Monday, 25 May 2015

Egging on the Terns

After finding our first nest, we had a four day wait until finally, while telescoping out of the hide this morning, I saw a Little Tern carefully turning her eggs in the scrape before settling back to incubate. A short time later, her mate landed beside the nest with a sand eel that she gratefully snatched off him and swallowed. Little Terns will catch and carry back food to their incubating mates, a strategy that ensures the eggs are protected for as much time as possible. They will also take turns incubating the eggs, so either male or female might be sitting on the nest. A fair trade!

On seeing the Terns feeding each other, I knew to search for a nest and discovered a single egg. It is likely another egg, or perhaps even two more, will be laid by tomorrow. By the end of the day, we had found three nests, with an egg apiece, bringing us to a total of four nests and five eggs. Plenty more can be expected if the number of successful courtships this morning is anything to go by! A large number of Terns are digging out scrapes for nesting and sampling the shingle for good nesting sites. They are also becoming very defensive of their little territories – all sure signs for breeding.

The shore in Kilcoole supports many bird species along with the Terns. Ringed Plover and Oystercatcher are also breeding within the colony, while Whimbrel and Dunlin feed on the foreshore among the Terns. Last night, we were excited to have Declan Manley down to Kilcoole to ring Dunlin in the lagoon behind the colony. He set four nets in the lagoon during low tide hours and waited for the rising tide to push the waders into our nets. Just before dark, we had a successful catch, including this youngster, who is still too young to produce the breeding plumage worn by adults in the summer season.

One of Kilcoole's own Dunlin (S. Doyle)
More to come,
Susan and Paddy

Friday, 22 May 2015

Egg-citing news for Kilcoole!

After a week of hopeful waiting and scanning the shingle with our telescopes, our patience was rewarded yesterday. Just before dark, we spotted a Little Tern sitting among the stones while all the other Terns had gone to roost. She was sitting on two eggs, so we are delighted to announce our first Little Tern nest for the 2015 season!
Little Terns lay their eggs in shallow scrapes directly onto the shingle © Chris Dobson (picture taken under NPWS licence)

Last year’s Terns began laying on the 25th of May due to very bad weather the week before. This year, the first nest was laid on the 21st of May, four days earlier. However, even four days earlier, the Terns began nesting later than expected. Perhaps this is due to last week’s gale winds and heavy rain.

We have not come across a second nest since last night, but judging by the courting activity and the large number of Terns, we are expecting lots more! Our largest colony count this week was in and around 200 Terns. Hopefully many of these will choose to stay and nest in Kilcoole.  

Susan and Paddy

Monday, 18 May 2015

A colour-ring 'terns' up in Kilcoole!

Yesterday I spotted a Little Tern on the shingle with colour rings on its legs. It had a metal ring on the right leg and a yellow ring on the left. This colour combination is likely to be on a Tern ringed in the Isle of Man, where there are breeding Little Tern colonies on the Ayres to the north of the island. While I didn’t get a chance to read the inscription, hopefully I will get another chance in the coming days and we can find out more on this bird’s history.

Numbers of Terns are on the rise. Plenty of courting behaviour was observed  between showers today - see this photo of a male presenting his courtship gift to a discerning female. Other males have successfully wooed a mate and are prospecting potential abodes for their youngsters around the shingle.

Young love © Chris Dobson 

Although no Terns have laid eggs, the Ringed Plover and Oystercatcher are well on their way to parenthood. Three pairs of both Ringed Plover and  Oystercatcher have made the colony home and are already incubating eggs. Territory disputes are flaring up between the species – with plenty of panicky Ring Plovers valiantly defending their nests!

Protective parents © Chris Dobson
Susan and Paddy

Sunday, 17 May 2015

A new season. A new hope.

The 2015 Kilcoole Little Tern Conservation Scheme season began May 11th with the arrival of the wardens and fenceposts. Just 30 Little Terns were waiting to greet us, but this number has slowly risen over the past week thanks to a strong southerly wind carrying Terns with it from Africa.

