Friday, June 3, 2016 Tragedy at Arctic Tern colony

Seward, Alaska

On Friday, May 13, while I was away at the Kachemak Shorebird Festival, tragedy struck the Arctic Tern colony at the head of the bay.

Four other birders, however, witnessed the catastrophe as five Alaska Natives methodically harvested every Arctic Tern egg and other wild bird eggs. According to the birders, they walked along the edges of the ponds, waded to the little islands, probed all along the beach ryegrass berm, searched above the high tide line, and hunted through the uplands habitat, gathering eggs.

The terns were frantic, as were the birders, but the “subsistence” eggers did not stop. When all the eggs were gone, the terns gave up and abandoned the colony.

I did not learn about this disaster until May 22nd. After I got back from the festival, I did notice how quiet it was with very few terns flying around. Also there were a number of NORTHERN PINTAILS, NORTHERN SHOVELERS, GREEN-WINGED TEAL, and MALLARDS in pairs. This seemed unusual as normally the momma is incubating or has ducklings in tow. GREATER YELLOWLEGS were scarce, often none seen or heard.

The magnitude of the illegal egging gradually dawned as remnant tern activity dwindled from a few terns parading around with tiny fish, to just a few still fishing in the pond, to just occasional over flights. The persistence of paired ducks revealed which family’s nest was plundered.

On May 24 around 5 pm, I witnessed a very strange sight. A huge flock of about 150 terns flew high above the head of the bay in a wide circle, flashing white and then gray like a flock of sandpipers, flying in synchrony. Not only was this odd in the middle of the nesting season, but the sound! Instead of the usual Top Gun, razzle-dazzle, fearless blast, the terns were mewing, a muted, mournful cry. I felt so sad. It felt like they were saying good-bye and taking one last look around. Unlike the fall farewell, there were no young ones with them, nor would there be.

The Terns cannot start over. After flying 10,000 miles or more from their wintering home on the Antarctic ice pack, they only have so much energy and time for courtship, incubation (3 weeks), and raising their babies (4 weeks to fledge). By taking all the eggs, a whole generation of Terns was senselessly wiped out.

The loss of the protective terns affects the few remaining nesting birds. Without their aggressive vigilance, the remaining birds are at risk. A single eagle flying over generates a response from the 6 remaining MEW GULLS. While they are chasing the eagle, a predator like a Raven or Crow could fly in and take an egg. The whole layered, symbiotic relationships between the birds is gone, and survivors are suffering as much as if their eggs were taken too.

This tremendous loss made me realize the significance of the Arctic Tern colony. It is the only one in Resurrection Bay; as far as I know, there are no Arctic Tern colonies to the south. The next tern colony at Tern Lake, mile 38 Seward Highway, has only 6 pairs. The colony at Potter Marsh south of Anchorage is much diminished.

It would be interesting and important to compile data on the Arctic Tern populations on the Kenai Peninsula and southcentral. If anyone has data, please share it with me at

This colony is also threatened by proposed expansion of the Alaska Railroad including a possible jetty at the edge of their colony, creation of a barge basin by dredging the immediately adjacent wetlands, a possible extension of Port Avenue to connect with Airport Road, among other significant habitat impacts. Visit the Railport Seward expansion plan at <>

The Seward Airport is also considering widening and extending the NS runway 13-31 farther south, pointing directly at the tern colony, and placing them in the path of descending and ascending airplanes. The impact of these changes on a regionally significant Arctic Tern colony will be drastic.

I filed a report with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and an investigation is underway. Seward is a closed area for subsistence harvest. It is illegal for anyone, including Alaska Natives, to harvest wild bird eggs on the road system in the Kenai Peninsula.

The 2016 Alaska Subsistence Spring/Summer Migratory Bird Harvest Regulation is available on line at

Very sad birder,
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

1 comment:

  1. So very sad! Thank you for writing about it and for your continuous dedication.