Guest blog by Will Bevan, RSPB Field Officer (Norfolk)
I’m sat in a tent on the beach in East Norfolk, sitting comfortably but chilly in a fold out camping chair with some strong coffee, engrossed in a book. My watch says that 2 A.M. has just crept by, and the sounds of the night reach out to me in my reverie. Waves are crashing softly in the distance, and the tent flaps lazily in a gentle breeze. Sand hoppers - tiny crustaceans with springy tails - scale the walls, falling to the floor as they throw themselves at the solar powered light in a cyclical pilgrimage which will last until dawn. Wailing seals and the hoarse barking of a muntjac deer form an eerie chorus, backed by the low hum of distant ships. Then I hear it:
The sound cuts through the night and my ears prick up - a little tern alarm call.
The noise is unmistakable, and although I patrol the colony regularly, the terns are a reliable early warning system. I grab my torch and thermal imaging camera, unzip the tent door, and head out into the dark. As my eyes adjust, I fumble to turn on the camera, and through the grayscale display I can see the colony clearly. Directing it to the source of the commotion I can make out a large blob glowing white with body heat, which from experience could be one of two things - a fox, or a muntjac deer. Whilst both will eat little tern eggs, the foxes will go for chicks and adults, and it’s the latter I'm concerned about at this stage of the season. The colony is surrounded by an electrified fence and poultry netting for this very reason, but nearly all the chicks have now hatched, and they wander freely outside the perimeter. I set off in the direction of the blob, which is casually trotting along the boundary of the colony. The terns are becoming increasingly agitated as more birds join the fray, diving and shrieking at the unknown assailant.
I trudge across the dunes that back the colony at a swift pace, brushing past dew-dropped marram grass and thistly sea-holly, which has recently erupted into a riot of silvery-blue flowers. The terns have now noticed me, and some direct their outrage at my head. I apologise profusely and assure them that I'm not the problem - if they would bother to listen - and work my way closer to the din.
When I'm near enough for it to reach, I turn on the torch and shine it in the direction of the blob. If it was a fox, I would catch the glint of its eyes for a split second before it bolted away at full speed - but it isn't. Instead, a muntjac deer squints blearily at me through the beam of light, undeterred by my presence. A disturbance maybe, but no real threat at this point. Not wanting it to jump over the fence, I walk cautiously towards the deer and it sets off at a light jog, before slowing down to its original pace. In this way I escort it gradually to the edge of the colony, and it meanders off over the dunes and into the night. The terns have settled down and I turn back towards the tent, a lonely lamp under a cavernous night sky, the stars glimmering like precious minerals encrusted on its surface. A waning moon is rising behind wispy black clouds, casting an ethereal glow across the beach, and beyond the vast North Sea lies a barely perceptible hint of dawn.
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Three months ago, and thousands of miles away, somewhere in West Africa, a primeval urge has awakened within the mind of a small seabird. This bird - a little tern (Sternula albifrons) - is about to migrate North for the breeding season, where longer days and productive seas make for more ideal breeding conditions than where it is presently. This is a journey it might have undertaken many times before, with the oldest recorded individual clocking in at an incredible 26 years of age.
It will arrive at its destination around the end of April, and whilst some of its companions might travel to places like Denmark or the Netherlands, this particular bird is heading for the East Norfolk coast. Around this time another migration is also underway, as I pack up the flat in mid-Wales where I have spent the last 16 months in lockdown to travel to the same East Norfolk coastline, and begin my role as a Beach-Nesting Bird Field Officer with the RSPB. This little tern will be joined by hundreds more, and for a few months our lives will be entwined as I and others attempt to give them the best chance of a successful breeding season.
Norfolk is a crucial stronghold for the little tern in the UK, with colonies of varying size dotted along its stunning coastline, much of which is designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). Low breeding success has resulted in a long-term decline of the population, and so the birds need a helping hand to fight back against this worrying downward trend. Amongst them also nest ringed plovers (Charadrius hiaticula), dumpy little wading birds which are also struggling to breed.