2014’s wardens, Andrew and Darren are continuing in their ornithological ways. Andrew has left the Little Terns to care for their Roseate cousins on Rockabil (terncoat!). You can keep up with his decent into madness on the Rockablog Darren has journeyed overseas to the sunny islands of Indonesia to study the island biogeography of Sunbirds, White-eyes, Flowerpeckers and probably some more, for his PhD in TCD. We wish them both the very best in their endeavours! 

Night warden Cole Macey will be with us for his 8th season in Kilcoole and will hopefully bring the luck of last season back with him. The new day wardening team for 2015 are Susan Doyle and Paddy Manley - see more about us on "meet the team". East Coast Nature Reserve warden Jerry Wray will once again act as reserve warden, providing much needed cover and help putting the colony set up in place. Dr. Steve Newton of BirdWatch Ireland manages the Kilcoole project, as part of his hectic seabird schedule!

As per usual, the colony fence is put up once Little Terns show up in Kilcoole. We made great progress, getting both the fence and the bird hide up in just a matter of days thanks to the help of Chris, Declan and Cillian. Hopefully, Little Terns will take up residence in their shingle estate in the next week or so. 

Tern Wardens - Jerry, Paddy, Susan and co. © Chris Dobson
Last years first nest was discovered on May 25th because bad weather delayed the Terns. Heavy rain and wind last week may cause the same situation this year. However, we have already marked two Ringed Plover and one Oystercatcher nest within the colony!

Susan and Paddy

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Nest moving Terns dodge high tides

They’re back! The first Little Terns returned to Ireland last month and the first Little Tern was seen back in Kilcoole on the 19th of April. It won’t be long before the wardens are back on site, the fences are up and the beautiful Little Terns start nesting again. Let’s hope that we have another bumper year in Kilcoole after last year’s record breaking season.

They're back! © Andrew Power and Peter Cutler (Picture taken under NPWS  licence) 

The return of the Little Terns has also been marked by the publication of a paper by the 2014 Kilcoole team in the latest issue of IrishBirds based on observations we took of a unique response by the Kilcoole Little Terns to a dangerous high tide. While we do everything in our power to protect the Little Terns in Kilcoole, some things are out of our control. A high spring tide allied with a strong easterly wind has the power to wash out an entire colony. This happened in 2012 at Kilcoole, destroying every nest. The terns that year didn't stand a chance as the tides were just too strong. The bad weather meant that 2012 was a particularly bad season for terns in Britain and Ireland but, luckily, terns can bounce back quickly when conditions are suitable (just look at the success of last year). Although high tides are an ever present danger to Little Tern colonies, last season the Little Terns showed us they are not completely helpless to the forces of nature.

Spring tides last year © Andrew Power

Last year high tides hit the colony during the peak of the breeding season. When the tide receded and we wardens could survey the damage, we feared the worst, with the seaweed line having been thrown over a large section of nests. Confirming these fears 12 nests had been completely washed away. However, to our surprise, 13 pairs of terns had managed to re-gather and move their clutches into new nest scrapes further up the beach after inundation by the tide. Though the movement of eggs into new nests has been observed in waders and waterfowl, most notably in the Piping Plover, this behaviour has never previously been recorded in a tern species.
We closely observed the outcome in these nests and unsurprisingly found that a significantly higher proportion of eggs from tide affected nests failed to hatch than from nests that were unaffected by the tide. The chill of the Irish Sea coupled with the mechanical damage caused by tide inundation were likely to have been (literally) a killer combination for the developing embryos within the eggs. However the 13 Little Tern pairs which had nests inundated by the tide still managed to produce 20 fledglings (out of 32 eggs in these nests). This was a remarkable achievement given the circumstances, attesting to the robustness of the tern eggs and adaptability of the parent birds, key attributes when living in an unpredictable environment.
We also observed this behavior from a pair of Ringed Plover earlier in the year. Unfortunately the eggs did not hatch but they gave themselves a fighting chance. That combined with the hard work of the wardens and volunteers will hopefully ensure a bright future for the birds in Kilcoole.

