A tern of the tides
By Joel Thurtell
Detroit Free Press
Published November 12, 2006
Four decades ago, these birds were as common as their
name, with thousands of pairs nesting along the Detroit
River shoreline and raising young common terns. Now, there
are fewer than 300 pairs of common terns raising families
in the Detroit area.
Their habitat -- sandy, open places on or near water
-- has largely been converted to steel or concrete sea
walls or concrete debris.
The loss of common terns in southeastern Michigan is
a problem most kids don't think about, let alone get a
chance to fix.
But Jessica Turner, 16, couldn't pass up an opportunity
to do something good for the environment. She took up
a teacher's offer to help restore a small area of common
tern habitat on the Detroit River shoreline.
Jessica is a junior at Southgate Anderson High School
and one of 26 Anderson students who hefted rakes or shovels
or pushed wheelbarrows on Nov. 3 as the group created
new tern nesting grounds atop a pair of old circular freighter
docks at DTE Energy's River Rouge coal-fired, electricity-generating
"It means a lot," said Jessica. "I never
really did anything like this. It's good to know I'm helping
out the environment in a positive way."
Overseeing the crew of high school students was their
science teacher, Bruce Szczechowski, 43, who founded the
Downriver Stream Team with fellow teacher John Nasarzewski.
The Stream Team is a low or no-budget corollary to older,
bigger organizations like Friends of the Rouge and Friends
of the Detroit River.
Like Friends of the Rouge, Stream Team volunteers inventory
frogs and toads to assess the ability of streams to support
wildlife, and they collect water samples from creeks for
testing. And they do stream restoration like the DTE program.
The tern project took place at the DTE plant just a few
yards south of the Short Cut Canal, one of two mouths
of the Rouge River where it flows around Zug Island, home
of a United States Steel iron-making plant.
Opposite the blast furnaces and in the shadow of DTE's
tall stacks, the students pushed wheelbarrows loaded with
sand and gravel over catwalks connecting the two round
offshore docks to the shore and to each other. The students
spread an 8-inch layer of sand atop the docks in hopes
of attracting terns.
DTE already has restored 200 feet of its plant shoreline
to a natural state to draw birds and fish, said DTE spokeswoman
Eileen Dixon. The company's River Rouge Power Plant is
50 years old and the company's sixth-largest fossil-fueled
plant. It generates 527 megawatts of electricity.
Terns are "gull-like sea-birds, more slender in
build, narrower of wing, and more graceful in flight than
Gulls," according to Roger Tory Peterson's "A
Field Guide to the Birds."
There are many subspecies of terns. The common tern,
Sterna hirundo hirundo, ranges from the Gulf of St. Lawrence
to northern Manitoba and the Great Lakes down to the Gulf
of Mexico. It winters in Florida.
In times past, thousands of terns migrating north from
Florida would stop along the banks of the Detroit River
to make nests and hatch and raise young birds, said Szczechowski.
But now, when terns fly over the Detroit River, they
don't see the kind of terrain they like for nests. Instead
of sand or gravel on the banks, the hard metal or concrete
sides of the river offer no place for their nests.
Also, grassy cover is not good for terns. Only 1%-2%
of the former natural coastline remains, most of it in
the relatively new International Wildlife Refuge around
Humbug Marsh at Trenton and several islands in the river,
Even when terns find decent nesting ground, they suffer
from predation and competition for nesting space. Their
natural enemy is the great horned owl, but they often
are shoved out of nests by ring-billed gulls. Another
natural enemy is a species of night heron. To shield terns
from these predators, the Stream Team plans to install
fencing and other barriers to keep troublemakers out of
the nesting area, said Szczechowski.
DTE environmental planner Roberta Urbani helped plan
the River Rouge project. She said Edison partnered with
the Downriver Stream Team as part of an ongoing quest
to make the firm's facilities friendlier to wildlife.
It's not the first time Edison and Szczechowski have
tried to bring terns back to the river.
When Szczechowski spread gravel atop the icebreaker prows
of Wayne County's free bridge at the southern end of Grosse
Ile in 2003, Edison contributed $1,000 in materials and
the use of the dock at its Trenton generating plant, said
Szczechowski, who pitched $3,000 of his own money into
Mary Bohling worked for DTE then and helped with the
free bridge project. Because there was no decent habitat
for them, said Bohling, "the terns would just pass
over when they migrated, because there was no place to
Bohling, who now works for Michigan State University
and the Sea Grant Program, said the nesting project at
the free bridge worked and bodes well for the work that
students were doing at the River Rouge plant.
At the free bridge, Bohling said, "Terns did stop,
and they had almost 300 eggs hatch" last season.