• Endangered bird revealing big clues about local impact of climate change

    By: Bob Dumas

    Updated:

    Terns are small birds revealing big clues about the health of the New England environment.

    Off the coast of New Hampshire, these seabirds are being studied to see how climate change is impacting the local eco-system.

    "Our main goals out here are management, monitoring, and research,” explained Liz Craig, Ph.D. tern conservation manager for UNH’s Shoals Marine Laboratory.

    Along with several students, Craig goes onto White Island to check on how the terns are nesting.  They measure and weigh chicks to chronicle their development.  

    Craig said many of the birds don’t survive because of a lack of appropriate food.  

    "I can just tell by feeling the body.  The condition of this bird is very shrunken around the chest," said Craig.

    The adult terns don’t like human interference as they nest.  They squawk loudly, dive bomb, and even poop on when people if they get too close.  

    Despite their belligerent nature, the terns provide a plethora of useful data.  

    “Basically, these birds are flying fisheries biologists,” said Jennifer Seavey, PH.D., the laboratory’s executive director. “They’re sampling a size and class of fish that’s actually very hard to sample.”

    That fish is herring, a valuable source of food for many maritime species.  It’s also used as bait in the lobster industry, an important part of the regional economy.  

    “So, we know what’s coming down the pipeline of this really important bait fish that’s used in many commercial fisheries,” explained Seavey.  “We know that the oceans are changing, and we know that the oceans are critical to life on earth, period.  So, we need to understand, and to have, strong metrics for ocean health, and seabirds are really great indicators of that.”

    Seavey says the water is warming rapidly in the Gulf of Maine and the terns are helping researchers understand the consequences of this trend.  

    “We have seen southern species of fish that the birds are bringing back that they didn't historically bring back, and we are very interested to know what is the value of that new food," said Seavey.

    Every day on this island is a lesson on the circle of life, showing the delicate balance of nature.  

    Three species of terns nest off the New Hampshire coast.  All of them are on the state’s endangered species list. One, the roseate tern, is on the federal list as well.

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