The original nest scrape is on the left and the 4 eggs moved by the parents can be seen on the right © Andrew Power

Blog post by
Andrew Power and Darren O'Connell

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

The Big Year

We've been off site now for 2 weeks. It's hard to believe the season is over for another year, they grow up so fast! It's a strange feeling leaving our caravans after taking care of the Little Terns for the last 3 months. I'm still adjusting to normal hours and not chasing after crows! We couldn't be happier as the 2014 Kilcoole Little Tern Conservation Project was a phenomenal success. 120 breeding pairs of Little Terns graced Kilcoole this year which was a record. The previous highest was 106 pairs in 2006. 219 Little Tern chicks are presumed to have fledged this year and, you guessed it, this was also a record. The numbers this year have been off the charts, literally. We had to manually reset the maximum number allowed when making a graph showing the numbers of Little Terns in Kilcoole since 1985!
Kilcoole Little Tern feeding fledgling © Peter Cutler

They grow up so fast! © Peter Cutler 
2014 was also a special year because we were lucky enough to be the first wardens to colour ring Little Terns in Kilcoole. We were set a goal by the powers that be to colour ring 50 Little Terns chicks. We ringed 135! That's 60% of the Little Tern chicks in Kilcoole. But what is really special is the information that this will give us. We have already started to reap the rewards as one of the Kilcoole fledglings has been resighted. On the 10th of August a Little Tern fledgling with a green colour ring on it's left leg (a Kilcoole bird!) was sighted on Hilbre Island in the Dee estuary on the England/Wales border. This is about 190 kilometres from Kilcoole! This "recovery" sheds further light on how these birds move around the Irish Sea before going back to West Africa. Don't worry they are not going the wrong way, there is obviously no rush for these birds to get back to their wintering grounds. We hope this is the first of many resightings.

They never even said goodbye!

While the Little Terns finished hatching a couple of weeks before we wrapped up there was still Ringed Plover eggs left on the beach. The day after all the fencing was taken down we checked the last remaining Ringed Plover nest and we were delighted it hatched! Ringed Plover chicks are fast and mobile the day they are born so they should be just fine. It was a good year for Ringed Plovers with 15 nesting attempts. 29 chicks hatched but it's very difficult to keep track of how many fledged as they are so mobile but we did see good numbers of hefty fledglings feeding in the lagoons. There was also 3 pairs of Oystercatchers in Kilcoole this year. 7 chicks hatched but, like the Ringed Plover, it is difficult to say how well they did. With the Oystercatcher and Ringed Plovers joining the Little Terns you can imagine the beach was very busy and very noisy this year!
Bigfoot, one of the last Ringed Plover chicks to hatch this year © Saoirse O'Neill and Andrew Power

Kilcoole Oystercatcher with young © Andrew Power

So there you have it, a record year in Kilcoole. We would like to thank everyone involved in the project this year from those of you reading the blog, to the local people of Kilcoole, our volunteers and to everyone who visited us this year. The support for this project has been nothing short of overwhelming. Thank you. Roll on 2015, records are made to be broken!
Andrew Power and Darren O'Connell

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Tales from the Crypt

The project has finished. The fencing has been taken down and the wardens are off site. We are delighted that 2014 has been the most successful year on record for Little Terns in Kilcoole. I will be doing a blog post very soon with all the numbers and details of this excellent season. The following blog post has been written by Cole Macey, the night warden here in Kilcoole. I am sure that one of the major reasons for the success of this project has been because the involvement of Cole over the past 7 seasons. The graveyard shift can be a difficult and lonely job and it is vital to the success of the project. His blog post takes us through a typical night shift and nicely summarises the project from start to finish. Enjoy.

Good mornin' Kilcoole! and to all you bloggers out there. Night warden Macey here (put that light out there's a war on!). My hours of duty are from 22:00 to 06:00. At 22:00 I take over from the day warden and the day warden takes over from me again at 06:00. We have a few mins of briefing re: any observations on activity taken place on my watch and then its good luck! The colony colours are red and black and the colony motto is "always alert, always ready". Each year we are proud to fly the colours and strictly stand by our motto. The first 2 weeks consist of bringing in all the fencing materials, signs, water bowser, portaloo and the 3 caravans across the causeway to set up camp for another project year. A tidy camp is a happy camp and a happy camp has a knock on effect to being a well run and managed project.