Like other beach-nesting birds around the world, they are threatened by loss of habitat, human disturbance, predation, and climate change, the latter causing more frequent stormy weather and higher sea levels which can wash out whole colonies from their nests, which are dug precariously into the sand and gravel. The presence of night wardens is a key strategy in little tern conservation, as colonies need protection from a host of ground predators including foxes, hedgehogs, and muntjac deer. Sadly, egg thieves are still an issue, and so a presence on the beach at night is also a good deterrent to people who would do the breeding terns harm.
As a cold and blustery May slipped into June and brought with it some fairer weather, the first little tern eggs of the season were spotted. It was at this time I began my first night shifts, and on a balmy evening at the end of May, I cycled through the idyllic Norfolk countryside to the colony as the light began to fade. The journey to and from shifts was always a delight, with plenty of wildlife about at those unsociable hours. On many occasions I saw hares, barn owls, and deer, as well the odd group of spoonbills and cranes flying overhead!
As June progressed, I gradually adjusted to working in the dark as the sensations of the night became familiar to me, such as the night calls of passing redshank and common sandpipers, and the otherworldly churring of nightjars drifting over the dunes. The night has a way of eroding the senses, and it was both a surreal and profound experience to be out there on the edge of things, feeling at once isolated but also deeply connected to the rhythms of the Earth and the cosmos. The night skies in August were some of the most awe inspiring, and on occasion I would lie on the beach and gaze upwards, letting the brilliance of countless stars wash over me. One moment in particular stands out, at the height of the Perseid meteor shower, when with a flash the whole night sky was illuminated as a flaming ball of rock plunged through the atmosphere. This is the closest I have ever seen a meteor, and I stood dumbfounded for a moment as I processed what I had just witnessed.
The immensity of this stage contrasted greatly with the job I was there to do - protecting these tiny seabirds and their even smaller chicks from whatever awaited them in the darkness. I grew extremely fond of the little terns and was lucky enough to spend time with them during the day, as well as at night. They are the most endearing birds, graceful in flight and striking to watch, with a gentle chattering that soothes the soul. They are also extremely hard working, and once their chicks began to hatch, journeyed back and forth to sea almost constantly from dawn until dusk, needing large quantities of nutritious fish to fuel the rapid growth of their offspring.
I came to see myself as their babysitter at night and spent much of my time outside of work worrying about their wellbeing. I needn’t have worried though, as this year as always saw an excellent team of dedicated volunteers and field officers, who care deeply about the terns as I do. It is thanks to them that we had a successful breeding season, and to the public who visited our beaches this year and helped us to give space for these birds to thrive.
As I reflect on the season, I look back fondly at my night shifts, and would encourage anyone who can to get out and find somewhere away from the lights to go and appreciate the night sky. The Norfolk Coast and Broads Dark Skies Festival is running now, from the 25th September until the 10th October 2021, with the Norfolk coastline boasting some of the darkest skies in the country thanks to the lack of artificial light nearby. For more information on all the amazing events taking place, head to the Norfolk AONB website!
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It’s mid-August, and I climb back inside the tent after the incident with the muntjac deer, settle down into the chair, and get stuck into my book again. Outside the terns begin to stir, and as they awaken for the day their chattering begins, and I head outside to join them. The clouds are pink with the light of dawn and the steadily rising sun is peeling itself off the horizon with a growing intensity.
A large flock of little terns is congregated along the shoreline, with just as many in the air commuting to and from the colony. In their slender yellow bills with tips dipped in black they clutch glistening fish freshly plucked from the sea. They descend to the peeps of their fluffy, speckled chicks, which dive out of cover for the catch dangled before them. I take a breath - in a couple of weeks, the terns and their fledglings will be gone, flying back to West Africa until next year’s breeding season begins. With any luck the young ones will survive to live long lives, and maybe we will be reunited again here on the shifting shores of East Norfolk.
