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 — listed as endangered and threatened, respectively by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — are migratory species that winter along the gulf cost and nest in Nebraska and other Great Plains states. The least tern feeds on small fish while the piping plover feeds on the small insects common 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. 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. The actions ensure that areas along the Platte where both species have consistently nested over the past ten years remain viable habitat. In addition, chemical treatment of the actual nest areas is done each year to maintain them as open sand and gravel.

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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 200 square feet of area is fenced off using bright orange twine, reflectors and signs. These areas 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 666 piping plover nests located and monitored by Central over the past 12 years, only 33 have been lost to either direct human activities or abandoned because of human activity in the vicinity of the nest.

Central’s management activities have contributed to the successful production of 257 least tern chicks and 928 piping plover chicks at these areas over the past 12 years. (Successful production is defined as the chicks reaching flight capability, also known as fledging.)

A measure of the importance of these areas and the chicks produced here can be illustrated when compared to the recovery goals for both species as stated in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s recovery plans, a comprehensive report on the condition of the species at present and the activities believed to be necessary to remove the birds from the threatened and/or endangered species list.

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The recovery goal for least terns is 1,520 in Nebraska, with 750 of the birds located along the Platte River. On average, 40 adult terns/year and 21 fledged chicks/year have utilized areas managed by Central. This represents 8% of the recovery goal population for the Platte River. 

The recovery goal for the piping plovers along the Platte River is 280. From 2000 to 2003, there have been an average of 152 adult birds/year producing 150 fledged chicks/year at Lake McConaughy alone. This represents 108% of the Platte River recovery goal.

While predation, violent storms and flooding still destroy a number of nests and kill chicks and undoubtedly a number of young birds fledged from these areas don’t survive their first year, Central’s management activities over the past 12 years 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