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Twists and Terns

…for rare seabird breeding season

End of season report highlights promising signs for little terns despite a difficult 2015, says RSPB

Imagine weighing less than a tennis ball and having to battle treacherous storms and whirling winds all just to find a safe nesting place. Facing conditions like these in 2015, it’s no wonder that numbers of breeding little terns, the UK’s smallest and one of our rarest seabirds, have fallen 15% since 2014.

Staff working for a LIFE funded Little Tern Project monitoring their breeding behaviour have watched a complex season unfold, with ups and downs being recorded across England and Wales.

Little terns endured some of the toughest conditions during April and May where they tackled cool and windy weather as well as a lack of suitable small fish on returning to our shores from their wintering grounds in West Africa. This caused a number of little terns to abandon their colonies with Langstone Harbour on the south coast losing 31 of 36 nests and the first breeding attempts failing at Crimdon Dene, Teesside. At Winterton in Norfolk, usually a stronghold for little terns, over 80 nests were abandoned.

Little terns struggle to nest safely on our popular beaches, and even when left undisturbed by people they can suffer high levels of loss of eggs and chicks from a wide range of predators such as fox, stoat, crows and large gulls.

To understand more about the little tern population and its movements between different colonies, a coordinated count of all known colonies in England and Wales was carried out this year. The first count in June confirmed fears of a poor start to the breeding season. Norfolk counts were down 57% compared to June 2014 due to a combination of bad weather and feeding conditions as well as a decrease in the number of birds arriving in the first place.

However, it’s not all bad news for the delightful, chattering seabird. Highlights amongst the concerns include little terns being found nesting at three former colony sites not used for a number of years; a promising step towards one of the LIFE project objectives to restore former colony sites and expand current breeding range.

Other colonies were also doing better with the number of pairs at Spurn on the Humber and Gibraltar Point in Lincolnshire above their recent five-year average. Warmer weather and improved food availability helped a number of colonies to build up through early July – much later than a normal season- and eventually there was the reward of chicks reaching fledgling stage. Colonies doing well later in the season included Gronant in Wales, Eccles in Norfolk, Lindisfarne in Northumberland and the north Suffolk coast.

Susan Rendell-Read, LIFE Project Manager, said: “Although breeding numbers are down from last year and the five-year trend before that, a difficult season could have been a lot worse if it wasn’t for the hard work of the many rangers, wardens and volunteers on our national beaches protecting little terns.

“We are learning that by working together, managing the needs of little terns alongside recreational coastal pursuits, there can be tangible benefits for little terns as less disturbance means the adults can spend more time feeding and protecting their young. This is especially important when other threats like cool weather, poor feeding and predation put stress on a colony.”

Martin Harper, RSPB’s Director of Conservation, added: “Sadly, the little tern is facing an uncertain future across Europe, but thankfully this delicate and beautiful bird is being given a great chance as it benefits from specially protected sites and conservation funding, thanks to its protection under the European Union’s Birds Directive.”

The EU LIFE Project partners are: Cumbria Wildlife Trust, Denbighshire County Council, Durham County Council, Industry Nature Conservation Association (INCA), Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust, National Trust, Natural England, Northumberland County Council/Northumberland Coast AONB , RSPB and Spurn Bird Observatory Trust.


14th October 2015