Once again, a large colony of Caspian Terns is preparing to nest at Rat Island, the small sandbar between the Fort Flagler beach campground and Indian Island. Over 700 birds were present in early …
Once again, a large colony of Caspian Terns is preparing to nest at Rat Island, the small sandbar between the Fort Flagler beach campground and Indian Island. Over 700 birds were present in early May, cavorting and passing fish to each other.
Among seabirds, terns are the sports car version of a gull. Sleek, agile, with racing caps and bright red bills, they dive headfirst into the sea to catch fish. In the tern family, Caspian Terns are the largest. They can be heard from nearly a mile away by their raucous calls, sounding like a pterodactyl, if we knew what pterodactyls sounded like.
While they range worldwide, they are not immune to human pressures, especially because they only nest in large colonies at a few locations in each region. A controversy ensued in recent decades when thousands nested on sandbars at the mouth of the Columbia River. They fed their chicks with small fish, including salmon smolts. Eventually, various government agencies deterred them from nesting there. The terns, extremely mobile, relocated up and down the coast, though never in quite the same numbers. A large colony set up atop a warehouse in Seattle. During the 2021 heat dome, these chicks notoriously jumped to their deaths in the traffic below to escape the hot rooftop. They have since been deterred by the building’s owners. Other colony sites in Puget Sound have had similar problems.
Enter Rat Island, a small curve of sand topped with dune grass, located not far from Admiralty Inlet and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. With most other colony sites no longer available, it is becoming an important refuge. Observations of banded birds at the Flagler spit suggest that the Caspian Terns there have relocated from former colonies in Bellingham and the Columbia River.
Caspian Terns will forage up to 35 miles from their nesting colony, so finding food is not usually a problem. Finding a safe nesting spot is. First and foremost, they need protection from predators like raccoons and coyotes. Eagles are a menace, but the feisty terns have ways of fending them off. The real problem, at least at Rat Island, has been humans.
During minus tides, campers from Flagler can actually walk to Rat Island, which is owned by the Department of Natural Resources. Boaters and kayakers can access it too. In addition to the nesting terns, there are nesting gulls, Black Oystercatchers, and a Harbor Seal haul-out. All of these are protected from disturbance by law. Unfortunately, most of the disturbance seems to come from naïve people, in awe at nature, flushing the birds off their eggs and chicks, which are hidden in a small valley in the center of the island. While beach walkers film the terns overhead with their phones, gulls rush in, taking eggs and chicks. Last year the colony of 500 birds, in two nesting attempts a month apart, successfully fledged fewer than 20 chicks.
This year they are back to try again. The Friends of Fort Flagler, in concert with Admiralty Audubon, Fort Flagler State Park, Washington Department of Natural Resources, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has created a team of volunteer docents to educate the public and reduce disturbance to this colony, especially during low tides in June and July. Sometime in August, the birds will complete nesting and move on. They will be entirely gone by the fall.
You can enjoy them from the Flagler spit, watching them fly in from all directions, circle over the colony, and disappear into the cacophony of white wings and raucous calls. But, please, go no further. Rat Island is an important sanctuary for birds to nest and harbor seals to rest. There are fewer and fewer such places in the Salish Sea.
(Steve Hampton is Conservation Chair for Admiralty Audubon.)
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