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 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!
My name is Jessie, and I’m this year’s seasonal warden at Cumbria Wildlife Trust’s South Walney Nature Reserve. South Walney is a beautiful reserve that I feel very lucky to be calling home this summer, and it’s a home I share with a lot of amazing wildlife. Whether it’s intently scanning our shingle beaches for the nests of ringed plover or oystercatcher, counting the hundreds of eider duck that roost here at high tide or chatting to visitors, there’s plenty to keep me busy here.
I’m employed by Cumbria Wildlife Trust, but my job is a part of the Life On The Edge (LOTE) project, an EU funded project lead by the RPSB. LOTE is dedicated to understanding, monitoring and improving the quality of coastal habitats, with a particular focus on oystercatcher, ringed plover and little tern. Engaging with visitors and reducing the impact of visitor disturbance on nesting birds is one of the most important parts of this, which can include keeping people away from the most important nesting areas and strict rules on dogs.
All of our breeding shorebirds are very vulnerable to disturbance, as although their incredibly camouflaged nests provide excellent protection from predators it also means that people don’t notice them and can very easily step on them. Sadly, dogs are also a threat – even the most well-behaved dog will be seen as a predator by a nesting bird, and repeated encounters with dogs can cause birds to abandon their nest. In the worst cases, out of control dogs can actually attack or even kill wild birds, although this is rare. All breeding birds are protected under UK law, so we all have a duty to do our bit to protect them where we can! Here at South Walney we don’t allow any dogs (except assistance dogs) and there is no public access to the beach, and this goes a long way to protecting the beautiful wildlife that calls this place home.
The best part of my job has to be nest surveying. I have to scan far ahead of me on the beach for any signs of nesting or territorial birds, and be incredibly careful where I walk to avoid stepping on the very thing I’m looking for – eggs perfectly disguised as pebbles. These may be the eggs of oystercatcher – unmistakable with their black and white plumage and vivid orange bills – or of ringed plover – looking a little like a forgotten member of the Incredibles with their distinctive black mask. Nest finding requires patience, a keen eye and keeping on constant alert for the slightest movement or the faintest alarm call from a nearby ringed plover. Although I have to say oystercatcher alarm calls are never exactly faint, and often I find myself being shouted at by an oystercatcher 200m away that I hadn’t even noticed yet!
In the last week I have been lucky enough to find 3 little tern nests. Little terns are the UK’s smallest breeding tern, with a bright yellow bill and a very distinctive chirping call. Like many seabirds, they migrate from Africa to Europe every spring to breed, and will return there again in the autumn. I’m very excited to have them breeding here at South Walney and will be crossing my fingers for a successful breeding season!
Stay posted for regular updates from me and if you’re visiting you may see me out and about – come and say hi!
By Will Bevan – Beach-Nesting Bird Field Officer in East Norfolk
After spending last summer helping to protect the beach-nesting birds of East Norfolk, in April this year I was eagerly anticipating my return for another season. Being largely nocturnal in 2021, with my exploits as a night warden detailed on this blog, in 2022 I returned as a fully-fledged Field Officer.
Our work covers three sites in East Norfolk and North Suffolk, with a team of dedicated volunteers and Field Officers working day and night over the breeding season to provide protection. Methods involve three sets of fencing (rope, electric, and poultry netting), signage, round the clock wardening, and public engagement and education on the beach and in the wider community. The focus is mainly on little terns, but this protection benefits other beach-nesting birds including ringed plovers, oystercatchers, and avocets.
Little tern conservation is fraught with worry, as the odds seem to be stacked against them so heavily it is a wonder that any chicks fledge! Nesting in vulnerable spots on shingle beaches just above the tideline, they face numerous threats including human disturbance, dogs off leads, egg thieves, high tides and stormy weather (made worse by climate change), and predation from ground and aerial predators. Despite early disappointment last year with failures at two of our colony sites, mainly due to aerial predation pressure, the season ended up being a success overall with these failed birds moving to another site and re-laying, with around 137-216 fledglings leaving in mid-August. However, this was still just below the productivity target of 0.75 required to maintain or increase the population.
This result also highlighted the importance of having several sites set up and ready to receive little terns which might fail elsewhere but have a second attempt at breeding in another location.
