Return of the California Least Terns to Alameda

Rick Lewis--Least Tern adult gives a small fish to its chick at the Least Tern colony at Alameda Point.

Return of the California Least Terns to Alameda

San Juan Capistrano has its swallows, celebrated when they return to nest every year. Alameda has its own iconic bird, the California Least Terns, that every year migrates back to their nesting grounds at Alameda Point on a reserve that was once a runway for the former Naval Air Station.

The California Least Tern has been a federally and state-listed endangered species since 1971. Alameda has the northernmost breeding area and, some years, 300 nesting pairs congregate. Our colony has a high rate for young terns successfully making it to adulthood, with a crew of volunteers (Tern Watch) that monitors the colony under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). (See the end of this article for your one chance this year to visit the nesting colony.)

It’s a special sight in the spring and summer, to see the adult terns hunting along the waterways in Alameda. Their small white and gray bodies with black-capped heads and the classic white “V” on their forehead, bob along on fairy wings, then shallowly plunge into the waters to catch small fish in their beaks. Their high, raspy, repeated cries carry along the waterfront as they call out to each other. Their wriggly catch is flown back to the colony to feed hungry chicks.

The Friends of the Alameda Wildlife Reserve (FAWR), a conservation committee of the Golden Gate Audubon Society, have worked hard to ensure the least terns have a safe, protected refuge to return to on their migration. FAWR has assisted with the Tern Watch over the years, helped with volunteer projects, and instituted a free program for all Alameda third grade classes to introduce them to the California Least Tern. This year and last year, I led the school programs online for the classrooms, presenting a slideshow about the least terns, and helping the kids learn about the amazing life story of this endangered species that migrates to our shoreline. There are still a few dates left for this school year if any third-grade class would like an online or in-person program.

Tours to view the nesting terns are resuming through the Crab Cove Visitor Center and East Bay Regional Park District, after being suspended for the last two years. Prior to the pandemic, tours have been held annually since 1994. There will be three bus trips on June 25th this year that transport registered participants out to see the nesting grounds. This is the one day each year people are allowed to enter the gated area where the terns nest. Space is limited and each seat is $10. To reserve your spot or for more information, visit: