Thursday 15 August 2019

Project Summary 2019

The first Little Tern nest was found on the 17th May. The ‘active nest count’ peaked on 27th May with a total of 130 nests, shortly afterwards the number began to decline due to initially undetermined nocturnal predation. Various predators were active around the colony over the course of the season, including; American Mink, Hedgehog, Rook, Red Fox and Peregrine. A total of 68 nests (52% of the colony maximum) were depredated between 27th May – 5th June, during which time two Hedgehogs were observed on the main colony (using thermal imaging optics) and removed. It was concluded that they were responsible for the greatest number of losses during this time having gained access to the colony by entering under the netting along the seaward side in the aftermath of tidal damage. Of the total nest losses during this period, 13 were on the satellite colony south of the breaches, of which, the greatest deficit was incurred by an unidentified nocturnal predator. The confirmed presence of American Mink in the estuary and lagoons throughout the duration of the project meant that predation by this species could not be ruled out. Additionally, sustained opportunistic predation by Rooks caused losses of individual eggs, and high levels of nest abandonments.  

During the intervening period to the 12th June the ‘active nest count’ again rose steadily to a total of 95. However, over the course of the following days the colony sustained losses due to tidal inundation. The marine influence abated on the 15th but not before destroying or causing abandonment of a further 33 nests (35% reduction). In the aftermath, the ‘active nest count’ rose to 80 by the 17th June, at which point the first batch of nests were marked ‘departed’ indicating in each case that the clutch had successfully walked off the scrape. 21 nests were observed ‘departed’ between 17th – 21st June.
Figure 1. Complete season - active nest trend (Data: BirdWatch Ireland)

From 22nd – 31st June, the ‘active nest count’ rose, initially quite rapidly, to 106 on the 23rd . Subsequently the trend exhibits a brief plateau before continuing to rise steadily to a peak of 111 on the 31st  June. (see Figure 1. for complete season - active nest trend). Based on colonial observations at this time, it is suggested that the incumbency of this latest cohort may be a proportional representation; of relaying birds faithful to the Kilcoole site and; a contingent from a neighbouring colony at Portrane, Co. Dublin (tentative). According to reports, circa 30 pairs of Little Terns abandoned breeding grounds at Portrane around this time, due to high levels of disturbance by a Fox.
From the 1st June the number of chicks departing their nests grew continuously, reducing the active nest count, eventually to zero.

A total of 269 chicks were recorded at Kilcoole in 2019 of which 253 were ringed (compared to 257 and 258 in the previous years consecutively). We are confident that ~90% of the total number fledged successfully, with the first fledgling observed taking to the wing on the 28th June. Losses to young birds were attributed to; natural causes (5), unidentified cause (4), lost at sea (1), Peregrine (4), Fox (11). Predation by Peregrine and Fox was especially pronounced towards the end of the season, with the peregrine taking fledglings on the wing and the fox stalking them on the ground by night.

A new nest was discovered as late as the 30th July containing a brood of 2 freshly hatched chicks. It was monitored apprehensively for 3 days until, alas, on the 3rd of August the chicks were gone.
Juvenile female Peregrine which frequented the colony in July taking at least 4 fledglings. (Photo: Daniele Gioppo) 
During the last few days of wardening duty on the colony some notable sightings were made on or near the site, including; comma butterfly, Green Sandpiper, and Great Egret which rounded proceedings off nicely. 

Left: Comma butterfly. Right: Great Egret and Grey Heron

 From everyone involved in the Kilcoole Little Tern Conservation Project 2019, we would like to say a big thank you to everyone who has supported the project this year.
The 2019 Team. L-R: Isabelle, Kevin, Daniele, Eilis,Chris, Alex, Steve, Darren.

Wednesday 24 July 2019

The Crunching of Carapace

The final Little Tern chick of the Kilcoole season hatched on Monday 22nd July. It will be metal ringed soon, bringing the total to 248 and a further 126 green darvic colour rings applied to the right tarsus of captured chicks will identify these birds as having been born at Kilcoole. Our next duty is to ascertain, to the closest possible account, what proportion of the chicks fledge successfully and to do our best in making sure the percentage is high.
To provide the highest level of protection to Little Terns and their chicks at Kilcoole beach, wardens are present around the clock. This means three wardens, each on sentry duty for eight hours a day. Shifts are divided into morning, evening and night and are rotated occasionally to afford the wardens some variety, whereby the wildlife encountered can vary considerably at different times of the day and night. The morning shift is a marvellous time to experience birds embracing the new day, boldly staking a claim to their territory through their dawn chorus of song. The evening shift, which encapsulates the local celestial meridian, is the best time to encounter heat loving invertebrates such as bees, butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies.

Birds of the dawn chorus (from top left: Goldfinch, Sedge Warbler, Yellowhammer)

 As the sun retreats and the birds and butterflies abate, a dusky calm descends on the beach and over the lagoon. Gulls and corvids depart the mudflats having foraged contently all throughout the low tide. The chirping of Little Terns recedes, until; silence. Then, an Oystercatcher calls out in it's distinctive trill in typical defiance to the end of the day.

Night has fallen...

I have finished my evening shift. It is now 23:05 and I venture out once again to become a part of the nocturnal wildlife. I have a bat detector in hand and hopes are high for some encounters, due to the warm, calm night. All at once the tiny fluttering silhouettes of bats surround me, resonating at 55KHz on the heterodyne detector, Soprano pipistrelles. With a foraging range up to 3km, they have most likely travelled from a roost in the broadleaved woodland across the lagoon to the west. I retune in the hope of detecting a Leisler's bat, the Irish population is of international importance and the species has been recorded at this location in the past but to no avail.

Pictures above: top left; Four-spotted chaser, top right; Common Blue, bottom left; Small Tortoiseshell, bottom right; Drinker moth caterpillar.

Then suddenly, from within the lagoon, a ripple accentuated by the moonlight and the silhouette of a swimming mustelid comes into view. It navigates into the shadow of the shore, in close proximity but out of sight.. then.. from the other side of the earthen bank.. the crunching of carapace! I retreat with haste to get a torch, feeling certain that another encounter with a mink is looming. Shining the light down from on top of the bank where I am now standing, homing in on the noise, illuminated, chewing, a mustelid indeed, an Otter.

It's great to see an Otter in the lagoon for the first time this season, not least because they will repress the number of mink in the area (Bonesi, 2004) but also because their playful nature and social habits are a joy to watch. Fingers crossed that they hang around.

Bye for now,


Reference, Bonesi, Laura & Chanin, Paul & Macdonald, David. (2004). Competition between Eurasian otter Lutra lutra and American mink Mustela vison probed by niche shift. Oikos. 106. 19 - 26. 10.1111/j.0030-1299.2004.12763.x.

Tuesday 16 July 2019

The Battle for 300

Nothing occurs in nature
except the impossible 
and that never occurs - Gallileo Galilei

Friday 12th July and an air of cautious exultation has descended as the 240th Little Tern chick at Kilcoole receives it's uniquely coded metal ring that will accompany it, ad infinitum. With the population of chicks now well into it's 3rd century for this year, the feelings of exuberance at reaching this noteworthy milestone, are perhaps over-zealous. After all Little Terns have been recreating this scenario for centuries, if not millennia, on coastal stretches here and abroad, minus the metal rings of course! Many bird species have developed the evolutionary gambit of relaying in the event of a nest failure, it is a strategy that is certainly critical to reproducing successfully. Nonetheless it is difficult not to feel great respect for such a display of resilience and resurgence in the face of adversity and great challenges and it is difficult not to feel somewhat invested in the outcome of the colony.
The 240th Little Tern chick ringed at Kilcoole in 2019
As the number of hatchlings and subsequent fledglings (currently 15) continues to proliferate, the number of active nests inevitably dwindles. Of course this is by no means the end, it is just the beginning! The previous threats to eggs posed by high tides and hungry hedgehogs have lost their potency due to the newly found mobility of this years offspring, but the danger has not abated. Developing lean chicks provide calorific fare for hungry ground predators and attacks from the air. While foxes and crows mean you don't dare to blink, don't ever forget about the wiley old mink!

Now mobile Little Tern chicks march up the beach at Kilcoole
Fledgling success, preparing for a first trip to Africa

The myriad of challenges certainly causes a degree of stress to the Little Terns and don't forget that they have navigated about 4,000 km to arrive here and soon they will experience the innate sense to make the return journey to wintering grounds in West Africa. However, the majority exude confidence and knowhow, as if they have done it all before! Well this is very much the case. Only this week we received news from our neighbouring colony in Gronant in north Wales, that a Little Tern had been re-sighted there, that was ringed in 1993. Fit and healthy at 26 years old this is now the oldest Little Tern on record. Astounding! The previous record was 21 years. Such a symbol of courage against overwhelming odds could be likened to the Battle of Thermopylae, exemplified as the power of a patriotic army defending it's native soil, or in this case shingle and sand! We are delighted to think that our Irish Little Terns will be going back to Africa with their ranks bolstered by 240 and we will continue to fight in The Battle for 300!
Adult Little Tern defending territory
Sunset over the North lagoon

Friday 5 July 2019

All for One and One for All

Help from volunteer wardens has always been an important part of the success of Kilcoole Little Tern Project. For this week’s Blog we welcome a contribution from Eilis who worked with us for four weeks. Having just completed a BSc. in Applied Freshwater and Marine Biology at GMIT Galway, Eilis had just the right range of skills to become a great asset to our team. Previously Eilis has volunteered and completed internships with sea turtles and penguins. She says, “I have always wanted to work in seabird conservation and I was delighted when BirdWatch Ireland accepted my application to join the team in Kilcoole, I was excited to join the project and learn all about Ireland’s rarest breeding seabird and the challenges involved in protecting them.” 
View west from the hide (photo Eilis Hogan)

“Thinking back on the day I arrived on the Kilcoole project I was completely blown away by the beautiful scenery, the wildlife and how peaceful this part of the country was considering how close it is to Dublin City”.
“That morning I joined Darren in the hide where I got to witness my first ever tern colony live in action. This is where I learned the real tricks of the trade! Having never stepped foot on a seabird colony I didn’t really know what to expect…  My first morning on the reserve came in the aftermath of an invasion, by no less than two undetected hedgehogs, which had been stealthily scoffing eggs, over the course of the previous week.” 
“As I woke every morning at 5:30 a.m. to begin my shift, I’d love to say I was bright eyed and bushy tailed. Sadly this wasn’t the case! Grabbing my cup of tea, binoculars, telescope and paperwork for the day I scrambled out to the hide, falling over fences in the process. This was definitely the most stressful part of the day. Nevertheless, once settled in the hide, all was forgotten as I spent the next 8 hours admiring the scenery and observing the behaviour of the terns diving into the sea catching fish and incubating their nests.”  
A pair of two day old chicks (photo Eilis Hogan)
“The first eggs began to hatch on the 9th of June. Another volunteer Brian and I couldn’t get over how cute and fluffy they were and we were so excited to discover them. I still get excited every time I see one! Once the chicks were one day old, Chris, Steve, Brian and I began to ring them collecting data on their weight and wing length while doing so.” 
“These birds are very hardy given their little size, with all the odds against them. With challenges from predation and high tides washing up their nests, they never seemed to give up!”.
In the event of a nest loss most pairs will attempt to relay in a different location. As my volunteering experience was coming to an end, a second round of relays have started to hatch and there are many more chicks to come as the birds continued to lay up until the 25th June. Fingers crossed no more predators or high tides will get at the Little Terns this season!”
“My overall experience working on the little tern colony in Kilcoole has been amazing. I have learned so much about little terns and what it takes to protect them and other birds within this very special mix of wildlife habitats along the seashore in Kilcoole. It has definitely encouraged me to continue working with sea birds in my future career!”
Not quite flying, a hatchling hiding behind seaweed.

From all of the Wardens and other volunteers on the project, we would like to thank Eilis for her hard work and great commitment. At the time of writing, there have been 20 successful nests where the chicks have already left and will soon fledge, there are currently 79 active nests and 126 chicks have been ringed to date. The first fledgling was witnessed taking to the wing on the 28th June. All in all, after such a difficult start, there is a feeling amongst the camp that this may well be a successful year again, for the Little Terns at Kilcoole. 

Bye for now,

Hungry beaks to feed. Little Tern returning with Sandeel. (Credit Darren Ellis)

Thursday 20 June 2019

Colony Update

The last couple of weeks have been so hectic that there has barely been time to blog! We left you with news of the presence of American Mink and although there have been several recent sightings from the vicinity of the colony to the East Coast Nature Reserve, this species has not yet inflicted any harm upon the Little Terns. Here's hoping that the lagoon has an ample supply of water borne food to provide adequate sustenance for it/them (there may be more than one!) There have, however been many other unwelcome incursions onto the colony, most notably, beginning on the 27th May an invasion by hedgehogs. Best efforts are made to ascertain the absence of hedgehogs after the perimeter fence is installed initially, by checking the marram grass thoroughly and ensuring the fence is impregnable. However, the wardens have occasionally been working over-time to replace the fence due to radically frequent extreme weather events in late May and early June each time it is washed in on tides driven by strong easterly winds. A weakened boundary section can improve the chances of such opportunistic scavengers gaining entry and causing damage to the colony, as happened twice during the week commencing 27th May, alas, two single hedgehogs were removed to safe distances from the site on two separate nights. Subsequent monitoring of the colony would reveal the perpetual loss that week of 48 nests, although some may be attributed in part to other predators such as corvids. Egg predation by hedgehogs can be identified, firstly; by their ravenous appetite and covert operation and secondly; by the rectangle incision that they craft on the egg, to access it's nutrition.  The colony had experienced it's first major threat, going from an initial population count of 136 pairs down to 88 active nests in a few days. In the aftermath, it appeared as though many birds had abandoned the site. We were devastated but it was early enough in the season for birds to attempt relaying and we were hopeful but above all resolute that this will be the last such of losses.
Left: Hedgehog apprehended on the Kilcoole colony by night wardens. Right: Example. Note the right angled incision in the chicken egg, characteristic of this species, this individual was not the culprit here though.

 Before we move on to some more positive news it must be reported that a continuation in bad weather and wind from the east, last week, caused the 'washing up' of a further 27 nests which had been laid too close to the high tide line. The losses were to include fourteen of the fifteen nests at the 'satellite colony' south of the breaches. Miraculously, one nest remains there and it is that of our previously christened pair Evan and Hazel. We have been spared a posit of joy from the almost decimated satellite colony and I fervently look forward to reporting on the arrival of chicks from Evan and Hazel.

Despite a marathon of hurdles, currently the colony remains active and is doing well with the second coming of many Little Terns to the skies over Kilcoole. During the past week the predation threat has diminished considerably allowing many chicks to hatch and many more nests to be relaid. Presently there are 61 active nests and over the course of the past week wardens have been busy ringing a total of 46 chicks.
Little Tern chick alongside expectant siblings.

Incubating. Many birds continue to relay after a harrowing start to the season.
 As always the project is well respected by local residents and beach-goers and their support is most welcome given the myriad of challenges faced from other quarters. Towards the end of May we welcomed the annual visit from St. Laurence's school from Greystones. Pupils of all ages and their teachers joined us over four mornings to see Little Terns and talk about the project and other wildlife using the area.

The visits didn't all go exactly as planned however, as on one of the mornings just as a school group was arriving on site we were accosted by a very tame fox which made it's way along the footpath adjacent to the colony. This fox did not scare easily and barely flinched in the face of a challenge from the two wardens present. Eventually the intruder was escorted away but not before showing a considerable interest to what was happening within the confines of the fenced off colony. Once the fox had departed we were somewhat amazed at the audacity but briskly regrouped to chat to our guests, who were more than happy to have encountered the sly fox.

Fantastically casual Mr. Fox.

Wardens watching Little Terns through the scope with pupils from St. Laurence's school.

