Monday, 31 August 2015

Record success for 2015

With August coming to a close, how did the Little Terns do this year?

The answer is a record smashing success! This year an estimated 155 breeding pairs produced 301 chicks, 289 of which are presumed to have fledged and dispersed from the colony. This has been the most successful season for numbers of pairs and fledglings at Kilcoole since the conservation project began in 1985. Last year's breeding season (2014) was a record year, with at least double the number of successfully fledged chicks than in previous years. The 2015 breeding season surpassed this, breaking the record at Kilcoole again!

Although we had great success, it was not all plain sailing: Met Eireann reported parts of Ireland experiencing the wettest May in over 120 years, the coldest May in 19 years and the dullest since 1995. Such adverse weather significantly impacted the colony. The single greatest loss of eggs in 2015 was when 32 eggs were washed out from 17 nests during the spring tide and storm on July 4th, 5th and 6th. Earlier in the season, a tidal surge on June 10th overwashed 11 nests, destroying 29 eggs. The lowered profile of the beach, after the damage done by storms in 2012, has made the colony very vulnerable to the effect of high tides and the weather this season proved to be harsher than the previous 2 years. Despite the heavy egg losses, chick mortality was low. Just 3.9% of successfully hatched chicks are known to have died in 2015. This was generally due to natural mortality, but 3 chicks perished in the awful weather at the beginning of July.

A total of 267 Little Tern chicks were metal ringed this year. Trapping and measuring the chicks  gave an interesting insight into the growth rates of chicks. This year, chicks as young as Day 10 and 11 were approaching adult weight, indicating good food availability. As well as metal rings, the coordinated colour ringing programme at Kilcoole continued for its second year. Of the chicks presumed fledged at Kilcoole in 2015, 134 (46%) are colour ringed. These chicks have a green ring on the left leg with a white 3-letter or 3-letter-and-number inscription which are easily visible with telescopes. As they spend their first 2 years of life in West Africa before returning to Europe for their first breeding season, these chicks will not be back until 2017. However, the 2014 batch of colour ringed chicks will be returning to Ireland for the first time next spring. This will be the first time chicks colour ringed as part of this scheme will return to Ireland, so we are very excited to see what rings show up! Be sure to watch out for colour rings in tern flocks returning next April! 
The trend over the last 30 years (since the protection scheme has been in place) is clearly an increase in breeding numbers at Kilcoole.  The success of this breeding season is likely built on the good breeding seasons between 2003-2005 and 2008-2011, as many of the chicks fledged in those seasons have likely returned to Kilcoole to breed. Likewise, the success of 2014 and 2015 will hopefully provide a good base for breeding seasons in the future.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Spotted: 3 wardens migrating north on the N11

The field season for the Kilcoole Little Terns has come to an end in great celebration! This year has been incredible in terms of productivity, hatching success and fledgling success. On the day the wardens finally (sadly) departed the beach, the fledgling count was 291 fledges assumed alive. This is a staggering record and the highest ever produced in all 30 years of the project. Many have already left the site, with counts of less than 20 in the past week.

With the fences dismantled, we would like to extend our gratitude and thanks to all the volunteers who assisted with the project in the 2015 season. Volunteers are an integral part of protecting the breeding terns and their chicks. Such an effort requires a lot of dedication and time and the result of such work can be seen in the excellent success we have has this year. So thank you to Niall Galloway, John Wright, Fianna, Niall Houston, Candy Murphy, Chris Dobson, Jamie Ellis, Kate Bismilla, Cian Cardiff, Íosach Ó Riain, Adrienne Gallagher, Sarah Grimes, Cillian Roe, Darren O'Connell, Brian Power, Katie Manley, Jen Lynch, Niall Tierney, Ricky Whelan, Anne and Rosie Newton, Chris Webb, Meibh Foran, Lisa Doyle, Deirdre Reedy and Justin Ivory.

Also a special thank you to Niall Keogh for all his help and advice, to Declan Manley for providing invaluable cover and to Seamus Doyle for repairing everything from tripods to windows!

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Juveniles (but no delinquents!)

We have already looked at other species breeding inside the Tern colony - Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover, Skylark and Mallard. We have also seen other avian life outside the colony fences. Naturally, many of these species are breeding as well, and it is not just Little Terns that are fledging at Kilcoole. A long and very genteel ringing session last Sunday (I estimate we boiled the kettle for tea and biscuits at least 10 times) threw up plenty of juvenile passerines. These species nested within the Buckthorn at the north end of the colony or in the surrounding NPWS reserve and farmland.

A Sedge Warbler has his measurements taken during Sunday's ringing session (photo: Paddy Manley)

Among others, we had juvenile Willow Warbler, Sedge Warbler, Starling and Reed Bunting. Over the course of the season, there has also been evidence of breeding Blackbird, Yellowhammer, Dunnock, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Stonechat, Linnet, Goldfinch and Robin. Inside the lagoon, we have breeding Coot and, of course, the Mute Swan pair with their cygnet. Juvenile Kingfisher have been spotted in the channel.

Juvenile Sedge Warbler (photo: Paddy Manley)

Juvenile Willow Warbler - much yellower than adults (photo Paddy Manley)

Susan in conversation with a young Willow Warbler

Only in the past few weeks did I begin to see the juvenile flocks out and about. Murmurations of between 100 and 200 juvenile Starlings rise up out of the farmland on foraging trips. A small flock of perhaps 10 juvenile Linnet forage along the railway line, while a family group of Skylark regularly feed on Hogweed seeds in the camp.

And of course there are the non-birdy breeders - I have seen fox cubs and a baby hedgehog. Kilcoole also has a resident family of otters, and plenty of rabbits. The sand dune plants also support a great number of butterflies, with Meadow Browns in particular out and about on calm days.

The juvenile Terns are still at the colony: approximately 70 are loafing on the tideline today. I had a great insight into Tern communication between adults and their young when a Peregrine Falcon flew over the colony this morning. The adults and older chicks instantly took off out to sea when the Peregrine swooped over. The younger chicks flattened themselves into crouch-defense-camoflage position among the shingle on the foreshore. They remained perfectly still and crouched while the adult flock was out to sea avoiding the preying Peregrine eyes. As the flock returned to the shore again, I began to hear their chattering calls. Evidently the chicks heard it too and knew that it was safe, because they began to stand up and stretch out their wings and legs. One chick suddenly cheeped wildly and fluttered his wings in excitement and a few seconds later, his parent landed with a sprat. However, during his excitement, all the other chicks remained perfectly placid, indicating he knew that food was arriving for him, and him alone. These observations indicate that the chicks can differentiate calls for "hide, there is danger", "everything is alright" and "where are you? I've got dinner!". They also know the individual "voice" of their parents.

Like the young passerines we caught on Sunday, soon the last of these Little Terns will be experienced enough to  become more independent of their parents and strong enough to make the great journey south.

Susan and Paddy

Sunday, 2 August 2015

As Autumn arrives, Africa beckons

Nesting at the colony has finished for the 2015 season. All our chicks have come of age - the last chicks fledged two days ago. We have been getting consistently high counts of roughly 130 fledges loafing on the foreshore for the past week, indicating high fledgling survival. The fledges still need time to learn how to be big Little Terns before they can leave the protection of the colony. They still depend heavily on their parents for food, and will need to become that little bit more independent before the journey to West Africa.

The departure for migration draws ever closer. The fledglings are practicing hard at flying and hunting. They regularly practice offshore behind the breaking waves or in the lagoon as the tide is rising. Some have graduated from hovering and diving to braving the actual plunge into the water. However, I still have to witness a successful catch!

Other avian migrants have been coming through Kilcoole. The Swallows and Sand Martins are readying themselves, and flocks of Siskin came through last week. Wheatear have also been spotted. Curlew and Black-headed Gulls are returning from their inland breeding sites to spend the winter at the coast. The flora of Kilcoole are approaching the Autumn too, with most flowering plants around the colony fruiting. The Wild Carrot, Mustard, Hogweed, Kidney Vetch and the grasses are gone to seed.

This year has been off the charts in terms of nesting attempts and successful hatches! The Little Terns have done fantastically well in Kilcoole, while Common Terns and Roseates also had a very successful year in Rockabil. Years like this are very encouraging and a real morale-booster for active conservation in Ireland. We will soon be able to say for sure how many Little Terns successfully fledged in Kilcoole and headed off for southern climes. Unless a tornado comes through the colony, we may be have another record year!

Monday, 27 July 2015

Candid camera

I had some fun playing with a trail-cam in the colony today. This kind of camera uses motion sensors so that whenever there is movement within range, it is triggered to take a photo. I set this one up near the main roost to capture some of the daily activity of the Little Terns, While the resulting pictures are by no means National Geographic standards, they still offer a lovely glimpse into the life of the fledglings, so I thought even the blurry ones were still worth sharing...

Fledgling in flight

Parents bringing in food

Practicing flight

Dinner time!

Wing stretching

The race for food!!

Resting and relaxing

Watching over young

Fledgling chilling out

In flight

Searching for young
Thanks to Brian for the lend of the camera!

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Lift off!

Most of the chicks at Kilcoole are well on their way to fledging. The youngest chicks roaming the shingle are 10 days old now, and all their elder cousins are at least a week their senior. Some fledges have a prominent black-to-dark brown crown and waterproof feathers - showing that well on their way to being big and strong enough to migrate! Many chicks are still in that between-phase (and I think these are the prettiest!) where they have lovely speckled plumage, downy white underparts and a soft brown crown beginning to show through. Gone are the days of the fluffies and tinies - every chick is a chunky chick now!

Little Tern fleglings at Kilcoole © Niall Keogh

The beginnings of a dark crown forming © Niall Keogh

We catch these fledges daily now to take measurements of their wings and body weight. This helps us build a picture of how well they are growing and feeding. We learned of our first fully fledged chick on July 4th, when the warden, after applying a new colour-ring, released the chick and it promptly flew away! Since then, numerous fledges have been observed in the air. The eldest (with the dark crowns) fly with confidence and join the adult flocks. Younger ones remain on the shingle when the adults fly, and still practice small flutters - often crash landing!

The young have also been observed learning to hunt fish just offshore behind the breaking waves. They practice hovering and dropping into a dive towards the surface of the water. They haven't yet progressed to plunging in after a fish, but I have watched them shyly skim their feet with a splash.

When they are not learning how to be a big Little Tern, the fledglings flock together with the adults along the tideline, looking very grown-up indeed. That is, however, until the parents arrive with a freshly caught sprat, and suddenly they are most  chick-like again - wings waving, running and stumbling, cheeping as loud as they can to get to the meal before their siblings!

Our highest fledgling count this week has been 139 individuals. We expect that they will begin to move around the east coast a lot more as the gathering for migration looms ever closer. It will be interesting to see where our colour-rings show up!

Susan and Paddy

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Kilcoole Birdlife

The beach at Kilcoole is not only home to the Little Terns: we have many species on the shore, in the lagoon, in the surrounding farmland and offshore. Several of these species are breeding, while others are only passing through, and others are returning after their own breeding season.

Of course, the main focus of this project is on the Little Terns. Little Terns are one of Ireland's rarest breeding birds, following a massive decline in successful breeders in the latter half of the 20th century. The conservation project in Kilcoole began in 1985 with the aim of halting this decline by protecting the breeding birds. It has been extremely successful, and in 2014 enjoyed the highest number if fledged chicks on record. This year may yet reach another record high. 

Captain Splash, the Little Tern (Photo: Brian Power)

The structure of the colony allows other species to breed within the protected area. Each year, several Ringed Plover and a number of Oystercatcher and Skylark, nest and hatch their chicks alongside the Terns. This year, an Oystercatcher with a colour-ring "PJ" was among those nesting at Kilcoole. This Oystercatcher was ringed as part of the Dublin Bay Birds Project, which monitors the activities of wader populations in Dublin Bay. Having spent the earlier part of this year working on the DBBP team, I was delighted to see an old friend come with me to Kilcoole. PJ went on to hatch a brood of three chicks, and we hope to get a second generation ring on there!

PJ - or Patricia Jane- the Oystercatcher (photo: Niall Keogh)
Ringed Plover brooding her chicks among the Tern nests (photo: Chris Dobson)

Skylark nest in marram grass tufts inside the Tern colony (photo: Chris Dobson)

Outside of the colony and into the lagoon, we have many regular avian visitors. The brackish water and exposed mud in the lagoon support breeding Shelduck, Mallard (how could I forget my duckling fiasco?) and Mute Swan. There are plenty of waders, including Turnstone, Curlew arriving back from breeding, Whimbrel, Bar-tailed and Black-tailed Godwit, Redshank and Greenshank. We have already gotten up close and personal with the Dunlin in the lagoon back in an early ringing session at the beginning of the project.

Mute Swan with cygnet (photo: Chris Dobson)
This week also saw the arrival of an interesting visitor -  a White-cheeked Pintail was swimming in the lagoon on Thursday. This pretty Caribbean species most probably wandered out of a garden pond somewhere and ended up in Kilcoole. Although it is completely out of place, it is still a lovely sight.

AWhite-cheeked Pintail wanders into the lagoon (photo: Niall Keogh)

 Also found here are plenty of gulls, such as Greater Black-back, Lesser Black-back and Herring Gull and the past week saw the arrival of Black-headed Gulls in large numbers to the lagoon. We have had a couple of more unusual gull sightings as well - Yellow-legged Gull and Little Gull. Finally, there are the Little Egrets and Grey Herons that have become part of the camp furniture.

Little Egret (photo: Trail Camera)
Grey Heron (photo: Brian Power)
The Sea Buckthorn at the north end of the colony is a nice spot for passerines. The regulars include Reed Bunting, Goldfinch, Linnet, Blue and Great Tits, Blackbird, Meadow Pipit and Wheatear. 
Wheatear on the colony fence (photo: Niall Keogh)
Offshore, a powerful telescope will turn up Manx Shearwater, Storm Petrel, Gannet, Common Scoter, Puffin, Guillemot and Black Guillemot among others. Out on the farmland, there are Yellowhammer and Kingfisher, Sightings have been reported for both of these colourful birds this year, but I myself have yet to spot them! I will be keeping my eyes pealed with every trip!

Susan and Paddy