A wide variety of gulls, terns, geese, ducks and other water birds migrate along the Mississippi and its tributaries but few nest along the rivers themselves. One exception is the least tern, the smallest tern in North America.
Common along southern coasts during the summer months, least terns also breed along major rivers of the Heartland, especially the Missouri, Platte, Arkansas and Red Rivers as well as the lower Mississippi. Nesting on sandbars to escape fox, coyotes and other terrestrial predators, they have been threatened by the construction of dams which create lakes, divert water and alter river flow, all disrupting the braided channels and intervening sandbars that originally attracted these birds. Indeed, the riverine population of least terns is endangered and their welfare is not likely to improve without a significant change in our approach to river management.
This morning, we were fortunate to observe a least tern at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area on the Missouri River floodplain. Identified by his small size, buoyant flight and habit of hovering before making rapid dives, the tern was fishing above one of the deeper pools. In other areas, large flocks of great blue herons, great egrets and shorebirds stalked the shallows where the carcasses of stranded carp awaited the vultures.