Over the past couple of weeks we have been joined by some fantastic people who have volunteered to work on the project. We are most grateful to them for their help and by all accounts the project is providing everyone with good experience of rare breeding seabird conservation.
If you get a chance drop down to the beach and see us, we will be delighted to have a chat! On Saturday we will be joined by the Wicklow branch of Birdwatch Ireland, perhaps you could join them for a full guided tour of the local wildlife from Kilcoole to the breaches, including the Little Terns.

All the best for now,


Thursday 23 May 2019

Occupying Tern Territory

The project is now in full swing and the first Little Tern egg was discovered on the 17th May whilst we were completing the construction of the hide, it is a mere five metres from the hide so it will make for nice easy observations. As it has been seven days since the last blog post, there have been many developments in an exciting and sometimes dramatic week. The number of Little Tern nests has risen sharply to the current total of ninety, eighty of which are in the main colony and ten are located in the satellite colony south of the breaches. The best part of this news is that the vast majority of nests are holding a large clutch of three eggs. 

The first Little Tern egg of the season.

On Monday, some time observing colour ring markers in the satellite colony paid off and two Little Terns with green rings (indicative of birds hatched and ringed in Kilcoole) were recorded. The rings' codes read "IEV" and "IHZ" so we have named the birds wearing them; Evan and Hazel. These two have been displaying mating rituals together and we are sure they are about to nest, so I will keep you informed of their progress as the season goes on! Also, later on, when we have trawled through ring records I will be able to elaborate on the history of these two birds and hopefully we might get information from re-sightings made across their migratory flyway between the Irish Sea and western Africa where they spend the winter.

Kilcoole fledglings "Evan and Hazel" have returned and are pairing off.

On Tuesday around midday, a walking group from Bray paid a visit to the site on their way to Birdwatch Ireland's East Coast Nature Reserve in Newcastle. They were keen to learn about the project so we had a good chat about the history, facts and current success of the project and then answered some questions about Little Tern conservation. As the group set off on their departure, one of the walkers, quite keenly, spotted a Ringed Plover chick on the footpath. The one day old chick, had haphazardly wandered away from it's parents in the wrong direction and found itself lost. No sooner than it was discovered, it was replaced within the protective boundary of the colony fence. We watched for a short period and tracked the arrival of an adult, which made it's way to the chick. There seemed to be a brief moment of bonding between the adult bird and the chick, until, thirty seconds later another adult Ringed Plover burst onto the scene and aggressively deterred the pretender. The chick now seemed familiar with the presence of the new bird and scurried underneath it's body. As we watched on we were satisfied that parent and chick had been reunited - but I pondered for a while about the other adult bird, the would have been surrogate, perhaps she had lost a chick too!

Adventurous wanderer - a one day old Ringed Plover chick.
Wednesday began with the welcome arrival of a small flock of migrating Knot to the colony, although they were certainly unwelcome to the Little Terns on sentry duty over their valuable nests, which quickly formed a guard and ushered the visiting flock away. There's no tolerance for occupying Tern territory here!

A new burrow had appeared at the north lagoon a number of days ago and due to it's size, suspicions were building that it may be the work of a small mustelid, namely American Mink! Today those suspicions were confirmed as we watched helplessly as the Mink swam sleekly up the south lagoon, raising much alarm amongst the avian community as it passed by. It then made land and casually sauntered up the shore, disappearing into long grass on the railway sidings only 30 metres from our campsite and no less than 50 metres from the Little Tern colony.

The American Mink is a formidable creature; intelligent and tough, resilient and versatile. It is it's tantalising prowess which has led the American Mink to become one of Ireland's most distained invasive species. It's habit of 'surplus killing' when presented with a bountiful resource of prey makes the species a potent threat to vulnerable ground nesting bird populations, such as our Little Terns. There is no option but to trap it and remove it humanely from the site before it has an opportunity to do any harm!

American Mink photographed at the south lagoon on 22nd May.

Along with foxes, crows, human disturbance and unpredictable weather events, coupled with high tides, the Little Terns have more than their fair share of challenges to reproducing successfully. Scientific studies of Little Tern conservation have shown that in the modern day, at un-protected sites, breeding productivity is not likely to be more than 0.10 (i.e.1 chick reared and fledged per 10 breeding pairs). At kilcoole, the recent (3 -year) trend for breeding productivity is averaging 1.17, that's more than one chick successfully fledged by each  breeding pair. The current team will be working hard during the course of this season to maintain and hopefully increase productivity. As ever we thank the local people for sharing their beach with these fantastic Little Terns and we welcome you to come along and chat to us about the project.