Cole Macey setting up fencing at start of year © Andrew Power

The nights fly by. The secret is not to clock watch. The moon, stars and sunrise (unless it's coming down in stair rods) are all good indicators of time of night/day. Even without the parish lantern the streetlights from Kilcoole (northwest) and Wicklow town (south) are enough to give you good vision. The night without cloud cover will become dark at 23:00 becoming light at 03:15 (mid June). In fact for 2 weeks in mid June the northeast horizon at sea (if clear) will always have light. When the project is up and running the day warden hands over to night warden and vice versa the next morning. The project runs like clockwork and so it should after all these years. A mighty help though is to have the same team back year after year depending on their own commitments (we are only seasonal fieldworkers). The day wardens stay focused and alert, the night warden does the same during the vampire shift. Total commitment with good communication betweeen the 3 wardens for 3 and a half months is the secret to a successful project. We cannot dictate the weather or stop the sea, just look at the 2012 wipeout when all the eggs were taken by high tides and no chicks hatched, but everything else that falls in our remit we are ready for (ish!). Thankfully this year has been a relatively quite one for me. No foxes, feral cats, hedgehogs or mink during the night. Even the corvids at first light have behaved themselves after putting manners on them. I think I deserve this year after the commitment and worry of the last 6 years as to what night predators could be out there. 

Some nights can be as flat as a witch's what's its name. Other nights have the magic that a camera could not capture. For example, in June a full moon shimmers across the open sea to the east. The lights of Kilcoole dance across the still lagoon silhouetting 8 swans amongst a spooky mist. A mother and 3 Otter cubs playing and feeding in the lagoon just below the camp to the west. A Long-eared Owl silently passes through the camp looking for the many small mammals along the railway embankment. Time 2:30, seek and ye shall find.

Looking at Kilcoole village across the still lagoon © Andrew Power
Kilcoole Otter © Niall Keogh
On another night on the 22nd of July a thick fog descended on the beach. A radio was placed at the north end of the buffer zone on a Radio 4 chat show. The radio was left on until the fog lifted at 02:00. This was just to keep predators guessing until the fog lifted. Every so often you go into the camp for a brew or 2 and a quick bite to eat. Keep the stomach happy and the mind is then happy (many a battle has been lost when the human soul is at it's lowest ebb during the early hours of the morning) but while in the camp you still listen out for the tell tale signs of trouble. Each bird on the shingle or on the mudflats of the breaches lagoon have their own alarm/distress call from the Little Terns, Ringed Plover, Oystercatcher on the to beach to the Curlew, Heron, Egret, Lapwing and Swan on the mudflats. The night warden then responds.

Always alert, always ready. View from Cole's caravan.

Kilcoole Little Egret © Niall Keogh
Then there are the early mornings. Sunrise is something else to behold. Firstly a crimson red sky, then slowly up she rises, then bang a big golden gong. Couple this with the calm sea lapping the shoreline and a golden path straight to the colony. This is the tern hour. Just before the light comes the terns chatter amongst themselves up down the colony, north to south, south to north, but now at sunrise all the adults go out to sea fishing to bring food back to feed the hungry chicks. A very busy start to the day inside the colony. There is an old saying "time and tide wait for no man but here at world's end staring out to sea time does stand to still" (keep a weather eye on the horizon).

 The last week of the project I will revert back to days. The flexi net fence, electric fence, signs and string fence are all taken down in a particular order until there is nothing left. Everything reverts back to normal. The wardens path becomes public again, Kilcoole residents, visitors and dogs a like have the run of the entire beach again. Until we return again the following year with the Little Terns and strike camp and everything goes back across the camp in reverse order.

Packing up for another season © Niall Keogh

The wardens path becomes public again © Niall Keogh

And there we are playmates. I do hope you have enjoyed the quick glance through the night warden window on a typical project year. Take care out there, catch you on the next orbit. 

Au revoir,

Cole Macey