With all this and stories from previous seasons in mind, it’s always a good idea not to raise hopes too high early in the season, as any number of things can go wrong. However, it was hard to not to be excited this year as the breeding got under way at the start of May. Whilst last year the terns took longer to prospect potential nest sites, eventually spreading out over all three of our protected colony areas, this year they settled in just one location. From our first egg being found on the 21st of May, just two weeks later we were counting around 300 active nests, making it the largest colony in the UK in 2022. This is compared to a peak count of 116 nests at the same site last year! The excitement started to spread as we realised that we might have a mega year on our hands.
When managing several colonies there is always a difficult choice to be made because resources are limited, especially when it comes to the time of the volunteers and Field Officers. In many years the colony with the largest number of nests is prioritised as the one which receives the most protection, although a presence is still maintained at all sites. This is difficult because every breeding pair counts when it comes to little terns, with a potential for two or three fledglings which may live for two decades and have many more offspring over that lifespan. It was a relief this year to be able to put everything into one site, allowing us to have a more of a presence to deter predators and egg thieves, as well as to engage with the public on the beach.
A cabin was brought down to the site for all our amenities, with solar powered lights for night shifts and a generator for charging equipment. This was a great place to get out of the weather, especially with the extreme heat we have had so far this year, as well as for observing the colony. From my experiences last year out at night in a tent, which flapped uneasily in the wind, the cabin made the night shifts almost luxurious in comparison.
The first hatching date approached in mid-June with eager anticipation, as well as an increase in nerves. In previous years kestrels have been a large cause of mortality for younger chicks and fledglings, and on occasion decimated the colony. For example, a report from 2001 when the little terns nested at Great Yarmouth states that kestrels took a total of 526 chicks! Whilst we have been doing work on diversionary feeding to try and provide local kestrels with alternative food sources, a determined adult will continue to go after the terns despite our best efforts.
The first tern chicks were sighted on the 14th of June and the weeks went by with only glimpses of kestrels, which luckily didn’t show interest in the colony. This did not stop the terns giving them hassle! A hobby started visiting regularly, trying to take adults and chicks, but the sheer number of little terns watching for predators and willing to mob them was enough to deter it on most occasions. This confidence lessened as the terns began to leave, and unfortunately for a few stragglers remaining towards the end of July, the hobby was much more successful.
High spring tides can also be a challenge for the little terns, especially combined with strong north and easterly winds coming off the North Sea. Nests can be moved a small amount at a time, so long as we make sure to replicate the pattern of stones around the nest, but if the tide is high enough it can wipe out a large percentage of the colony. Luckily, we had no incidents where the nests were at risk this season, with the highest tides not coinciding with strong winds.
Public engagement on the beach was also very positive this year, and this is a key part of our work in making people more aware of beach-nesting birds on the coast and educating them about responsible dog walking. I had some great conversations with those who knew about the birds already and many who were seeing them for the first time, and it was rewarding to be able to use scopes to allow adults and children to see the chicks up close. Dog owners were more than happy to put their pets on leads, showing that effective signage and friendly engagement can lead to positive behavioural changes.
Little terns also need plentiful stocks of small fish in shallow water near to the colony, and this seemed to be no problem for them this year as they were constantly flying to and from the sea with fish for their growing young.
It seemed like the stars aligned for this year’s season, and the full scale of what the terns had accomplished became apparent as the fledgling numbers built up on the shore. Our fledgling count was a whopping 585 on the 14th of July, and this is the lower estimate, with a potential for between 650- 700 leaving the site overall.
This year was also productive for our ringed plovers, with a total of 17 nests and 18-25 fledged across our sites. Usually, plover nests are spread out along the coastline, but many choose to nest within our fencing as they are much less likely to be disturbed. For rogue pairs outside our main fence, we can put up some posts with a bit of rope and cross our fingers, and this year we had eggs successfully hatching from just such a nest! We also had two oystercatchers and three avocets fledge from our Suffolk site.
Another joy of the season was watching a pair of plover chicks grow up into fledglings which had become habituated to our presence around the cabin, and on a night shift they often would run around my feet as I sat out in a camping chair!
In a year when there has been lots of bad news, especially with bird flu and how it has affected our struggling bird populations, it is a relief to be able to share something positive. Although every year is different, we are all hoping that this is the beginning of a trend where we can start stabilising or even increasing the numbers on the East Coast and the U.K.
Once again this has only been possible thanks to a truly incredible team of volunteers and staff, an extremely supportive local community, and the funding and support of Natural England and Great Yarmouth Borough Council.
Photo credits: Oystercatcher by Katie Nethercoat (rspb-images.com)
LOTE Logo credits: Saskia Wischnewski