I look forward to bringing news of more nests next time.

Thanks for reading.


Thursday 16 May 2019

Returning Terns!

Hello Everyone and welcome to a new season of the Little Tern Conservation Project. As this is my first year on the project I am very excited for what lies ahead over the next three months. Having followed the project for the last couple of years I know there could be turbulent times ahead, here's hoping for more highs than lows! My name is Darren and I will be joining Chris on the day warden duties for the duration of this years project. Some of you may be familiar with Chris as he is returning for his third year to work with the Little Terns. You can find out a bit more about us in the "meet the team" section of the pages menu on the right. A little later, we will also be welcoming some fantastic volunteers who will be coming along to learn more about Little Tern conservation and help us out along the way.

After the initial meet and greets with project managers and various stakeholders, we got to work installing the ever important predator proof fence around the boundary of the main colony. During the work we were able to observe the arrival of returning terns. By the 2nd of May we were able to record a peak count of eight Little Terns. The pioneers from West Africa, leading the charge to cooler, more productive Irish waters. Numbers continued to grow steadily over the next few days, ten, twelve, eighteen, thirty-four, respectively.

By the 6th of May we were experiencing quite stiff northerly winds, which seemed to temporarily halt any further arrivals. A couple of days later the winds had swung around to south-easterlies and on Thursday 9th a high spring tide coupled with Beaufort 5 easterlies, during the night, tore down much of the seaward fencing which had just been erected. The tide had reached far up the beach, completely altering the topography of the shingle from multiple stepped ridges to a more gently sloping gradient and covering seventy-five percent of the area within the fenced boundary. Luckily it was too early for any nests to have been established but a perilous reminder of the challenges faced by breeding Little Terns. With the boundary fence re-established we were able to count about eighty Little Terns, which are beginning to partake in feeding and flight mating rituals.

The breeding season is in full swing now for many other birds too, confirmed by the finding of a Golden Plover nest with a clutch of three eggs, which she wisely chose to lay just 30 cm inside the protection of the boundary fence. Male Lapwings are performing there spectacular aerial acrobatics, in the skies landward of our position, accompanied by their techno sounding cries, to impress a potential suitor.

Dunlin are in resplendent summer plumage, marching up and down the beach and foraging on the mudflats in the tidal lagoon, whilst Shelduck have long since paired up and established territories. With occasional challenges from a subordinate male Shelduck the subsequent combat makes for edge of the seat spectating, both flying up; flapping and pecking furiously. 

Overhead, amidst the crackling calls of Little Terns; Swallows, House and Sand Martins have been busily gathering their fare. On the 8th they were joined for the first time by Swifts. Skylarks too are a welcome distraction, regularly heard in what is surely the most beautiful of all bird song but only occasionally seen fluttering at unfathomable heights. We have also been joined for the past week by a flock of Whimbrel, the coastal fields becoming a staging post on their migration to northern breeding grounds. Somewhat peculiarly, they plot their migration north in stages, stopping off along the way but returning south to Africa for winter in one direct flight. 

In addition to the regularly occurring species and breeding birds on site, in the last few days we have encountered a couple of less likely species, or rarities perhaps in an Irish context. A Pink-footed Goose was observed grazing in the company of our resident Mute Swans and a brief visit was paid to the lagoon by a Ruff.

Pink-footed Goose (Anser brachyrhynucus) 
Ruff (Calidris pugnax)

At last count Little Terns were numbering over 120 with more and more arriving everyday. We are all really excited at the prospect of discovering Little Terns with green colour rings, which were previously fitted at Kilcoole. This way we can tell which birds have bred here and successfully navigated the past year. This way we can see which ones really are the returning terns.

It's time to go and build the hide now so we can easily make these observations without disturbing the birds. I look forward to keeping you informed of the progress as the weeks go on.