MORRIS ISLAND — Squeezed off of many beaches by rising sea levels on one side and development on the other, least terns often nest on gravel rooftops near the South Carolina coast.
But about 40 pairs of the threatened species showed up this year on the beach at Morris Island.
This uninhabited island adjacent to Charleston Harbor hasn’t been been hospitable in the past: The last time this species was spotted here, in 2018, the nest washed away before the chicks were ready to fly. The couple of pairs that tried to nest here in 2010, the only other time recorded, also failed to raise any chicks.
Conservationists say there are signs this year might be different, as long as the birds survive through the July Fourth holiday weekend. This year’s colony is on high ground, unlikely to be disturbed by rising waters.
On June 30, 34 chicks were visible through binoculars, most of them old enough to have feathers. One tried, with varying levels of success in heavy winds, to learn to fly near the shoreline. An adult with a fish in its mouth flew back toward the colony and the high-pitched squawking of its kin. Once a least tern is born, it takes about 25 to 30 days before a chick is ready to fly south.
One of the biggest remaining threats to them — beyond predators that range from coyotes to ghost crabs and laughing gulls — is people.
The site, which is roped off to keep anyone from disturbing it, is one of three public beaches in South Carolina where least terns are nesting this year. The other two are on Isle of Palms and Little Capers Island, also known as Bull Point.
“For July Fourth, we’re worried about all of them,” said Allyssa Zebrowski, Audubon South Carolina’s coastal stewardship coordinator, who noted that large crowds of boaters often park on Morris Island on weekends.
“These birds are trying to raise families and we should give them as much space as possible ... because their numbers are in decline,” she said.
Disturbing the adults can be deadly for the young: It gives predators a chance to attack. And sand temperatures regularly reach 130 degrees in the summer — heat that can be overwhelming for the eggs or chicks.
They also have a mating dance: Male terns catch a fish, then wiggle it in front of the female to impress her.
The colony was discovered by one of Audubon’s bird steward volunteers over Memorial Day weekend. Conservationists had already spotted a couple of other species nesting on the island. On a recent day, oystercatchers, plovers and pelicans flew or rested nearby.
Sea bird populations have declined 70 percent since 1950. Audubon has more than 100 volunteer stewards who help protect colonies and let people know how to safely share the beach with the birds, many of which are difficult to detect because they blend in with the sand.
“It would be amazing if this colony makes it,” said Cami Duquet, shorebirds steward coordinator for the state Department of Natural Resources. “It only takes one dog or one family to ruin a colony.”
Conservationists have some advice for visitors: Stay close to the water line on walks. Consider leaving the dog at home this weekend. Avoid roped-off areas. Make sure the boat isn’t anchored too close to a nest. And if the birds start dive-bombing toward you, retreat. They’re harmless, but it’s a sign you’ve come too close.