Roseate Terns & Piping Plover

Rare and Threatened Bird Species

Roseate Tern Recovery In Buzzards Bay

One half of North America’s breeding pairs of the Roseate terns (Sterna dougallii) can be found on two tiny islands in Buzzards Bay. The EPA classifies the species as endangered. Over the past two decades, considerable effort has been put into the study and management of this population to prevent the local extinction of this tern. Most recent efforts include habitat management and gull control on the islands beginning in the early 1990s.Picture of a roseate tern.

These protection efforts have paid off, with the return of Roseate terns to Ram Island in the mid 1990s for the first time in twenty years. Many of the birds on Ram Island appear to have initially relocated from Bird Island, but with total habitat area increased, the total breeding pair population has been steadily increasing during the past several years, and this trend is expected to continue. Ram Island has now overtaken Bird Island in the number of breeding pairs. Penikese Island, at the southern end of the Elizabeth Island chain is the focus of new efforts to expand Roseate Tern habitat.

Buzzards Bay Colonial Bird Nesting and Feeding Areas

Colonial bird feeding areas in Buzzards Bay Summary map created from a 1991 USF&WS report titled Northeast Coastal Areas Study Significant Coastal Habitats, in the section titled Buzzards Bay Colonial Bird Nesting and Feeding Area. The report notes, “There are two distinct, separate and yet closely related areas comprising this complex: 1) an area on the western and upper portions of Buzzards Bay enclosing two small offshore islands (Ram Island and Bird Island) and a large group feeding area; and 2) a nearshore area of open waters along the lower, eastern shoreline of Buzzards Bay important as a general feeding area for individual birds.” Maps of these two areas are available online (see original map 1, map 2) that provide details to the thumbnail above.

Massachusetts section of report as a pdf (4.7 MB pdf)

During the 1990s, Bird Island has faced severe erosion problems, threatening the tern habitat. To save the island from destruction, and to further manage and protect the tern population, the New Bedford Superfund trustees (managing NRDA funds for that project) have awarded more than a million dollars to protect and preserve Bird Island and implement programs to help Roseate terns expand their population in Buzzards Bay. Plans have already been drafted for the restoration and beach nourishment at Bird Island. However with delays in permitting and funding, the work is not scheduled until the fall of 2007. These efforts will come none too soon, because the Bird Island habitat is increasingly degraded. The deterioration of Bird Island may explain why more birds are moving to Ram Island in the last 4 years, which is also a fairly crowded site. Gull reduction efforts will continue to help protect the existing colonies.

Another recent problem facing the tern recovery effort was the April 2003 Buzzards Bay oil spill, which severely affected Ram Island. To prevent birds from landing on the oiled Island, “hazing” operations using cannons and lights were put into effect to discourage the arrival and nesting of birds on the Island until the oil was cleaned up. Some breeding pairs delayed nesting that year because of the hazing and cleanup activities; more than 250 pairs nested on Penikese Island near the southern tip of the Elizabeth Island chain.

It was hoped that the movement of birds to Penikese Island in 2003 because of the oil spill and hazing operations would help trigger the establishment of a new Roseate Tern colony in Buzzards Bay on Penikese, but only 9 birds returned to the site in 2004. No report has yet been issued for 2005.

Newspaper articles at the time of the oil spill reported that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a report estimating that at least 350 roseate tern chicks were lost because of delayed nesting when the parent birds had to be chased away from the island. This represents roughly 10% of annual production. That year, some Roseates were observed contaminated with oil and three Roseate Terns were found dead, also contaminated with oil.

The impacts to Roseate terns and other species and habitat will be addressed through the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process. Separate from the NRDA, in November 2004, a $10 million dollar criminal settlement was finalized relating to the impacts to these and other birds in Buzzards Bay.

For more information about the efforts to protect the Piping Plover and Roseate Terns in Massachusetts, or the Buzzards Bay Tern Restoration Project, contact state zoologist Carolyn Mostello at 508/792-7270 x312, or by email at Also visit the Mass Fish and Wildlife Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Buzzards Bay Tern Restoration Project page.

Graph of roseate tern breeding pairs in Buzzards Bay since 1970.

Buzzards Bay Roseate Tern breeding pairs. Data provided courtesy of Brad Blodget and Carolyn Mostello, former and current State Ornithologists, Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. A few pairs sometimes nest on Nashawena Island, but the bars are too small to be seen in the graph.

For more information and the latest Buzzards Bay data, go to the Mass Fish and Wildlife Natural Heritage and Endangered Species thumbnail of MA Div. Fish Wildlife dataBuzzards Bay Tern Restoration Project page.

Mass Env. Trust
Did you know the Massachusetts “Right Whale” environmental license plate has the outline of two Roseate Terns?

Roseate Tern Links

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program (NHESP) Roseate Tern fact sheet has information about the bird in Massachusetts.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) Roseate Tern species profile contains detailed information on the federal status of the bird.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) identification tips for the Roseate Tern and includes other information.

The USGS Roseate Tern fact sheet discusses United States populations.

Click here for Roseate Tern pictures and sounds.

Scientific Paper: Ecotoxicology paper related to PCBs (pdf file).

US Fish and Wildlife Service Coastal Habitats report for Buzzards Bay.

Technical Report for Nantucket Sound Windfarm: Evaluation of potential impacts on Roseate Tern and Piping Plover.

Piping Plover

Piping Plover, Charadrius melodus, is a threatened species under both federal and Massachusetts endangered species acts, and is also the focus of protection and recovery efforts in Buzzards Bay. The bird is small, sand-colored, and nests on coastal beaches from South Carolina north to Newfoundland. While foraging on beaches, the bird runs, then stops and stands still. This behavior, together with it camouflage coloration, make it very hard to see. Piping Plovers feed on marine worms, crustaceans, and insects in the intertidal.

Piping Plover were also affected by the 2003 oil spill, particularly in the Barneys Joy area of Dartmouth. Below are two photographs taken of plover there on May 3, 2003. Some plover were observed oiled, and these impacts are still under evaluation by state and federal agencies.

For more information about the efforts to protect the Piping Plover in Massachusetts, contact state zoologist Carolyn Mostello at 508/792-7270 x312, or by email at

piping plover photo

piping plover at Barneys Joy

Piping plover (photo by Mass Wildlife staff).

Piping Plover Links

Click to read the Massachusetts Fish and Wildlife Massachusetts 2001 Piping Plover status report.

This Massachusetts Natural Heritage Program Species Conservation page has a good graph of Piping Plover recovery in Massachusetts.

USFWS Piping Plover Atlantic Coast Population website has links to recreational management guidelines, information on how to report sightings, and references.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts NHESP Piping Plover fact sheet has key information about piping plovers in Massachusetts

The USFWS Piping Plover species profile contains detailed information on its federal status.

Click to see and hear Piping Plover pictures and sounds.

For information about habitat in the United States, visit the USFWS Piping Plover species spotlight page.

The USFWS revised species recovery plan offers detailed information on the piping plover population on the Atlantic Coast.

National Audubon’s “A Year in the Life of a Piping Plover. also contains useful information.

Are you a Piping Plover expert? Test your knowledge by taking this Piping Plover quiz.