A daily monitoring survey completed at Harkness Memorial State Park revealed a devastating scene: a federally protected bird’s nest, the Least Tern, had been trampled by an off-leash dog or dogs, its eggs crushed. The dog’s footprints were identified within the boundaries of a posted and fenced-off area, on a beach that does not allow dogs at all during the nesting season. The crushed eggs were consistent with the behavior of a domesticated dog rather than a predator.
The remnants of the nest were discovered by field staff with the Audubon Alliance for Coastal Waterbirds, which - in partnership with the CT DEEP Wildlife Division - helps protects birds during their nesting season. Least Terns nest directly in the sand on our public and private beaches, laying eggs that blend in with the sand and seashells. They group their nests closely for protection, and the colony at Harkness is one of only four currently in the state. Just one crushed nest has an unfortunate impact on Connecticut’s total population.
“Every single nest matters for this threatened bird. Compared to ten years ago, the number of breeding pairs of Least Terns nesting in the state has decreased by almost half,” said Elizabeth Amendola, Coastal Program Coordinator for Audubon Connecticut. “This was a particularly unfortunate incident because every precaution was in place to prevent it from happening. The nesting site was properly identified so people would not walk through it, and it was located on a state beach where dogs are not allowed.”
According to DEEP, the shoreline parks of Harkness, Rocky Neck, and Silver Sands prohibit dogs on the beach year-round. Leashed dogs are allowed on the beach at Hammonasset Beach State Park ONLY from September 30 through April 1, but they are not allowed at Sherwood Island State Park, anywhere in the park, from April 15-September 30. And, according to the Office of Legislative Research, pets are also restricted at other municipal parks.
Shorebirds like the Least Tern and Piping Plover see dogs as predators, like a fox or coyote, and perceive an immense threat. The birds will try to lead dogs away from their nests and hatchlings, leaving their tiny chicks exposed to real predators and high summer temperatures, which can also unfortunately lead to death.
For the public, it is important to take note of nesting areas and give birds at least 50 feet of space to rest and raise their young. These areas are clearly marked by signs, string fencing, and sometimes “predator exclosures,” smaller wire fences around nests which allow adults and hatchlings to move freely in and out while preventing larger animals from getting in.
Some excellent tips for beachgoers to help protect these birds and “share the shore” include:
Dogs are prohibited from state and public beaches during bird nesting season, typically April – October.
At dog-friendly shoreline parks, we recommend dogs remain leashed to help protect birds which may be nesting or foraging there.
Avoid protected, fenced areas completely during high tide, as the birds have very few places to nest, feed and rest during this time.
“Leave no trace” of trash by taking it with you when you leave the beach, so as not to attract predators like gulls, fish crows, or raccoons.
Keep drones away from beaches. Drones can cause nest abandonment as well as serious injury to birds that may dive bomb it, perceiving it as a predator.
Connecticut’s Least Terns are listed as state-threatened, and the species is protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
To report harassment, injury or killing of protected birds or other wildlife, contact: CT DEEP EnCon Police, 860-424-3333
To report a possible new nest or damage to fencing or signs, email: The Audubon Alliance at firstname.lastname@example.org