Cover of Forster's tern report
Cover of Forster's tern report



Forster’s terns (Sterna forsteri), historically one of the most numerous colonial-breeding waterbirds in South San Francisco Bay, California, have experienced recent decreases in the number of nesting colonies and overall breeding population size. The South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project aims to restore 50–90 percent of former salt evaporation ponds to tidal marsh habitat in South San Francisco Bay. During phase 1 of the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project, the breaching of several pond levees to begin the process of tidal marsh restoration inundated island nesting habitat that had been used by Forster’s terns, American avocets (Recurvirostra americana), and other waterbirds. Additional nesting habitat could be lost as more managed ponds are converted to tidal marsh in the future. To address this issue, the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project organized the construction of new nesting islands in managed ponds that will not be restored to tidal marsh, thereby providing enduring island nesting habitat for waterbirds. In 2012, 16 new islands were constructed in Pond A16 in the Alviso complex of the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, which increased the number of islands in this pond from 4 to 20. However, despite a long history of nesting on the four islands in Pond A16 before the 2012 construction activities, no Forster’s terns have nested in Pond A16 during the 7-year period (2012–18) after island construction.

During the 2017 and 2019 breeding seasons, we used social attraction measures (decoys and colony call playback systems) to attract Forster’s terns to islands within Pond A16 to re-establish nesting colonies. We maintained these systems from March through August in each year. To evaluate the effect of these social attraction measures, we completed surveys (between April and August) where we recorded the number and location of all Forster’s terns and other waterbirds using Pond A16, and we monitored waterbird nests. We compared bird survey and nest monitoring data collected in 2017 and 2019 to data collected in 2015 and 2016, prior to the implementation of social attraction measures, allowing for direct evaluation of the effect of social attraction efforts on Forster’s terns.

To increase the visibility and stakeholder involvement of this project, we engaged in multiple outreach activities in 2017, 2019, and 2020, including the development of a project website and educational video; publication of popular articles in 2017 and 2020; the development of outreach materials describing the project to the general public; and public presentations to relay findings to managers, stakeholders, and the general public.

The relative abundance of Forster’s terns in Pond A16, after adjusting for the overall South San Francisco Bay breeding population each year, was higher during the nesting period in 2017 and 2019 (when social attraction was used) than in 2015 and 2016 (before social attraction was used). Furthermore, more Forster’s terns were observed during the pre-nesting and nesting periods in the areas of Pond A16 where decoys and call systems were deployed. Although no Forster’s tern nests were observed in Pond A16 before social attraction was implemented (2015, 2016), or during the first-year social attraction was implemented (2017), 35 Forster’s tern nests were recorded during the second year of social attraction implementation in 2019. These 35 nests represent a re-establishment of a Forster’s tern nesting colony to Pond A16 for the first time in 8 years. As social attraction efforts often benefit from multiple years of decoy and call system deployment, results from 2017 and 2019 suggest that continued implementation of social attraction measures could help to ensure Forster’s tern breeding colonies persist in Pond A16 and other areas of South San Francisco Bay.

Suggested Citation

Hartman, C.A., Ackerman, J.T., Herzog, M.P., Wang, Y., and Strong, C., 2020, Establishing Forster’s Tern (Sterna forsteri) nesting sites at pond A16 using social attraction for the South Bay Salt Pond restoration project: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2020–1081, 28 p.,

ISSN: 2331-1258 (online)

Pond Complex
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