It was a relatively peaceful Thursday morning for longtime naturalist Bob Gress – overcast skies, a cool breeze, and small birds dive-bombing just above his head.
Wichita’s annual least tern colony is “on the tail end of incubation,” Gress said, and he has been surveying them every day as a volunteer with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.
The least terns are just a few of the migratory birds currently digging in for the season in Wichita.
Birdwatchers also were out Thursday evening surveying the herons that nest around 13th and Curtis streets, in northwest Wichita. Gress and several birdwatching pals were out counting the big white birds that show up annually to that spot.
When counting the least terns earlier in the day, Gress said the key is to locate them while they are still chicks.
“Once they’ve hatched, it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack trying to find them,” Gress said.
The least terns come from Mexico and Texas to Kansas every May and usually stay until July or early August, Gress said. They feed on minnows swimming in the river, which the males present to the females to get the ball rolling during courtship rituals.
The location of the colony is intentionally kept from the public because the interior least tern population is considered endangered. The most information officials are allowed to give is that the birds nest along the Arkansas River in northwest Wichita.
“We don’t want the specific location known – a lot of people would come to see the birds and that’s not good,” said Charlie Cope, a district wildlife biologist with the state. “Some of these people feel like they have a right to intrude on their nests just to get their pictures.”
Wichita’s nesting least terns have the special designation of typically being the most successful colony in the state year after year, Gress said. As of Wednesday, 16 chicks had hatched and 12 were still in their eggs.
The chicks, which are no bigger than a yo-yo, blend in with the sand. They will occasionally nest next to a piece of driftwood, just to “break up their profile,” Gress said.
Coyotes and raccoons occasionally prey on the young because to them, “If it’s little and moving, it’s edible,” Gress said.
The terns also face trouble from heavy rainstorms. When the river begins to flood onto their sandbar, the nests can sometimes be wiped out, Gress said.
Despite the risk of a washout, Gress said, the flooding is what enables the birds to nest. Efforts to dam the river result in sandbars being overtaken with vegetation, Gress said, which destroys the terns’ habitat – wide open sandy beaches.
“Even though flooding will totally destroy the nests some years, it’s the flooding that keeps the sandbars open,” Gress said. “The problem nowadays is you don’t have enough open sand.”
In addition to the birds, the nesting area is populated with numerous signs warning people to stay out or face serious penalties – up to three years in jail and a $100,000 fine, Cope said.
“It probably depends on how egregious the violation is,” Cope said. “It’s obviously a pretty stiff penalty. We post signs in order to give law enforcement a better chance at prosecution.”
Though surveying birds may not have any “economic value,” Gress said, he believes it is worth doing simply because they are worth studying.
“For years and years and years working at the Nature Center, I’ve grown weary of the question, ‘What good is it?’” Gress said. “What good is it? It’s alive; it has value to itself.
“You could ask the same question, ‘What good are we?’”