Thanks to Rebekah Wall, RSPB Little Tern Volunteer, for this lovely guest blog.
Conservation is something you’ll commonly find on the news but is such an important topic for the generation these days. To take part in it is something even more important and wonderful. Conservation is my career path and to have the option to become a volunteer is very rewarding and has been something I have done since graduating from University.
I applied to be a bird warden for the RSPB in April (2023) for something new to volunteer for, to improve my mental health, and to be more involved in the current need to support conservation and breeding opportunities for the Little Terns.
To be given the opportunity to work amongst RSPB staff and experienced volunteers and to be working closely with the Little Terns, a thrill of excitement made me ecstatic, and I was looking forward to starting my shifts.
As well as actually working alongside the Little Terns, the fences needed to be put up at Winterton-on-sea and at Eccles. Many volunteers popped up to help and it was interesting to talk with the new and experienced volunteers about what to expect from a shift and how to engage with the public and their dogs.
During the induction, one of the staff spoke about the night shifts, the golden hour that we could witness, and the experiences we could obtain. Instantly I knew I wanted to do as many night shifts as I could, fitting it around my day job.
I began my first night shift at 10 p.m. in the middle of June, wrapped up warm with many layers, thermals, waterproofs, a woolly hat, gloves, flask filled with hot coffee and snacks. Sitting in a camping chair can be very comfy until it gets very cold. Fortunately, blankets were available to use and sudden spurts of bats and moths flew over one's head and gave me a buzz, excitedly looking for more wildlife in the sky.
The night shifts were so different from the day shift. As said by previous volunteers, you get to witness the golden hour which was so magical to see. You have to watch the birds wake up from their hiatus as they are always on the watch, protecting their eggs, chicks, and colony.
To witness them fly up, fluttering over the sea and quickly in dive to catch any amongst the Clupeidae sp. to give their chicks the first meal of the day. Listening to their calls is so distinct, made my heart flutter. And the first time I saw a chick, my heart burst into happiness, knowing for a fact this is the environment I want to be in. How small they are! Little balls of speckled fluff.
During the night shifts, you literally have to be the watchful eye, a protector to help the success of the breeding Little Terns. To physically chase away the predators with a shaker (a bottle with small stones and pebbles in it). Whether they are flying raptors and four-legged mammals - muntjacs for the eggs, foxes for the eggs and chicks, a few domestic cats now and again, and the occasional squirrel.
Finishing a night shift every morning is very different from the last. One morning, driving on my way home from a night shift I happened to come across a situation quite bizarre. Two Rheas were running on a country road right in front of me in the car. Completely bewildered I thought I may have been over-tired. I managed to snap some shots and pass them on to the Little Tern group. A few hours later, I was informed that they were from a farm and had escaped, I saw two of the twelve that were roaming around Norfolk.
As well as strange occurrences, I was able to witness a couple of moth traps being unveiled! The beauty of the elephant hawk moths to the peppered moths was amazing and enticing to watch.
Working as a bird warden is so much more than looking after the birds, you are able to gain transferable skills, work as a team, get the chance to take part in other events such as witnessing kestrel chicks being ringed, working on RSPB sites such as Berney Marshes engulfed in magical greenery and wildlife, many bird species and mammals and public days such as ‘’Smooch your Pooch’’ promoting dogs on leads during the breeding season of the Little Terns.
Being given the chance to take part in volunteering alongside the RSPB for the past five months has been an amazing opportunity that I have thoroughly enjoyed and look forward to the next season.
Blog by David Mason, National Trust - Suffolk and Essex Coast Ranger
‘Working with the grain of nature yields the best chance of maintaining a healthy and beautiful coast for the future, a coast that is great for people and for wildlife.’ – Northey Island Coastal Adaptation Strategy Project Vision
The UK government has recognised the importance of the East Atlantic Flyway, a migratory bird route over western parts of Europe including Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and Kent. In recognition of its vital importance to bird populations and wildlife it has joined the list of seven sites put forward to join the list of World Heritage sites. The area sees huge transient bird populations pass through every year as the seasons change, and the River Blackwater in Essex, including Northey Island, is one of its hotspots.
More space created for birds.
The overhead powerlines across the island were removed last year and replaced with underground cables. Once the flightline was clear the brent geese that winter here, along with lapwing, curlew and godwit, began using the eastern and southern field, areas of the Island they had previously avoided. The highest number of geese since 2015 (1710) was recorded on the WeBS count, along with the highest count ever of dunlin (3875) roosting at high tide.
