Guest Blog by Chris Goding, Hodbarrow Field Officer
Following Dave Blackledge’s introduction to the recent LOTE funded habitat works at RSPB Hodbarrow, life at the reserve continues apace. I am one of two Field Officers here over the breeding season, with shared responsibility for surveying adult numbers and productivity of our key species (notably Sandwich, common, and little terns). We also monitor predation events and engage with members of the public about the RSPB’s work at the reserve, its history, and the wildlife found here.
Work was finished on the new island in January this year, complemented by an extension to the eastern side of the main island. The new island has seen modest but encouraging interest from breeding birds, and is currently home to a ringed plover pair (with two chicks) and a single oystercatcher nest as well as 2 common tern nests.
We are hopeful of increased use of the island in future years once the substrate matures. At the time of writing this blog, there are at least 20 common tern pairs on the new extension to the main island, making use of the increased space provided where a small island has been joined to the ‘mainland’, forming a miniature peninsula.
Current trends point to a successful season all round!
The peak count of little tern adults so far this season is 87, with at least 40 pairs, more than triple the number of pairs last year! Twenty six little tern chicks were spotted during a ringing session on the 11th June, the highest count since at least 2017, so we are hopeful of an excellent year for the species here. They appear to be responding particularly well to the application of slag to the concrete surface at their favoured spot, which helps to prevent the accumulation of rainwater around the nests.
Fifty common tern pairs (with a minimum of 40 chicks so far) points to a good year for this species too. Alongside this, at least 300 black headed gull chicks and 200 Sandwich tern chicks means the colony is a busy place.
With time yet for these numbers to increase we are expecting a productive season at Hodbarrow this year.
By Leigh Lock, RSPB Programme Manager
The importance of our soft coast and estuaries is staggering.
The UK occupies a key strategic position along the NE Atlantic flyway supporting 3 Million waterbirds moving north to breeding grounds in northern Europe/The Arctic in spring and returning south to southern Europe and Africa in autumn – this represents 10% of the waterbirds of NW Europe and 15% of migratory waders in flyway.
Amongst our breeding birds we have some of the largest colonies of gulls and terns in Europe and communities of breeding waders threatened throughout Europe. We hold 30% of Europe’s estuarine habitats, and 30% of its saltmarsh. Furthermore these coastal habitats provide a range of other services – salt marshes store more carbon per hectare than forests, natural habitats provide protection from coastal erosion and protect homes and businesses from flooding. The UK coastal ecosystem services have been valued at £48 Billion pounds.
But despite this importance and the legal protection offered to it, this precious asset is under huge pressure. We have suffered massive scale past losses of habitat, the quality of remaining habitat is poor, particularly through developments and human impacts. Further losses of habitat are predicted with climate change a major driver – increased storms, erosion, flooding – compounding the losses over the past 50 years (all described fully in our Sustainable Shores report).
Even where habitat remains the frequency of high tides, storm surges in spring /summer is flooding out our coastal breeding birds – in 2017 we estimate 20% of our little terns were flooded out over one weekend of spring tides. With erosion, flooding of key areas it is not surprising that little terns redshanks ringed plovers are amongst our most threatened breeding birds. On top of this is the impact of recreational pressure. It is estimated that 10% of UK recreational activity is concentrated on 0.6% of land area along the coast – and these effects very evident last year post lockdown when huge numbers of people flocked to the coast. This causes disturbance to breeding, roosting and feeding birds, damage and destruction of sensitive habitats.
Rainbow dredger. Less than 1% of the material dredged from our coastal waterways is used for environmental enhancement. We will be delivering an exciting project with HHA using material from the Harwich dredge to build up the shingle bank at Horsey Island in Essex. Much more on this later this year. Photo Credit: Mark Hackett
Against such a background of pressures, we have developed the LIFE on the Edge project. Over the four years of the project we will be carrying out targeted work to improve the condition of a series of sites in England – from Titchwell in Norfolk, Langstone Harbour on the South Coast, South Walney in Cumbria to the Blackwater Estuary in Essex- and improving the prospects for some of our most charismatic coastal species such as Sandwich tern , little tern, oystercatcher. This involves demonstrating a range of management techniques from restoring freshwater grazing marsh, protecting salt marsh, creating and restoring islands, and improving the success of beach nesting birds – working in partnership with Government, NGOs, industry and coastal communities.
Not everything will work – but we will test and trail new ideas, and learn from others not just in the UK but from practitioners in NW Europe in areas like The Wadden Sea which face similar issues. In doing so we will build up some good case studies of methods and approaches which can be applied more widely and recommend policy change to support their delivery.
The LIFE+ Little Tern Recovery Project ended in 2019. Although the project helped slow the decline, we concluded that more was needed to be done to increase the population. Through LOTE we will look to increase the area of safe nesting habitat and give the terns that extra boost. Photo Credit: Lyn Ibbitson (rspb-images.com)
Ultimately we hope that LIFE on the Edge brings a message of hope- with examples of positive changes which bring benefits to wildlife , local communities and the local economy and which help set the tone for a step change in how our fantastic coast is managed.
On this blog we will feature a range of views and experiences from coastal site managers, scientists, policy makers, with representatives from NGOs, government, industry and local communities – which will all be much more interesting than this one! So please follow us, and support our work to protect LIFE on the Edge.
By Dave Blackledge, RSPB Site Manager - Cumbria Coastal Reserves
RSPB Hodbarrow sits on the edge of the Duddon Estuary in south-west Cumbria. Part of the Morecambe Bay and Duddon Estuary SPA, it was the site of one of Europe’s most productive iron mines in the 19th Century.
As mining operations ceased in 1968, a mixed colony of Sandwich, common and little terns began to nest on the limestone slag by the lagoon formed on the flooded workings. This colony is now of international importance and its position behind the sea wall, protecting the site from storms, high tides and future sea level rise mean it is an integral part of western Europe’s tern network.
Introduction of anti-predator fencing in 2016 immediately reversed the fortunes of the colony after a few years of fox predation, with tern numbers increasing rapidly. In 2018, predator disturbance of the Sandwich tern colony at Cemlyn on Anglesey led to a large influx at Hodbarrow with 1950 pairs, around 15% of the UK population breeding here that year. The fox free breeding islands have also benefitted other shorebirds, with black-headed gulls, eider, tufted duck, ringed plover and oystercatcher all benefitting and increasing in number.
With all this activity concentrated on a single 1.5ha island it became apparent that nesting space was becoming an issue. Little terns in particular, arriving and settling later than many of the other species were being squeezed to the edges of the island, picking sub-optimal nesting sites wherever they were able to find their preferred semi-isolated spot.
Life On The Edge is addressing this problem by creating further protected breeding habitat at Hodbarrow. Around 12500 tonnes of limestone slag from the adjacent slag bank will be dug and transported to increase the size of the current breeding island from 1.5 ha to 2 ha, alongside the creation of a second 0.25ha island.
A further 130m of fencing to protect the new island will also mean that breaching of defences to one island will not give foxes access to the entire breeding area, giving a further level of protection.
Other works include scraping of vegetation and scrub from an artificial flood bank left over from the mining operations. The aim is to provide further nesting opportunities for the SPA designated lesser black-backed gulls along with herring gulls and great black-backed gulls.
The main habitat works on site have progressed well this winter (while complying with the covid-19 guidance) and we now eagerly await the 2021 breeding season to see how the birds respond to the improved and new islands.