July 3, 2001 -- The busy runway of an international airport seems like an odd place for a small coastal bird to find refuge.
But to some least terns, a species of endangered sea bird, San Diego's Lindbergh field has become a favorite nesting place.
"The birds probably nested here for centuries and as the airport built up around them, some of them stayed put," says Robert Patton a biologist at the San Diego Zoo. Two other sub species of the least tern inhabit the other coasts of the United States.
Overrun by People
The zoo's Center for Reproduction of Endangered Species (CRES) has partnered with the U.S. military and the Port of San Diego to protect the least tern's nesting sites.
"It's also a case where it probably attracted birds that used to nest on the beaches. That's why they're an endangered species," Patton says.
The least tern spends the spring and summer along the California coast to breed and raise their chicks before heading south for winter
The problem? It also shares the beach with millions of humans.
The incursion of people and their pets had reduced the bird's population to about 1,000 birds in the early 1970s. But now, thanks to protected nesting sites like the, the least tern now numbers nearly 8,000.
Protected by the Planes?
The small, fish-eating birds prefer to nest in open, flat areas near the water. The airport, just across from San Diego Bay, offers that and more. The airport may actually shelter the least tern as well, researchers say.
"One theory is that all this aircraft noise and activity might keep potential predators away," says Patton.
A barrier around the nests also keeps the young birds safe.
"This fence here is to protect the least tern chicks from getting out onto the dangerous parts of the taxi-ways and runways," says Jeff Opdycke, a CRES conservation specialist. "If you're a least tern chick, it stops you and points you back in the right direction."
The Endangered Species Report is produced in cooperation with the San Diego Zoo.