Following the managed realignment, this area in the eastern field is designed to be underwater at high tide. It will retain water when the tide goes out and will develop as a saline lagoon. The geese enjoyed the shelter of the sea wall over the winter and used all the grassland on the island.
North West Wall beneficial use of dredged sediments (BUDS)
Further sediment dredged from Maldon harbour has been placed to enhance the saltmarsh in this area as part of an ongoing project.
Oystercatchers nested just beyond the placed mud on a patch of gravel. We are hoping other birds may use the new nest boxes placed on top of the cut down power poles left in the eastern field.
Water vole update
Pond marginal vegetation is well established in the main new pond and is providing food and shelter for the translocated voles. A pair of mallard also nested in the vole enclosure and hatched 10 ducklings.
Signs of water voles burrowing in the pond banks and feeding have been found with the characteristic diagonal cut on the small piles of vegetation. Later in the year they will pull these into their burrows as a winter food source.
A new extension fence has been installed along a connecting ditch to allow population expansion and accommodate any further voles found during the continuing works. The fencing installed to contain the voles will be removed when the works are finished, and they will have access to all the freshwater bodies on the island.
Telling the story of Saltmarsh, Migration and Managed Realignment
New interpretation boards have been installed in the hide and on a viewing platform, with a a new bench overlooking the River Blackwater towards Maldon and Heybridge. The three boards illustrate different aspects of the island’s environment. The first board explains the importance of saltmarsh for biodiversity, flood protection and carbon storage and the second highlights the East Atlantic Flyway used by migratory birds. The third board illustrates the work of the LOTE project to realign some of the sea walls to create 10 hectares of new saltmarsh and protect 50-60 hectares of saltmarsh for the next 100 years, predicted to have been lost to the effects of climate change without action.
Another new hedge and pond created
276 hedge plants were planted in total and included hawthorn, hazel, wild honeysuckle, spindle, field maple, buckthorn, hornbeam, cherry plum and blackthorn. These species were selected to provide a good variety of fruit, blossom and year-round interest, so will hopefully increase the food sources available for birds and insects on the island. These have been weeded and mulched by the Essex and Suffolk Volunteer Group along with removing old barbed-wire and litter from the saltmarsh. Three new ponds have been created, linked by a connecting ditch, in the north east corner of the island. They have attracted yellow wagtail and mallard.
Blog by Dave Blackledge - Site Manager, RSPB Cumbria Coast Reserves
RSPB Hodbarrow, on the side of the Duddon Estuary in Cumberland, is the site of an important colony of Sandwich, Little and Common Terns. They breed on land formerly occupied by one of western Europe’s largest iron mines and began nesting there as the mines closed over 50 years ago. Predator fencing and warden protection has seen increasing numbers of seabirds breeding on the island created on limestone slag with vital protected space at a premium. The Life on the Edge project has been helping create more space for our colony to expand.
At the start of the project in 2020, we constructed a new island and carried out work to increase the size of the existing one, giving us around 0.75 ha of extra breeding habitat, protected by anti-predator barrier fence. Work has continued this winter to further increase the opportunities for breeding seabirds by creating a third island of 0.25ha. and provide a line of marker buoys along our boundary with the neighbouring caravan park to reduce the incidence of boat disturbance near the islands.
The coastal iron mines were enclosed by a seawall at the start of the 20th century to protect works from flooding and thousands of tons of limestone slag from the nearby smelting works were dumped within the wall, providing an ideal substrate for nesting terns when the works were flooded following closure in 1968. Island creation on site therefore centres around lowering, moving and cutting off areas of the slag bank to create disturbance free areas.
This increased space has already begun to prove beneficial to a number of species. As terns, Black-headed Gulls and wildfowl began to increase behind the initial predator fence deployed in 2016, Little Terns in particular found it difficult to find space away from other species with their tendency to nest in a more dispersed pattern to other species. The first island created in 2020/21 has attracted most of the 60 or so pairs of common terns to breed creating space for little terns to expand. This season we have a peak of 53 pairs of little terns – a record for the site, and young are beginning to hatch at the time of writing.
