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

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The last egg and the Norwegian Blue Parrot

We're delighted to announce that the last Little Tern egg has hatched. 111 Little Tern pairs successfully hatched young this year, more than any other year since the project began. We have a total of 213 chicks, most of which have fledged. Little Tern numbers in the colony are noticeably smaller as they start to leave the colony so the season is well and truly winding down. The only small concern we have is a Peregrine Falcon that pays the colony a visit every other day, we've seen it take at least 3 birds this year but given how quick they are the number is likely to be higher. However we are not too worried as they do not take many and it would be foolish to think that we can protect every individual.

Kilcoole Little Tern fledgling © Cian Cardiff 
The Otters have been ever present this year and we often watch them hunt and play from our caravans. They seem to be particularly fond of crabs, munching loudly on them all night. Birds appear to be on the move now and we've had good numbers of Black-tailed Godwits, Curlew and Common Sandpipers  show up in the lagoon. Willow Warblers can be seen passing through the Buckthorn and a pair of Wheatear were spotted in the colony yesterday. We were also lucky to see a Red Kite glide past the farmland last week. Yesterday our first Clouded Yellow of the year in Kilcoole made an appearance. Clouded Yellows are a migrant butterfly that comes all the way from Spain/North Africa. Some years they can be very scarce and some can be just the opposite, like the Waxwing, so here's hoping we have a good Clouded Yellow year. They are unmistakeable bright yellow butterflies that are a joy to see.

An otter (not the Loch Ness Monster) eating a crab outside the caravans © Andrew Power
Wheatear on the fence © Cian Cardiff
 Clouded Yellow © Andrew Power  

In recent years in Kilcoole we leave a little joke around the colony. Last year we put a plastic owl on a fencepost near the caravans. It was almost heart breaking telling excited onlookers that it was plastic! One year on our species board we had Unicorn listed. To our surprise this did catch one person out! This year we went for a more subtle approach. On our species board we listed "Norwegian Blue Parrot (dead)". This was lost on most people and it didn't seem worth it. We had many people asking us where we saw it and how it got here. But it was all worthwhile (to me anyway) when I saw a couple of people delighted with themselves after getting the joke. After which the flood gates opened and more and more passers by gave me their approval. The parrot is a reference to the infamous Dead Parrot Sketch performed by the legendary Monty Python gang - And it wasn't dead, it was resting.

Norwegian Blue Parrot (bottom right)

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Unsung heroes: Volunteers

There are 5 Little Tern eggs left to hatch in Kilcoole and 212 chicks of all sizes. It is an excellent time to come and visit the colony as there are fledglings everywhere learning to fly and hunt. We have counted a minimum of 86 fledglings on site which is excellent, we suspect some of the older chicks (Juggernaut and friends) have moved out of the colony to somewhere else along the east coast, or beyond. Many of the chicks are pretty advanced and have darker crowns than their younger cousins. They're still a bit clumsy in the air and haven't mastered the art of diving like their parents. We often see them hunting close to the surface and then bellyflop into the water after a fish without success. However, Little Terns learn quickly and they will be making their way to Africa, for the first time, very soon. The Bray airshow was on recently with many of the planes practising in the Kilcoole area, it was amazing to see but even the most elaborate aerial displays by the stunt planes were no match for the grace and aerial prowess of the Little Terns! We are delighted with the progress of the terns and so far everything is going according to plan. Touch Wood. 

Kilcoole Little Tern © Chris Dobson

It has been very exciting to be involved in a record year and we are extremely grateful to our volunteers for all their hard work and dedication. Since the project began in May we have had an overwhelming response from volunteers and their help has been integral to the successful running of this project. What is incredible is the contrast in our volunteers. We have teenagers fresh from doing the Junior Cert to old age pensioners helping us out on the beach. We also have volunteers that are expert birdwatchers and skilled researchers in wildlife conservation as well as volunteers who are beginners and don't even possess a pair of binoculars. One of our volunteers Seán Kelly is a PhD student in Trinity College Dublin and was recently the centre of media attention after the publication of his paper in the scientific journal PLOS ONE. Seán has spent the last few years looking at bird speciation in Indonesia and his paper classes the Wakatobi Flowerpecker as a full species for the first time! Like all great discoveries this story ended up on the cover of the Metro newspaper, it also appeared in the Irish Times, Independent and countless websites and Seán was interviewed on the radio and television. We were all delighted at how well Seán's work has been received and we had more than a few members of the public asking us in Kilcoole about the Wakatobi Flowerpecker. For the full story and a link to the paper check out this article - Another volunteer, Des Higgins, was also in the limelight recently as he was named as one of the most "influential names in science" and in the world's top 3,000 researchers for his work on the Bioinformatics tool Clustal. Find out more here - Des had to get a taxi down when he volunteered last time as he thought we would be late, dedication!

Ignore the jail and hammer headline! 

Volunteer Seán Kelly looking very smart!

