Sterna antillarum Photo Fiona Sunquist ©
The smallest of North American terns, the least tern has long pointed wings, a deeply forked tail and a black cap. These terns winter in Latin America and return each spring to Florida to nest. They are colonial nesters, preferring to nest on broad sandy beaches or dredge-spoil islands.
Over the last 30 years, due to the loss of suitable beach nesting habitat, least terns have taken to nesting on the flat roofs of buildings.
Least terns began to nest on gravel rooftops in the 1950’s and the species now uses rooftops in many coastal counties and can be seen in some of Florida’s major coastal cities. St Petersburg has the greatest number of rooftop nests -- in 2005, the St Petersburg Audubon chapter located and monitored more than 40 colonies. Local Audubon members have also responded to calls for help from local businesses about chicks falling of roofs, by inventing a rescue device they call a ‘chick-a-boom’. This is a long stick with an orange juice carton on the end, designed to allow people to scoop up tern chicks that have fallen from the roofs of supermarkets and car dealerships and return them to their nest area on the roof.
Today about 80% of least tern nest colonies occur on roofs but unfortunately, smooth, non-gravel roofs are fast replacing gravel roofs. One study estimates the birds will have to find alternate nesting sites within 25 years.
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