With HPAI hitting some Sandwich Tern colonies hard, we are delighted to have 596 pairs currently hatching young on site – a little down on recent years, but probably expected with a presumably reduced UK population this year. Creating several islands also has the advantages of reducing the chance of predation – any breach of the predator fence would only allow foxes access to one area of the colony – and separating the colony into areas where interaction and movement will be restricted which may help prevent the spread of HPAI throughout the entire site.
Eiders too, have benefitted greatly from the works. With historical averages of around 5 nests, increased breeding space and predator fencing has increased this to 73 pairs, with several large creches seen escaping over the sea wall to the estuary in recent weeks. Along with 2 pairs of Arctic Terns, 12 pairs of Oystercatchers, 9 pairs of Lapwings and 4 pairs of Ringed Plover the busy breeding islands are proving a valuable haven for seabirds along the Cumbrian coast.
Blog by Rebekah Watts, Cumbria Wildlife Trust Foulney Island Warden
Why is Foulney important?
Foulney Island Nature Reserve is comprised of a shingle spit within Morecambe Bay SPA connected (via manmade causeway) to the mainland. The reserve is home to several wintering bird species such as knot, dunlin and wigeon and is an important breeding location in the spring and summer for shorebirds such little terns, Arctic terns, ringed plovers and oyster catchers as well as other bird species such as pied wagtails, meadow pipits, eiders and skylarks.
The terns that choose Foulney as their nesting grounds are protected species and they are in decline. It is so important to offer them a safe place to lay their eggs and raise their chicks as they are easily disturbed by human recreational activities, dogs, aerial and ground predators (such as sparrowhawks and foxes). Their nests are vulnerable as they nest where there are no visual obstructions to allow them to watch for predators but this means that they nest out in the open, making their chicks and eggs susceptible to predation. Their eggs are at risk of being trampled by people, as their camouflage is very successful. Terns nest on shingle and require close access to the sea to feed. That’s what makes Foulney the perfect place for them. Terns return to the same colony to breed in most cases and Arctic tern travel 22,000 miles on their migration. This special little island hosts these incredible birds and it needs to be protected.
Breeding Season Preparation
Preparation for breeding season on Foulney Island is an intense operation! For this year, the main island was turf stripped to provide extra habitat for shore nesting birds. This new shingle area was fenced off to protect the birds using it to raise their young, from ground predators such as foxes, rats and hedgehogs. Turf stripping involves the removal of the top layer of vegetation and in this case, changing the habitat to shingle. The vegetation was then buried beneath the layer of shingle. This area has been used this season by eiders, ringed plovers and oyster catchers who’s chicks began hatching recently, proving the success of the change in habitat! Skylarks and meadow pipits also benefited from the ground predator protection in this area as they too nested here, inside the fence on the edge of the shingle where vegetation remains.
In preparation for the electric fence the vegetation was strimmed. Insulator stakes were knocked into the ground and electric wires passed through the insulators. To prepare the public, signs were put up in the carpark, the causeway and on the island stating that dogs are not allowed and explaining why, and the rope fence to fence off the beach area, where the birds nest, was put up. Lastly, the caravan was put in place. Then it was time to begin surveying!
Warden life on Foulney
Hi! I’m Bekka, and I’m this year’s seasonal warden on Foulney island nature reserve. This beautiful little island reserve is home to many species of breeding birds over the summer including oystercatchers, ringed plovers, eider ducks and little terns. In addition to the birds, the island is home to and visited by mammals such as grey seals and voles; as well as insects such as butterflies and moths.
Sharing an island with such beautiful wildlife is an amazing experience. Being the only person living on an island might seem lonely, but I have plenty of fishermen to chat to, and of course the wildlife! During the season I have been lucky enough to experience finding nests and watching parents lovingly incubate their eggs, and have watched eggs hatch into beautiful chicks. Watching eider females with crèches of up to 30 ducklings swimming across the water and oyster catcher parents leading their chicks across the shingle are sights that will never get old.
As the warden, I spend my time monitoring eggs, chicks and adults, checking trail cameras and engaging with and educating the public. Explaining to the pubic the importance of reducing disturbance to nesting birds is an extremely vital part of my job. The natural threat response in nesting shorebirds is triggered by the public and their recreational activities, especially when dogs are involved. When threatened, shorebirds are forced to flee, leaving eggs and chicks vulnerable to predation, and forcing the adult bird to expend energy which should be used in incubation or finding food. In the worst case, an out of control dog can kill shorebirds, which unfortunately occurred on Foulney this season. It is so important that our shorebirds are protected. We all have our part to play!
