OLD ORCHARD BEACH – Most people don’t go out to Stratton Island for the birds. Mostly they want to see the seals, said Scott Hall with the National Audubon Society.

However, the waterbirds on the island make up the unusual experience that is this 24-acre island off the coast of Old Orchard Beach.

Stratton Island has long been an unusual place in Maine, but growing populations of endangered or threatened terns, along with a growing open-door policy toward visitors, make it unique.

The small island owned by Audubon has a huge diversity of birds, including the endangered roseate tern, the least tern, common tern and the Arctic tern.

With its rich habitat and freshwater ponds, Stratton Island also has the largest wading bird colony in the state, with glossy ibis, great egret, snowy egret, little blue heron and black heron.

And of the 14 nesting seabird islands in the Gulf of Maine that are managed by resident biologists, Stratton Island is the only one open to the public, Hall said.

Machias Seal Island, which has a puffin colony, can be visited, but only through a tour company. And at other islands boaters are not permitted to land during seabird nesting season because of the disturbance to the birds and the danger of disrupting the nests.

But at Stratton Island biologists welcome boaters to the public beach, which is well past the nesting beaches but luckily right in view of the area owned by harbor seals.

For decades the island has drawn boaters, paddlers and summer visitors largely because of the seals, Hall said.

“There is a long history of humans here,” Hall said.

The island was a gift to the national group by the Prouts Neck Audubon Society, which purchased it in 1958.

Stratton Island’s history of inhabitants dates to the 17th century. Done right, Hall said there is still a lot of room for human enjoyment among the terns.

Since at least 1900, terns have nested on the island, with as many as 2,000 nesting pairs of roseate terns in the 1930s. However, because of the growth of the gull population and unregulated human use, tern numbers plummeted during the 1970s and early 1980s, Hall said.

The numbers of terns there did not stabilize until efforts by National Audubon’s Seabird Restoration Program began in 1986.

Through decoys and recordings of terns, the birds were brought back. Now there are nearly 1,200 nesting pairs of terns — and Hall said Audubon wants to grow the numbers.

Through a grant from the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund and federal restoration money via the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, a tern biologist will be stationed on the island each of the next three summers.

TEACHING IS FUN

Wayne MacCabe, who has done extensive work with loons in Maine and New Hampshire, can’t wait. After two weeks of gathering data on the terns and watching their behavior, MacCabe is primed to do the education work that he does best.

When boaters and beach hoppers land on the island, MacCabe will embrace his chance to teach others about terns. It never has a bad outcome, he said.

“And it is amazing to teach them, to see them figuring it out,” MacCabe said.

For those who rent Jet Skis at Old Orchard Beach, Stratton Island is a natural destination, roughly three miles off shore from the carnival rides. It has attractions of its own kind.

Onlookers who come to see the few hundred harbor seals loafing on the rocks are treated to the dancer-like sharp turns and high-pitched calls of the terns. It’s hardly a treat for the birds.

Even at the beach where the National Audubon program has its mooring, well behind the sanctuary and the “No Landing” sign, the common terns go wild, flying and calling. It’s still the best place to enter the island.

The common tern nests near here are brown, blending in with the beach grass, but still more visible than the least tern eggs that are off-white and blend in with the sand elsewhere on the island.

“You wouldn’t know unless you were trained to look for them,” Hall said.

A human, dog, even a duck could flatten these tiny vessels with one step. A gull or mink could eat one.

The National Audubon biologists ask boaters to leave any dogs on their boats. A canine can disrupt terns, damage a nest, or worse, scare off the colony.

“It’s a colony. If one thing comes into the colony, it makes everyone in the colony know an intruder’s there and they leave,” MacCabe said.

“These guys are so sensitive. They could be gone overnight. They could just disappear.”

And yet, Hall wants curious tourists, fishermen, naturalists and paddlers to visit the island, where permissible.

BLIND FOR VIEWING

Eventually, a kiosk and public birding blind will be put close to this location, so island visitors can watch the birds without distracting them. The blind also will give a perfect view to the lazy harbor seals on nearby Little Stratton.

The blind and kiosk, made possible with the help of the Prouts Neck Audubon Society, ideally will teach visitors how to respect the terns and why they’re so special.

Hall notes the attention the puffin islands have gotten from tour boats full of tourists who relish the chance to see the clown-like bird.

At Stratton Island, avoiding harmful disturbances is a dance, but one worth engaging in, Hall said.

Perhaps the more people who understand how to approach and respect a tern island, the more people who will act appropriately on one.

“People don’t know their impact on wildlife,” MacCabe said. 

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

[email protected]