Wildlife Notebook: Drought hurts tern population

Common tern

Water, water everywhere … if you’re flying over the ocean. But if you’re a water bird migrating over or a resident of central and southern California, where do you get a drop to drink? Our ponds, lakes and reservoirs are drying up, with a resulting loss of food and habitat for wildlife. Common terns, for example, forage mostly by gliding over water, hovering and plunging to catch small fish along rivers, lakes and oceans and foraging for mollusks and crustaceans along shores. California’s extreme drought has not only caused a dearth of their prey but has forced them and other wild critters to travel greater distances in quest of food and water.
A beautiful tern, with bright orange feet and beak, was extremely weak, emaciated and dehydrated when it was brought recently to the Wildlife Education and Rehabilitation Center in Morgan Hill. The bird was immediately given fluids. We hoped this treatment would help revitalize the bird. Alas, it succumbed soon after its arrival.
Native wildlife populations are normally hardy, but natural consequences of drought create harsh environments and can take a drastic toll on them. But there’s good news for wildlife and our environment on the horizon. Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are predicting a 90 percent chance that the El Nino weather phenomenon will bring desperately needed rain this fall and winter and give a respite from the drought.  
A non-natural trend in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries also had an almost dire effect on tern populations. The millinery market used the beautiful plumage (and sometimes even whole bodies) of millions of birds, including terns, to decorate lavish hats for ladies. Fortunately, avid avian conservationists helped change public perception of such abhorrent practices and these styles went out of fashion before the birds could become extinct. With protection from the international legislation and the United States migratory protection act, tern populations have mostly recovered and the terns are now listed as a “species of least concern,” meaning they have made an amazing comeback.
Colleen Grzan represents the Wildlife Education and Rehabilitation Center, which rehabilitates native wildlife. WERC is supported by donations. For more information, call (408) 779-9372 or go to  www.werc-ca.org.