Two small birds that nest on Lake McConaughy’s sandy beaches, Platte River sand bars and near sandpits in Nebraska are benefiting from management activities conducted by The Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District. The least tern and piping plover are migratory species that winter along the gulf cost and nest in Nebraska and other Great Plains states. While the piping plover is listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the least tern was federally delisted in February of 2021. However, the least tern still remains state listed as endangered under the Nebraska Nongame and Endangered Species Conservation Act of Nebraska. While these two species nest in close proximity to each other, their feeding needs are very different. The least tern feeds on small fish whereas the piping plover feeds on the various insects that are commonly found along the water’s edge.
Central initiated voluntary additions to its annual operating licenses in 1992 that called for the protection and enhancement of both tern and plover nesting habitat at Lake McConaughy, Central’s diversion dam and, in association with private landowners, three sandpits along the Platte River between Lexington and North Platte.
Central adopted a minimum management strategy that, in effect, calls for identifying the most pressing problem(s) faced by least terns and piping plovers at each location and then attempting to offset those problems by implementing various management actions. Central determined vegetative encroachment and human disturbance were the major problems at all five locations.
Central mows, harrows, and removes vegetation by hand to keep the areas surrounding the nest sites open and clear. These actions ensure that areas along the Platte where both species have consistently nested over the past three decades remain viable habitat. In addition, chemical treatment of the actual nest areas is done each year to maintain them as open sand and gravel.
Central implemented an extensive public education process at Lake McConaughy to address the issue of human disturbance. Informational handouts were developed and are distributed free of charge to the public and large signs are placed at boat docks and entry locations at Lake McConaughy. When reservoir water levels were high and nest habitat limited, Central provided weekly talks and tours at the Martin Bay parking lot where a number of least terns and piping plovers had established nests.
Individual nests along the beach are identified and an area of approximately 250 square meters is fenced off using bright orange twine, reflectors and signs. These enclosures are designed to protect the eggs and adult birds during incubation from both foot travel and off-road vehicles. Central personnel patrol the nest areas talking with campers and monitoring the nests.
These efforts have been very effective in providing protection of the nests on the beaches of Nebraska’s most popular reservoir. Of the 2,696 piping plover nests located and monitored by Central at Lake McConaughy since 1992, only 133 have been lost to either direct human activities or abandoned because of human activity in the vicinity of the nest.
At all sites combined, Central’s management activities have contributed to the successful production of 522 least tern chicks and 3,147 piping plover chicks at these areas since monitoring and management began in 1992. (Successful production is defined as the chicks reaching flight capability, also known as fledging.)
While predation, violent storms and flooding still destroy a number of nests and kill chicks and undoubtedly a number of young birds that fledge from these areas don’t survive their first year, Central’s management activities have greatly reduced the impacts of vegetative encroachment and human disturbance, the two variables identified as having the greatest negative impact on these two species at these locations.
The success of these efforts, plus those of the Nebraska Public Power District and others, shows that with some basic site management and public education, we can greatly improve the chances of restoring these populations and provide a more positive outlook for the future of these two species. This is evident with the recent federal delisting of the interior least tern.