Long Beach bird rescue operation seeks to save elegant terns

It’s been a tough year for the Elegant Terns in Southern California.

A drone crash in June forced around 3,000 elegant seabirds with their pointed orange beaks to abandon their eggs at the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve in Orange County. Experts say it is possible that many birds have set up camp on two commercial barges in the nearby port of Long Beach.

Now masses of young birds are falling into the ocean and drowning.

“They basically landed on the barge a day or two, and it may have been two or three days, after the incident involving the drones when they left Bolsa Chica,” said Tim Daly, spokesperson for the California Department. of Fish and Wildlife. “There really is no way to prove or find out, but we think there is a possibility, because they suddenly appeared.”

Elegant terns sit in an outdoor enclosure after a morning meal.

(Madeleine Hordinski / Los Angeles Times)

The birds built a noisy new house on top of two 180-foot-long boats piled high with boulders. The barges, operated by the construction company Connolly-Pacific Co., were preparing for a trip to the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station to reconfigure them for Navy boats, reserve manager Melissa Loebl said. at the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve.

But now they’re stranded because the federal Migratory Birds Treaty Act prevents the company from moving and disturbing the birds.

Just after July 4, dozens of dead baby terns washed up on the shore of Long Beach. Loebl said she suspected the Independence Day fireworks scared some of the birds. The babies – too young to fly and unable to climb back onto the barges, which were at least 2 feet above the water – drowned.

LEFT: A Peruvian smelt and a syringe containing medicine.  RIGHT: Bird decoy to comfort birds in refuge.

LEFT: A Peruvian smelt and a syringe containing bird medicine rest on a napkin. RIGHT: Decoy birds, such as ducks, are used to comfort birds in refuge.

(Madeleine Hordinski / Los Angeles Times)

Since then, International Bird Rescue, a conservation group, has rescued 325 elegant tern babies and collected more than 100 baby carcasses. Many more likely drowned, said Russ Curtis, the organization’s spokesperson.

“We haven’t really determined the extent of what caused them to trip out of the barge,” Curtis said. “They notice that the adults are probably in the water, flying. … I think they’re just tripping off the barge and there’s a pretty big fall and they can’t get back up.

The tumultuous few months of the terns have worried biologists and bird rescuers.

“Elegant terns are very sensitive to disturbance, as we have seen,” said JD Bergeron, general manager of International Bird Rescue. “It quickly becomes a conservation issue. “

JD Bergeron, CEO of International Bird Rescue, opens the door to an outdoor enclosure that houses elegant terns.

JD Bergeron, CEO of International Bird Rescue, opens the door to an outdoor enclosure where the elegant terns are kept.

(Madeleine Hordinski / Los Angeles Times)

A mosaic of agencies, conservation groups and local volunteers has emerged to carry out emergency rescues of the young.

Every morning for almost two weeks, two boats thread their way to the new floating tern house. Low engines, so as not to frighten the birds, the boats surround the barges in search of capricious baby terns.

The little ones are easy to spot, says Bergeron: Their wings, not yet completely waterproof, quickly sink into the water.

One of the smallest birds he encountered, named “Little Mike”, was very low in the water when the rescue boats approached on Tuesday. The tern slid underwater for about 20 seconds before rescuers retrieved the animal and helped it breathe again.

“This bird was basically resurrected from death and is doing really great,” Bergeron said.

An elegant tern called "Little Mike" is inside an incubator.

An elegant tern called “Little Mike” sits inside an incubator.

(Madeleine Hordinski / Los Angeles Times)

JD Bergeron stands inside the Los Angeles Oiled Bird Care facility on July 16.

JD Bergeron stands inside the Los Angeles Oiled Bird Care facility on July 16.

(Madeleine Hordinski / Los Angeles Times)

With a net, rescuers scoop the terns from the water and into the boat, where they are dried, warmed with hand warmers and brought back to the center. There, staff members hand-feed the birds into pieces of fish – a tedious operation that often takes several hours, Curtis said.

“It’s a bit like having a nursery where you just have to keep feeding,” he said.

Staff members wear masks and face shields when feeding terns, so the birds do not get used to their human caregivers. Once the babies take flight at 35 days, International Bird Rescue plans to release the terns back into the wild.

But what to do with the barges until – and after this generation of baby birds grows up – remains a challenge.

The center processes an additional 100 pounds of fish a day, Curtis said, and needs donations to continue caring for the rescued birds. Boaters are advised to stay away from barges to avoid disturbing the birds.

Toni Arkoosh Pinsky carries a cage of elegant terns outside.

Toni Arkoosh Pinsky, wildlife center volunteer and board chair, carries a cage of elegant terns outside.

(Madeleine Hordinski / Los Angeles Times)

Loebl said people are working on a temporary solution to create a ramp, so any birds that fall from the barge can get on board again. A test raft attached to the barge on Thursday appeared to be working, she said.

“The ultimate goal is a hands-off approach, which means if we can attach ramps or rafts to the barge to allow the birds to recover, that would be great and ideal,” Loebl said.

This is not the first time that terns have sailed to the port of Long Beach to colonize. In 2006, masses of baby tern carcasses washed up on shore after jostling two private barges in the harbor.

The operator of the tugboat, Ralph Botticelli, then told The Times that he and his workers were trying to move the barges when they accidentally scared the birds.

The terns returned the following year, prompting environmentalists to once again come up with a more permanent solution: the eventual creation of an artificial island.

“The reason we want to do this is because these terns keep wanting to nest in the harbor,” Loebl said. “So if they try to find habitat because their habitat is limited … these [are] open spaces for them to breathe.

A view of Long Beach, where elegant terns have congregated on nearby barges.

A view of Long Beach, where elegant terns have congregated on nearby barges.

(Madeleine Hordinski / Los Angeles Times)

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