Now that chicks are hatching we are well into the season. Fingers crossed that all goes well here on Foulney island!
Hello, my name is Mark Appleton and work as Beach Nesting Bird Project Officer along the Solent. I joined the RSPB in this role, this March 2023.
So, what does a Beach Nesting Bird Project Officer do? I will attempt to explain some of the tasks I have undertaken so far.
Thanks to the LIFE Programme (LIFE on the Edge) and the Solent Seascape Project, I was recruited to help change the fortunes of shore nesting birds on multiple sites, both on and off natures reserves across the Solent. This even includes working at the Browndown Military Training site. The area of Solent that I am responsible for ranges from Hurst Spit on the Western Solent to Pagham harbour on the Eastern Solent.
Spread out across the Solent’s shingle and saltmarsh coasts, a diverse range of coastal ground-nesting birds make their home each summer. Ringed Plover, Oystercatcher and Little Tern regularly attempt nesting on our shingle beaches looking for new sites each year to raise a new generation as well as returning to old favourites.
At the time of writing, we are in the very busy period where all our beach nesting birds are beginning to hatch, and a lot of my time is spent monitoring and trying to protect them
Dense colonies of Sandwich Tern, Black-headed gull and Mediterranean Gulls take advantage of the water surrounded shingle and saltmarsh islands whilst common tern use a mixture of sites varying from man made structures to secluded shores. All these species are facing the growing challenge of fitting in on our very busy coasts. That’s where we are aiming to make a difference.
I have been involved in the creation and deployment of these manmade structures, rafts for the common terns, working both with the RSPB Pagham wardens and volunteers to implement.
Another part of the role is to develop, empower and support teams of volunteers to deliver shore nesting bird protection. Both the RSPB Pagham volunteers and RSPB Gunner point volunteers have been essential in providing support. Without them a lot of the jobs would not get done. At Hayling Island Gunner point this year we have continued developing the Ringed Plover Project that was set up by local conservationist Trevor Codlin. With the help of volunteers, we have cordoned off a section of the beach with mesh fencing to give Ringed Plover space to nest and bring up their chicks free from human and dog disturbance. The volunteers helped to install the fencing and regularly patrol the area to educate, raise awareness and inform visitors about how we can help Ringed Plover here by giving them lots of space and keeping away from fenced off areas so they can incubate their eggs without nest failures. I have created a Whatsapp group for the project so we can all provide each other updates on patrols and monitoring results.
At the time of writing, we have had 3 successful nests with a total of 8 chicks with 2 very close to fledging. Unfortunately, our Ringed Plovers cant read and one family regularly wonders outside the fence. Only this week a dog was seen chasing the family and was only saved by the adult male luring the dog away by flying along the beach with the dog in close pursuit. This is why our brilliant volunteers are so important in raising awareness. To support our volunteer rangers I have created signage, a periodical update board and leaflets to inform the public.
Deploying and creating signage is a very important part of the role as areas of prime nesting area need protecting
Monitoring of breeding Ringed Plovers has identified that predation is one of the main factors in preventing hatching success. High levels of predation are likely to be exacerbated due to loss of good quality habitat, rising sea levels, and increasing human disturbance which could be resulting in birds nesting in sub optimal conditions and closer together. This year I have been part of the RSPB scientific study to test the effectiveness of nest cages on the hatching success of beach-nesting Ringed Plovers. So far the results are very encouraging and trail camera footage has shown protection from foxes, carrion crows, dogs, kestrel and even a tawny owl.
An important part of the role is to continue building partnerships across a broad range of organizations so that we collaborate and achieve optimum success in trying to help nature. I try to provide updates and communication between organizations to achieve this and collaboration has include RSPB Pagham, Natural England at North Solent Nature Reserve, Hampshire Countryside Service at Lymington and Keyhaven Nature Reserve and Hook with Warsash , Browndown Military Training camp and many amazing volunteers.
I hope this gives a flavour of some of the tasks involved with the role. If I had to summarise the role I would say: -
Buckler’s Hard Website:
Happy summer holidays but please remember to look out for our beach nesting birds and give them lots of space with dogs under close control 😊
Thank you for reading
Photo credits: Oystercatcher by Katie Nethercoat (rspb-images.com)
LOTE Logo credits: Saskia Wischnewski