Least tern

Sternula antillarum

The next time rain washes away your plans for a weekend, keep in mind it could be far worse. Heavy rains often wash away an area’s colony of least tern nests. Least terns are on the national endangered species list, largely because of decreased habitat and market hunting about 100 years ago.

For centuries, the nine-inch birds have nested on wide-open gravel and sand bars of the Mississippi River system. A few times they have also nested on the sandy shorelines of sand pits in northern Wichita.

Last June, five quick inches of rain in the Wichita area raised the Arkansas River enough to wash away seven nests that contained a collective 20 eggs. Some years, such colonies along the Arkansas, near Wichita, are the most productive for the year in Kansas.

But the rains that are bad news for one year, may be good news for several to come. Years of high water on the Arkansas or Kansas rivers often sweep the sand bars clean of the trees and brush least terns like to avoid while nesting.

Biologists will start their annual search for least tern nests in the area over the next few weeks.