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Chequamegon Bay tern is oldest ever on Great Lakes

Northland terns, which winter in Peru, return to the same sites to nest.

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Fred Strand, retired Wisconsin DNR wildlife manager, holds tern No. 962-67245, which is now 26 years old, the oldest tern ever recorded on the Great Lakes. The bird has been nesting for many years on a small island in Cheaquamegon Bay near Ashland. (Photo courtesy of Fred Strand)
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A common tern captured and released from a small island in Chequamegon Bay near Ashland now holds the record for the oldest ever Great Lakes tern.

The tern was one month shy of 26 years old when it was captured and released June 3 by Fred Strand, retired wildlife manager for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, who is now contracting with the DNR to oversee tern habitat projects in the Northland.

Bird No. 962-67245 is also the second oldest known in North America. The oldest tern on record in North America is 28 years, 11 months, according to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Breeding Bird Lab.

No. 962-67245 was originally banded June 30, 1995, as a days-old chick captured on a small island in Minnesota’s Lake Superior waters. She has since been recaptured six times.

Not only has this bird survived, but she is still adding to the dangerously low population of terns in the region.

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Despite their name, common terns are a critically endangered species in Wisconsin and endangered or threatened in five other states along the Great Lakes, including Minnesota. There are only two common tern colonies in the Lake Superior basin: the one near Ashland and other on Interstate Island in the Duluth/Superior harbor.

“It was both exciting and rewarding to re-encounter this long-lived bird and to see that it was tending a nest with two eggs and one newly hatched young,” Strand said.

“This longevity is a reflection of the stability of the site and the overall successful management of common terns on Lake Superior,” said Sumner Matteson, DNR avian ecologist. “It also shows the importance of running a long-term banding program.”

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  • Work to protect terns on St. Louis River island celebrated The restoration is necessary because the island is shrinking. As it becomes smaller, gulls are outcompeting terns for nesting space.

Habitat loss, predators and chemical contamination have threatened the birds. The Wisconsin and Minnesota departments of natural resources, University of Minnesota Duluth and other other public and private sector partners have worked for 30 years to provide secure nesting habitat on two sites in Lake Superior, including shoring-up Interstate Island and erecting protective barriers to keep thousands of hungry gulls away from a few dozen nesting terns.
GPS tracking research led by Annie Bracey, an avian ecologist at UMD’s Natural Resources Research Institute, revealed that about 70% of Great Lakes' common terns overwinter off the coast in southwestern Peru and travel an average estimated distance of 9,408 miles roundtrip.

“Common terns have such a long-distance migration, and the fact they find their way back to the same postage stamp-sized island year after year after year is remarkable,” Matteson said.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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