As I stand captivated by the scene unfolding before me, a heavy fog begins to roll in off the sea, and the visibility quickly deteriorates. The tent is engulfed, and I can barely see the colony fence or the tent, leaving me alone on the shoreline with the sound of the terns and the crash of the waves as the world around us disappears.
Blog by Lizzie Bruce, NW Norfolk Reserves Warden
Ten years ago, the Titchwell Marsh Coastal Change project was completed to protect the freshwater habitats from coastal erosion and rising sea levels. The project realigned and strengthened the sea defences that surround the freshwater marsh and reedbed and a new area of tidal saltmarsh, a natural sea defence, was created on the northern side of the Parrinder Bank. The completion of the Coastal Change project has safeguarded the freshwater habitats from saltwater incursion for generations to come.
The time is now right to restore and enhance the freshwater habitats within for the wetland species that are dependant upon this habitat.
The freshwater marsh is home to the iconic avocet and acts as an important service station for migrating waders. In August, using two amphibious excavators, the single freshwater marsh compartment was split into three with new water control structures installed. This will allow the freshwater marsh to be managed on a constant rotational basis ensuring a plentiful supply of food for breeding avocets, migrating waders and wintering wildfowl. In addition, a series of new nesting islands has been created and a new predator fence installed to improve the breeding success of avocets and common terns but could also attract new breeding birds for the reserve, such as sandwich terns.
The second part of the project aims at restoring the freshwater reedbed. The reedbed at RSPB Titchwell Marsh was integral in ensuring the bittern didn’t become extinct in the UK when their population dropped to just 11 booming males in the 1990’s. However, despite the overall conservation success of this species in the UK with more than 200 booming males today, RSPB Titchwell Marsh has not recorded a breeding pair for 10 years.
This project will restore the freshwater reedbed by repairing eroded banks, recreating a network of ditches and ponds, and installing new water control structures. The restoration work will improve the habitat to not just benefit bitterns but enhance the wetland for other species such as bearded tits, water voles, eels and a variety of invertebrates.
An exciting element of the reedbed restoration will be one of the first of its kind in the UK; to create ‘Spoonbill Islands’ for the small but growing breeding population of spoonbills in the UK, and on the Norfolk coast. A series of islands surrounded by a moat have been created which will then be planted with a mixture of trees to create scrubby islands for spoonbills to nest in.
Spoonbills were once a common sight in East Anglia featuring in medieval banquets. But as the Fenlands were drained, these distinctive birds lost their home and became a desirable species for egg collectors and hunters, resulting in them becoming extinct in 1668. As the Dutch population rapidly grew, in 1999 the first pair for 300 years bred in the UK, but it took a further 11 years for a colony to form at Holkham National Nature Reserve in Norfolk. They have since become a regular site on the Norfolk coast including at Titchwell Marsh.
The project commenced in August 2021 and will be completed by the end of October, in readiness for the arrival of the wintering wildfowl.
Guest Blog by Will Bevan, RSPB Beach Nesting Bird Field Officer
The UK is a nation of dog lovers, with an estimated 12 million pups in UK homes and a large increase in dog ownership since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
We are also a nation of wildlife lovers, with the RSPB alone having over 1.1 million members, and many choosing to visit nature reserves and local wildlife sites in their free time. The two are by no means mutually exclusive, and dog ownership is a fantastic way to stay active, get outside, and appreciate the natural world.
The RSPB encourages responsible dog walking on its nature reserves, and in the wider countryside, but what does this mean for dog owners, and why is it necessary around our wildlife?
What is responsible dog walking?
Responsible dog walking means:
Why is this necessary?
Dog owners are often passionate advocates for the environment and possess a wealth of knowledge about the wildlife on their local patches where they regularly go for walks. Sadly though, there are times when dogs can cause major disturbances by chasing or attacking wildlife.
