Federally endangered interior least terns (Sternula antillarum) nest on bare or sparsely vegetated sandbars on midcontinent river systems. Loss of nesting habitat has been implicated as a cause of population declines, and managing these habitats is a major initiative in population recovery. One such initiative involves construction of mid-channel sandbars on the Missouri River, where natural sandbar habitat has declined in quantity and quality since the late 1990s. We evaluated nest-site habitat selection by least terns on constructed and natural sandbars by comparing vegetation, substrate, and debris variables at nest sites (n = 798) and random points (n = 1,113) in bare or sparsely vegetated habitats. Our logistic regression models revealed that a broader suite of habitat features was important in nest-site selection on constructed than on natural sandbars. Odds ratios for habitat variables indicated that avoidance of habitat features was the dominant nest-site selection process on both sandbar types, with nesting terns being attracted to nest-site habitat features (gravel and debris) and avoiding vegetation only on constructed sandbars, and avoiding silt and leaf litter on both sandbar types. Despite the seemingly uniform nature of these habitats, our results suggest that a complex suite of habitat features influences nest-site choice by least terns. However, nest-site selection in this social, colonially nesting species may be influenced by other factors, including spatial arrangement of bare sand habitat, proximity to other least terns, and prior habitat occupancy by piping plovers (Charadrius melodus). We found that nest-site selection was sensitive to subtle variation in habitat features, suggesting that rigor in maintaining habitat condition will be necessary in managing sandbars for the benefit of least terns. Further, management strategies that reduce habitat features that are avoided by least terns may be the most beneficial to nesting least terns.
Additional publication details
Selection of nest-site habitat by interior least terns in relation to sandbar construction