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Terns use ash ponds to nest

Terns use ash ponds to nest

Posted: Monday, July 5, 2010 9:05 pm

MEMPHIS (AP) — An endangered bird species has taken an odd turn, or in this case an odd tern, in finding a place to nest.
Dozens of Interior Least Terns have taken to using the ash ponds at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Allen Fossil Plant in southwest Memphis to lay eggs while dining on minnows, rearing their young and flying freely.
TVA environmental program administrator David Thorpe told The Memphis Commercial-Appeal that the Allen plant’s ash pond complex, about a mile east of the Mississippi and just off McKellar Lake, seems to be providing the birds with most of their requirements.
The terns, which are on the federal endangered list because their natural habitat along many rivers has been degraded by dams and other alterations, need wide-open surfaces for nests and nearby water for food.
“They’ll fly right over us. They’re checking us out,” Thorpe said.
Least terns in this area usually set up their nests on Mississippi River sand bars that get exposed as the water drops in the summer. But this year, unusually high water levels have covered up sandbars, forcing the terns to look elsewhere.
The pond complex, where fly ash from coal-burning generating units settles after being discharged in a slurry mixture, has unvegetated areas for nests and a pond flush with minnows.
“They’re really taking a liking to our ash pond,” said Doug Keeling, manager of the Allen plant.
TVA has faced criticism for how it handles ash ponds. The complaints peaked after a massive ash spill in December 2008 at its Kingston plant caused extensive environmental damage.
Local bird watchers first noticed the terns at the Allen ponds more than a month ago. Keeling said the agency has been trying to ensure plant operations don’t harm the nests.
And, that has proven to be a bit of a task. TVA was just about to return to service a generating unit that had undergone maintenance when the nests were discovered. Bringing a unit online usually means dumping more water into the ponds, but TVA has used logs and diesel pumps to keep the water low and out of the nesting areas.
“The challenge for us was how do we return the unit to service without covering the eggs,” Keeling said.
The main problem the agency has experienced involves predators. Coyotes have been able to scavenge nests because, unlike the river sandbars preferred by the terns, the ash pond site isn’t surrounded by water.
TVA plans to work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s wildlife services officials to find ways to reduce the pressure from predators.
But some of the eggs already have hatched, including three on June 27. It takes three weeks before the chicks are able to fly.
Mary Jennings, Tennessee field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said it’s too early to tell whether the ash ponds will prove a successful nesting area for the terns. But she praised TVA’s efforts.
“I couldn’t ask for more from the plant,” Jennings said.
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Information from: The Commercial Appeal, http://www.commercialappeal.com
Published in The Messenger 7.5.10

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