Rising sea levels in the mid-Atlantic region pose a long-term threat to marshes and their avian inhabitants. The Gull-billed Tern (Sterna nilotica), Common Tern (S. hirundo), Black Skimmer (Rynchops niger), and American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus), species of concern in Virginia, nest on low shelly perimeters of salt marsh islands on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Marsh shellpiles are free of mammalian predators, but subject to frequent floods that reduce reproductive success. In an attempt to examine nest-site selection, enhance habitat, and improve hatching success, small (2 × 2 m) plots on five island shellpiles were experimentally elevated, and nest-site selection and hatching success were monitored from 1 May to 1 August, 2002. In addition, location, elevation, and nesting performance of all other nests in the colonies were also monitored. No species selected the elevated experimental plots preferentially over adjacent control plots at any of the sites. When all nests were considered, Common Tern nests were located significantly lower than were random point elevations at two sites, as they tended to concentrate on low-lying wrack. At two other sites, however, Common Tern nests were significantly higher than were random points. Gull-billed Terns and American Oystercatchers showed a weak preference for higher elevations on bare shell at most sites. Hatching success was not improved on elevated plots, despite the protection they provided from flooding. Because of a 7 June flood, when 47% of all nests flooded, hatching success for all species was low. Nest elevation had the strongest impact on a nest's probability of hatching, followed by nest-initiation date. Predation rates were high at small colonies, and Ruddy Turnstones (Arenaria interpres) depredated 90% of early Gull-billed Tern nests at one shellpile. The importance of nest elevation and flooding on hatching success demonstrates the potential for management of certain waterbird nesting sites. Facing threats from predators on barrier islands and rising sea levels especially in the mid-Atlantic region, several species of nesting waterbirds may benefit dramatically with modest manipulation of even small habitat patches on isolated marsh islands.
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Vol. 75 • No. 4