Earlier this year, a ten-month old seal pup well known by locals and nicknamed ‘Freddie’, was basking along the Thames in west London when it was attacked by a dog off its lead. It was rescued by a South Essex wildlife hospital, but tragically its injuries were so severe it had to be humanely put down. The owner was heartbroken and regretted that the dog had not been on a lead but had not thought it was necessary at the time.
If you are unsure as to how your dog will react around wildlife, especially if they are young or untrained, it is always better to be sure and put it on a lead. This kind of interaction is an extreme example, but this is not the only way in which dogs can negatively impact on wildlife. A far greater problem is that of disturbance.
What is disturbance?
For much of our wildlife, humans and dogs are seen as predators, and so they will behave as such when we approach. This is a big problem for ground-nesting birds, who do not feel the safety of being up in a tree or bush. Birds that nest on the ground include our beach-nesting birds, such as little terns and ringed plovers, as well as curlews, lapwings, and oystercatchers.
When predators, dogs, or people approach, these birds will leave their nests, trying to distance themselves from their eggs or chicks. They might try to lead the threat in another direction, or mob the intruder along with other nesting birds until it leaves the area. These disturbances mean that eggs and chicks are left unattended, making them vulnerable to predation, to thermal stress from being too cold or too hot, or to being crushed as they are very hard to spot.
Constant disturbance can also use up the energy reserves of the adults, who are working hard to incubate their eggs and feed themselves - as well as their chicks after they hatch. Eventually if there is too much disturbance the birds abandon their nests, and although they may try again, if this is too late in the breeding season a second attempt may often be unsuccessful. Disturbance can also be an issue outside of the breeding season, as birds roosting along the shoreline in the winter are often resting and reserving their precious energy reserves.
For beach-nesting birds who must share their space with regular beach users as well as the huge influx of people and their dogs on weekends and holidays, this can often be too much. Along with other threats such as predation alongside inundation from high tides and severe storms, increasing disturbance at nesting sites is pushing these species to their limits, with many shorebirds facing declines around the world.
Dog owners can make a huge difference to the fate of these birds, as recent research by Professor Miguel Angel Gómez-Serrano from the University of Valencia on Kentish plovers suggests that lone, wandering dogs off their leads disturb birds from their nests almost 100% of the time, more than if they were accompanied by their owner and much more than by someone without a dog. This research also showed that sticking to paths and complying with fencing and buffer zones around colonies reduced the amount of disturbance for beach nesting birds.
There is plenty of room for both dog walkers and wildlife, and simple measures such as keeping dogs under control or on leads in certain areas can have a real impact on the fate of many of our bird species. This is only done in certain places or times of the year when it is necessary, and there will usually be signs or wardens on hand to let dog owners know.
Space for Shorebirds is a project run by the Northumberland County Council, and one of its main objectives is to reduce the impact of human recreation on bird populations. Part of this involves fostering positive relationships with dog walkers and asks owners to get their dogs to take the Dog Ranger pledge. They share owners’ dogs on social media with the hashtag #dogranger and get them to spread the message about shorebird conservation. Another example is Bird Aware Essex Coast, which aims to raise awareness about coastal birds whilst preventing human disturbance. With fantastic schemes such as this, we can all work together to ensure a bright future for shorebirds where we can peacefully co-exist alongside each other.
Look out at the end of July when the RSPB will be hosting ‘Smooch a Pooch’ along the East Norfolk coastline to raise awareness about our beach-nesting birds as well as celebrating our furry friends, with a chance to chat to some of our Field Officers and some tasty treats for the dogs!
For more information here is the Facebook link for the event at Winterton Village Hall, Sat 17th July, 8am-12pm. Their contact email is LittleTernskies@rspb.org.uk.
Photo credits: Oystercatcher by Katie Nethercoat (rspb-images.com)