or to hear an audio report, follow this link to the MPR News website.

Watch a MPR video report from Interstate Island

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