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Great Lakes Article:

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 plant.

"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, said Szczechowski.

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 the project.

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 nest."

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.


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