Terns, Plovers & the Platte

It’s a story with a twist, much like the braided river where it begins. Along the lower Platte River in Nebraska, small channels of water continually split and join, creating changing sandbars that provide habitat for least terns and piping plovers. This biologically rich region is home to these endangered and threatened birds. But over time, river flows have been altered by upstream dams, diversions, and developments, causing a loss and degradation of their nesting habitat. Conservation biologists, community volunteers and sand and gravel companies have come together to help shape their questionable destiny.

Timelapse from the 2015 breeding season of tern and plover nesting habitat.

While sandbar habitat has decreased along the lower Platte River, the construction of sandpit lakes created by the sand and gravel mining industry has increased, and these sandpit lakes provide suitable off-river nesting habitat for the birds. In 1999 the Tern & Plover Conservation Partnership was formed to protect endangered interior least terns and threatened piping plovers in Nebraska. Originally founded by John Dinan (the late Nongame Bird Program Manager at the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission), Jeanine Lackey (Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and University of Nebraska-Lincoln) and Ron Johnson (University of Nebraska-Lincoln), it is currently led by bird biologist Mary Bomberger Brown. Housed in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln School of Natural Resources, the research program studies the relationship between Nebraska’s rivers and nesting birds. Bomberger Brown and others work tirelessly to protect the birds and their nesting habitat along the lower Platte River in a manner that minimizes potential bird-people conflicts and includes education and public outreach. And it’s working: the tern and plover population has increased since 1999.

Mary Bomberger Brown, Lauren Dinan, and Lindsay Brown setting a protection barrier around a piping plover nest. Photo by Michael Forsberg.

“… By protecting these birds, we’re protecting water, and water is the issue of our time. And, if protecting the species is protecting the habitat where these creatures live, ultimately through a chain…we’re actually protecting ourselves.”
–Mary Bomberger Brown

Watch this video to learn more about the unexpected relationship between heavy industry and terns and plovers.

Western Sand and Gravel. Video produced by Valerie Cuppens and Peter Stegen.

These birds are protected by federal law, and so the sand and gravel industry has worked with biologists to help protect the birds. Keith Carroll, Operations Manager at Western Sand and Gravel near Ashland, says watching and taking care of these birds has added a layer of meaning to his work. And in turn, the sand piles at Western Sand and Gravel have provided a lifeline for terns and plovers.

Dave Brakenhoff, Lauren Dinan and Lindsay Brown carefully take measurments of an interior least tern chick at a Western Sand and Gravel Mine. Photo by Mariah Lundgren.

“The birds have evolved to be flexible and to look for habitats in other places besides the river channel,” Bomberger Brown says

These birds have found an unlikely partner in heavy industry and have made the sand and gravel operations their second home.

“If you’re a least tern or a piping plover looking for a place to nest and you’re not finding a sandbar in the river, but if you just fly over the trees and there’s this waste sand pile, a sand and gravel mine right there, well what a deal! Why not?” Bomberger Brown says.

Western Sand and Gravel Co. operates along the Lower Platte River near Ashland, Nebraska. Photo by Michael Forsberg.

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