Interior Least Tern Sandbar Nesting Habitat Measurements from Landsat Thematic Mapper Imagery

Data Series 1098
Prepared in cooperation with the American Bird Conservancy
By: , and 



Sandbars of large sand-bedded rivers of the central United States serve important ecological functions to many species, including the endangered Interior Least Tern (Sternula antillarum, ILT). The ILT is a colonial bird that feeds on fish and nests primarily on riverine sandbars during its annual breeding season of around May through July, depending on region. During this time, ILTs require bare sand of sufficient elevation so as not to be inundated between nest initiation and fledging of hatchlings. Partly because of decreases in available sandbar habitat from river channelization and impoundment, ILTs were listed as endangered in 1985.

Sandbars used by ILTs in central United States rivers are highly dynamic and undergo substantive changes across a wide range of temporal and spatial scales. River hydrology is the primary driver of sandbar morphodynamics in these systems. Better characterization of sandbar area with time, accounting for varying flow regimes, allows for a better understanding of landscape-scale ecology for sandbar-dependent species such as the ILT. This work uses remote-sensing techniques to quantify sandbar area that may be used by ILTs at the land-scape scale and how it has changed with time. The assessment of landscape-scale trends in sandbar area with time requires datasets with high temporal resolution and long record periods covering large geographic areas. Evaluation of remotely sensed datasets requires consideration of river stage fluctuations. To make this assessment, we developed land-cover classification datasets within active channel masks using all available images from the Landsat Thematic Mapper series of satellites meeting cloud-free (40 percent or less) and ice-free criteria. Landsat imagery was selected because of its long record period, spatial coverage, and regular reimaging cycle, making it well suited to monitor ILT sandbar habitat with time. We also attributed each scene with discharge or stage using a new database integrating U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers river data with Landsat metadata. This report documents development of these riverine classification datasets with a focus on applicability to the ILT. This framework may be used to continue monitoring the ILT sandbar nesting habitat or to evaluate other aquatic and terrestrial species whose life cycles are related to sandbars and channel complexity.

Suggested Citation

Bulliner, E.A., Elliott, C.M., Jacobson, R.B., and Lott, C., 2018, Interior Least Tern sandbar nesting habitat measurements from Landsat Thematic Mapper imagery: U.S. Geological Survey Data Series 1098, 32 p., https://doi. org/10.3133/ds1098.

ISSN: 2327-638X (online)

Table of Contents

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Purpose and Scope
  • Approach and Methods
  • Product Descriptions
  • Summary
  • References Cited
Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Interior Least Tern sandbar nesting habitat measurements from Landsat Thematic Mapper imagery
Series title Data Series
Series number 1098
DOI 10.3133/ds1098
Year Published 2018
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Columbia Environmental Research Center
Description Report: v, 32 p.; Tables 9–12; Data Release
Online Only (Y/N) Y
Additional Online Files (Y/N) Y
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details