Blog by Aran Burton, RSPB Communications Officer
While we come to terms with the effects of climate change on our way of life, coastal birds will also have to adapt, but they’re likely to struggle without intervention from us.
It’s vital we mitigate the effects of climate change, such as the potentially catastrophic sea level rises that are predicted to severely affect the UK in the coming years. At RSPB Titchwell, we’re working to protect, and in some cases restore, the land being lost to coastal erosion and the damaging impact this is already having on wildlife.
This is the aim of Life on the Edge, an EU-funded LIFE project, allowing us to provide new habitats, and protect existing ones, at seven nature reserves in England. It’s our duty to provide a future for coastal birds and their habitats, because human activity is the driving force behind climate change.
The land at RSPB Titchwell Marsh nature reserve has been managed since the 1970s, but by 2009 flooding and coastal erosion began to bite. Efforts to protect and strengthen flood defence banks have been going on since 2011 and Life on the Edge, will help build on this.
Titchwell Marsh attracts more than 80,000 visitors a year, who come to enjoy the birds nesting on the reserve, including bittern, avocet, bearded tit and marsh harrier. If these habitats are lost to coastal erosion, these populations of coastal birds will be lost as well – possibly forever. As the water levels in the reed bed change, this important habitat is becoming harder to manage. If the reed bed deteriorates, there are concerns it would eventually dry out and revert to willow scrub, which cannot support nesting bittern, bearded tit or marsh harrier. Freshwater marsh is also at risk from rising water levels, which could displace the avocets that nest here.
Without intervention, climate change would fundamentally alter the landscape at Titchwell Marsh, and displace the hundreds of birds that nest in these special habitats. Thanks to Life on the Edge project work, this bleak future can be prevented.
Work is already underway to reverse this decline and attract new species to the nature reserve, including the creation of 11 new islands in the marsh where birds can nest and roost. Flood defence banks have been raised and extended, and more than a kilometre of fencing to keep out predators has been installed. These improvements are essential for protecting ground nesting birds.
In 2021 there have been 20 pairs of avocet and seven pairs of ringed plover, nine pairs of bearded tit and one booming bittern. This is positive, but we’d like to see more species flourishing in the marsh.
While protecting breeding species is important, it’s also essential the needs of birds are met all year round. Titchwell provides vitally important habitats for wintering birds, including species that nest nearby in other parts of the Norfolk coast, such as redshank and oystercatcher. Titchwell also provides a winter home for species that nest in the Arctic, such as grey plover and knot.
We don’t know what the future holds, both for us and our coastal birds, but by taking action now, we can ensure there is a future to be had.
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.
Blog by Kieren Alexander, Site Manager for RSPB Old Hall Marshes
Work will shortly commence on an exciting project at Horsey Island in Essex to secure and enhance the most important little tern colony in Essex. Using sand and shingle materials from the major channel deepening conducted by Harwich Haven.
Funded by the EU Life+ project and the Environment Agency and with a major contribution from Harwich Haven Authority. This project aims to secure the future of the most important little tern colony in Essex, ensuring that it is secure from climate change and sea level rise for the next 50 years.
Horsey Island is a private island in the north of Essex, it was first recharged in the 1990’s using sand and shingle from a previous deepening operation conducted by Harwich Haven Authority. More recently it has evolved into the most important little tern colony in Essex, ably wardened by the Ranger employed by Tendring District Council. Its unique offshore location means that it is relatively free of disturbance from people and mammalian predators this has allowed little terns to thrive and develop a productive colony.
However, over time the beach has moved westward and landwards and gradually flattened out. This has meant the beach is increasingly vulnerable to high tide events especially over the breeding season. This means that to ensure that we can continue to provide habitat for little terns we need to recharge the recharge.
Drone footage of the beach at Horsey Island, taken before the recharge operation. Credit: RSPB & Jim Pullen
This is done by dredging sand and shingle then transporting it to the island, it is then deposited either via blowing it out over the bow or connecting a pipe and pumping it directly on to the foreshore. This is then moved around by the wind and tides until it settles on the existing beach raising the beach. This type of scheme is also known as a beneficial reuse scheme.
Not only will this project secure the future of the little tern colony, but it will also help to reduce erosion of saltmarsh, also a valuable and protected habitat. It will also maintain Horsey’s role as a wave break in the embayment, absorbing wave energy and helping to maintain the socio and economic and recreational opportunities this wonderful part of the Essex coast supports.
The work is due to commence on or around the 30th of September and will last approximately a month. We will be updating the blog during the operation to track progress.
Huge thanks to all our volunteers who help protect our breeding and wintering coastal birds!
Our Beach Nesting Bird volunteers at RSPB Pagham Harbour discussing the challenges shorebirds face and why it is important for visitors to give them space. Here, they have been using a model Little Tern and photos of nests to help show how vulnerable to disturbance beach nesting birds can be. Photo Credit: Sophie Yeomanson
This guest blog is by Alex who kindly shares her experience of volunteering.
Why get involved?
When you have been busy working for other people, there is nothing more rewarding than working for wildlife.
I started volunteering with the RSPB 4 years ago when I retired and was looking for some sort of activity to keep me busy. To say I have been on a steep learning curve would be an understatement. Up until then, I had not marvelled at a pair of owlets, peered into a bee nesting hole, or observed sea birds diving into the lagoon for food. I knew very little about the natural world, so volunteering allowed me to learn at my own pace.
This past spring and summer I joined the beach nesting bird team at RSPB Pagham Harbour and Medmerry with my husband. Whilst I was chatting to people visiting and giving them information to take home, my husband was using his camera to capture the wildlife in all its glory!
I love sharing my knowledge of the wildlife to visitors, especially to the children who are so eager to learn. No dinosaurs seen yet though! I also love being part of a great team of people who share their knowledge and experiences with me.
Favourite part of being with the Beach Nesting Bird team?
“I especially enjoyed engaging with inquisitive kids that wanted to “spot the tern” and then know more. I liked speaking to people who were interested in what we are trying to achieve.”
How can you help?
We are looking to expand this team across the wider Solent area in time for the next breeding season to help safeguard other nesting sites and provide a joined-up network of safe spaces for seabirds and beach nesting waders.
Find out how to get involved here: https://www.rspb.org.uk/get-involved/volunteering-fundraising/volunteer/
Or you can enquire through the LIFE on the Edge website: https://www.projectlote.life/
Photo credits: Oystercatcher by Katie Nethercoat (rspb-images.com)