Record-Breaking Numbers For Nesting Terns Highlight Success Of NY Power Authority Relicensing Project In Buffalo Harbor: NYS Department of Environmental Conservation Plays Important Role

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Connie Cullen
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March 6, 2012


LEWISTON— The New York Power Authority (NYPA) today announced record numbers of common tern nests and chicks were achieved in 2011 in Buffalo Harbor as a result of the Power Authority’s  Common Tern Habitat Improvement Project (HIP), which built on earlier efforts to enhance nesting conditions undertaken by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).  The Common Tern HIP was implemented in collaboration with DEC and made possible through the relicensing of NYPA’s Niagara Power Project.  The results, compiled in the 2011 monitoring report, were the highest numbers ever in the 25 years of recorded common tern nesting activity in Buffalo Harbor.

“While informal observations pointed towards a very successful nesting and breeding season in 2011, it is gratifying to have the validation of the monitoring report—the first systematic documentation for the number of common tern nests and chicks resulting from the Power Authority’s now fully completed project,” said Edward Alkiewicz, director, Relicensing and Implementation, NYPA.

 “For many years to come, the NYPA Common Tern Habitat Improvement Project will provide improved nesting habitat and will encourage population growth for one of New York State’s threatened species,” said Paul McKeown, regional natural resources supervisor, DEC.

The common tern is a New York State-listed threatened species whose numbers have declined primarily due to loss of suitable nesting habitat.  The primary goal of NYPA’s Common Tern HIP is to provide a long-term stable habitat that can be used by terns for many years with little maintenance. 

Common terns nest on three breakwaters in Buffalo Harbor.  These breakwaters are large multi-level structures of concrete and armor stone that are owned by the United States Army Corps of Engineers.  Prior to the implementation of the HIP, the nesting substrate on the three breakwaters was composed largely of broken concrete chips where the breakwaters are weathering.  There was little or no cover on these structures, and tern nests and chicks were exposed to wind, waves and weather.  The sides of these concrete breakwaters are vertical, with no barriers at the edges, and chicks, when disturbed or frightened, might jump or fall off the breakwater and perish because they cannot re-access the structure.

'NYPA worked collaboratively with Army Corps of Engineers regulatory staff and engineers on the project to improve common tern nesting habitat on the Corps' breakwaters in Buffalo Harbor, developing designs that minimized impacts to the breakwaters yet allowed relatively easy access for future inspections and maintenance needs,” says Robert W. Remmers, P.E., chief, operations and technical support section for the Corps’ Buffalo District. 'NYPA completed the breakwater habitat project in April 2009, the same month that the Corps authorized it. NYPA kept the Corps sufficiently informed at all times, including during the construction process, post-construction site visits, and on the success of the nesting improvements.'

The NYPA Common Tern HIP created more than 10,000 square feet of permanently improved tern nesting habitat covering most of the surfaces of the three breakwaters involved in the program.  The construction of these nesting habitat improvements marks the end of the implementation phase of the Common Tern HIP.  Monitoring of tern nesting on these improved nesting areas started with this 2011monitoring report and will continue through 2015, for a total of five years. 

After the five years of nest monitoring, the structures of the HIP will be monitored annually with maintenance and repair under the auspices of DEC.  DEC has performed continual surveys and monitoring of the common terns in Western New York through the Return a Gift to Wildlife program, and with private contractors.  In 1988, DEC began working to improve tern chick survival through installation of a prototype seasonal fence to enclose areas on two breakwaters to help prevent chicks from falling off.  This was followed, in 1989, with the addition of gravel, transported manually using buckets, to a fenced section on one breakwater to improve the nesting surface.    

The enhancements to the nesting habitats on the breakwaters, implemented as part of NYPA’s Common Tern HIP, included installing a pre-fabricated, steel containment frame along the edge of the breakwater and anchoring it to the concrete surface.  The containment frame was filled with pea-sized gravel, which acts as a nesting material, and the sides of the frame were topped with a plastic mesh fence to prevent tern chicks from falling, or jumping, off the breakwater.  Driftwood and plywood shelters were added to the nesting areas to provide protection and shade for the terns.  Informational signs were posted on the breakwaters to inform the public of the nesting terns and to limit human disturbance.

The monitoring report titled, Common Tern Habitat Improvement Project: 2011 Buffalo Harbor Tern Colony Enhancements and Status Assessment, (, was prepared by Riveredge Associates, LLC, Massena.  The report summarizes the number of common tern nests and their productivity on the nesting habitat, improved through the HIP, during 2011.  Monitoring surveys were conducted approximately weekly, as weather and nesting conditions permitted, from late April through late July 2011. 

“The majority of tern chicks fledged from the Buffalo Harbor breakwaters did so from nests on the gravel provided by the Common Tern HIP.  These birds will migrate to Central and South America during the winter and return to the Buffalo Harbor breakwaters in future years to breed themselves,” said Lee Harper, Ph.D., senior scientist and vice president, Riveredge Associates.  “The Common Tern HIP will provide critically needed high-quality nesting habitat for these birds and assist with the recovery of this state-listed threatened species.”

Riveredge Associates and DEC conducted the annual nest count for 2011 on May 19, at the peak of incubation and the start of egg hatching.  The number of tern nests on the Buffalo Harbor breakwaters on the peak survey date was 1,888—a new record high since monitoring began 25 years ago in 1986.  In 2011, the number of nesting pairs of terns on these three breakwaters was found to comprise the largest tern colony in the Great Lakes.

Two of the three breakwaters saw record numbers of nests.  One breakwater had more than twice the number of nests in 2011, compared to those recorded in 2008 before NYPA enhancements of this breakwater were begun.  The number of nests on another breakwater in 2011 was more than six times greater than the number of nests in 2010, again due to the NYPA enhancements.

Tern chicks that hatched from these nests were banded to monitor their survivorship and to gain information on post-fledging dispersal.  In total, more than 2,000 tern chicks successfully fledged from the Buffalo Harbor breakwaters. 

“Preliminary data from other tern researchers in the Great Lakes region suggests that no other Great Lakes tern colony successfully produced more chicks in 2011,” commented Harper.

Terns continued to breed in Buffalo Harbor later in the summer than ever recorded before.  On Aug. 24, there were still eight chicks incapable of flight, which is by far the latest recorded date for tern chicks in Buffalo Harbor in 25 years of monitoring.

The desire to enhance the quality and extent of nesting habitat for common tern in Buffalo Harbor was a goal of the DEC for many years and their assistance, plus a wealth of monitoring records kept since the mid-1980s, proved invaluable in the development of the NYPA Common Tern HIP. 

NYPA's Common Tern HIP is also contributing to common tern conservation efforts beyond New York.  The common tern is a designated threatened or endangered species in all Great Lake states.  NYPA's Common Tern HIP has become a model for tern conservation efforts in other Great Lakes states.  Its continued success will help support tern recovery efforts throughout the region.

About NYPA:

■The New York Power Authority uses no tax money or state credit. It finances its operations through the sale of bonds and revenues earned in large part through sales of electricity. ■NYPA is a leader in promoting energy efficiency, new energy technologies and electric transportation initiatives.■It is the nation's largest state public power organization, with 17 generating facilities in various parts of New York State and more than 1,400 circuit-miles of transmission lines. ■Approximately 80 percent of the electricity it produces is clean renewable hydropower. Its lower-cost power production and electricity purchases support hundreds of thousands of jobs throughout the state.■For more information,

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