Most biologists aren't disappointed when they see five of an endangered species flying about, but Bob Gress was hoping for more least terns.
"It's not like last year when we had about 30 flying around and chicks all over the place," said Great Plains Nature Center's director Tuesday morning from a sand bar near the Arkansas River.
He and Charlie Cope, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism biologist, first watched the skies over the sand bar then carefully walked the area looking for nests, eggs and chicks. They didn't find much of either.
The previous two years, least terns nested at a private sand pit in north Wichita. Cope said last year about 31 adults accounted for 15 active nests and 31 fledgling chicks. That's the most since least terns began nesting in the Wichita area in 2000.
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Over the winter the sand bar where they'd nested last summer was legally mined out of existence. This year's colony is a few miles south.
Cope said 16 adult birds are the most seen around the new colony this year, though they could only account for five Tuesday.
It looks like nine nests have been made, of which two are possibly active. They suspect one chick may have been hatched.
"I assume the loss of the other habitat is the reason for fewer birds than last year," Cope said. "That's not a scientific assumption, but maybe they found some better habitat somewhere else."
Least terns nest on open sand bars. This year's area is dotted with small trees and weeds.
Its possible eggs or chicks were taken by predators. Heavy rain or hail can also damage production.
Sometimes the birds leave for unknown reasons.
"We've had more than one year when we've gone out one day and everything is fine," Cope said. "We go back two days later and they're totally gone. This isn't the first time they've left us scratching our heads wondering if they're going to come back next year."