Terns flock to Everett mill after it closes

EVERETT — It seems like everybody has an opinion on what to do with the shuttered Kimberly-Clark paper mill — including the birds.

Hundreds of Caspian terns — almost 1,000 by one count — have made the mill their new home, laying eggs and raising chicks en masse atop the flat-roofed warehouse on the waterfront.

Kimberly-Clark ceased operations in April and plans to tear down most buildings.

Not long after the mill’s paper machines quieted, the terns started showing up. As weeks passed, contractors hired to prepare the site for demolition and sale noticed more and more birds.

And the company plans to keep the warehouse where the birds are nesting, said Kimberly-Clark spokesman Bob Brand. It’s a structure a buyer might want.

Although seagulls and even a few crows are hanging out at the warehouse, most of the birds are Caspian terns.

Caspian terns are visually striking, with bright coral bills, black caps and white bodies. The birds move like ballet dancers in the air but sound like truckers at a roadside bar.

They strut and flap around the top of the Kimberly-Clark warehouse, squawking and cackling. Occasionally, they rise up together in one churning, feathery cloud. The racket can be heard blocks away.

The terns are gourmets that don’t scavenge for garbage as seagulls do. The terns soar out over the bay to dive-bomb into the water and emerge with silver fingerlings. In a single year, 1998, in the Columbia River Basin, a nesting colony of 10,000 ate 12 million salmon. Humans later encouraged the colony to relocate.

Bird Research Northwest, a years-long project of Oregon State University, the U.S. Geological Survey and Real Time Research, has been documenting the number of young salmon eaten by water birds of the Columbia River Basin. As part of their work, researchers track Caspian tern populations around the Northwest, including here in Everett.

Bird Research Northwest counted 259 Caspian terns on top of the Kimberly-Clark warehouse June 23.

There were more birds at the Everett mill a month later, on July 10, when researchers took an aerial photo. They counted 926 adults, 27 chicks and 129 attended nests, said Ken Collis of the private Oregon firm Real Time Research.

The terns’ preferred natural habitat is an island or spit free of predators and clear of vegetation. That pretty much defines the warehouse roof.

Collis says that indicates the birds can’t find suitable territory to nest along the shoreline.

In years past, terns have nested on Jetty Island. Park staff confirm they aren’t there this year, said Barry Martin, a city recreation coordinator for 28 years.

The city, with help from local members of the National Audubon Society, removed invasive plants from the island in the 1980s to encourage tern nesting. That worked for a few years, until work began on Naval Station Everett and a large, open field proved more appealing. The Navy waited until the terns’ chicks hatched and departed before developing the field.

Employees at The Daily Herald have noticed the increase in birds at the mill. The newspaper building is just across the street from the warehouse.

In past years, seagulls have nested on the roof of the Herald, but not this spring, said Justin Peterson, Herald facilities supervisor. All the birds seem to be across the street at the mill.

Peterson guesses the warehouse is now a quieter nesting spot than the Herald roof, which remains loud with the constant hum of a large air conditioner unit and an exhaust fan above the printing press.

“There are definitely a lot more birds over there,” he said.

Jack Stephens only sees beauty when he trains his telescope to the warehouse roof from the Herald lunchroom. He is president of the Washington Ornithological Society.

He murmured “that’s cool” as he adjusted his lens on terns returning to the warehouse roof with wiggly, silver fish clasped in their beaks. His quick count Wednesday was around 600 birds.

“It’s a little bit of nature trying to find a home,” he said.

Debra Smith: 425-339-3197 or dsmith@heraldnet.com

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