Volunteers Des and Aoife Higgins with tern warden Andrew Power © Niall Keogh

Many of our volunteers are students in Tralee, Cork and Dublin etc. who are trying to put their summer to good use and we also have volunteers from a wide range of occupations who squeeze in some hours at weekends or after work. Some people go to great lengths to get here spending hours on public transportation and walking to get here and occasionally helping out in horrid weather (we don't expect this from everyone!). There has also been a multicultural array of volunteers this year with people from France, Lithuania, Peru and Poland (to name but a few) helping us out! All of our volunteers do share one thing in common and that is they have all helped in the conservation of a beautiful and endangered bird as it does not matter who you are or how qualified you are you can still play an important role in this project. Regardless if someone has helped out for an hour or for a whole season we are extremely grateful and we would find it very difficult without the help! We are also particularly grateful to the volunteers that donate chocolate to the project. Last week I carefully left a KitKat chunky in the Buckthorn so I could run off and do something else. When I returned it was gone, I was convinced it had been stolen until I caught a glimpse of the shiny foil of the packaging in the corner of my eye. A rat had taken my KitKat and devoured it, devastation and surely one of the biggest losses of the year in Kilcoole. After hearing my tale of woe a volunteer generously donated some chocolate to the project. So there you have it, volunteers, what a great bunch they are. Thank you.

P.S Our e-mail account stopped working recently, we are trying to fix it. Apologies for any inconvenience caused, you can e-mail me at

Andrew Power

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

200 chicks, colour ringing and Moths!

This year has been all about records. We have reached 2 milestones in the last week, we now have 208 (!) chicks on the beach with 13 eggs left to hatch and today we colour ringed our 100th chick! The numbers are extremely high and the colony is buzzing at the moment with plenty of fledglings in the air and 113 active pairs of Little Terns.
Colour ringed Little Tern chick © Kristina Abariute and Andrew Power (Picture taken under NPWS license)

This is the first year we have colour ringed Little Terns  in Kilcoole. We put metal rings on every Little Tern chick that hatches in Kilcoole (and have done so for many years) and they can be put on the chick when they are only a couple of days old as their leg doesn't change in diameter as they get older. We can only put colour rings on Little Tern chicks that are a couple of weeks old as colour rings are longer and we have to wait for the chicks legs to stretch out a bit first. Chicks start to leave the nest after 2 or 3 days so finding old enough chicks to colour ring is a little more difficult than metal ringing. At that age chicks congregate on the foreshore and, unlike their younger cousins, can run! So when we look for suitable birds to colour ring we usually end up catching a big group of them at once. The fact that we have colour ringed 100 out of 208 birds is incredible and it also gives us a good indication that many of the birds have survived the first 2 weeks, bearing in my mind that a fair chunk of the birds are not old enough for colour ringing!

Volunteer Kristina Abariute helping us colour ring the chicks © Kristina Abariute and Andrew Power (Picture taken under NPWS license)
Even though the Little Tern is a flagship species there are still many mysteries surrounding it's migration behaviour. We know they go to west Africa but west Africa is a big place and we are not certain what their migration routes are. We know that Little Terns move between sites, a dead adult tern was found last year in Baltray that was originally ringed in Kilcoole in 2010 and an adult bird was trapped on the Isle of Man last year that was also a Kilcoole bird ringed in 2010. We hope that colour ringing the birds will allow us to see the extent these birds move between sites. Colour rings are far more visible than metal rings and we hope this will lead to many re-sightings, especially considering that many Little Tern sites are actively wardened. We also hope that more re-sightings will happen along their migration routes. Most adult Little Terns are metal ringed but it is impossible to read the code from a metal ring, without catching an adult or finding a dead bird, so we don't know where they originated. This will not be the case with colour rings as the code is much easier to read but even if it is not possible to read the ring we can still get extremely useful information simply from the colour of the ring and what leg it is on. We are using green colour rings in Kilcoole with white writing on the left leg of the Little Tern. They are also colour ringing in Baltray and putting green colour rings on the right legs of the Little Tern. A colour ringing scheme is also underway in the Isle of Man where they are using yellow rings. Hopefully other tern colonies will follow suit and keep colour ringing for years to come as it should provide excellent long term data. Understanding everything about a species can be vital for determining it's conservation requirements. We can do everything we like to save a migratory species in our own country but if they are being killed in their wintering grounds it could count for very little. Hopefully this scheme will help us see the bigger picture. So remember if you see a colour ringed Little Tern report it!

Colour ringed Little Tern chick © Niall Keogh (Picture taken under NPWS license)

Kilcoole wardens Andrew Power and Darren O'Connell releasing colour ringed chicks © Niall Keogh (Picture taken under NPWS license)

And now for something completely different....
Stephen McAvoy paid us a visit last week and brought along his Moth trap. I was very lucky to see some real beauties before he let them back into the wild. The Poplar Hawk moth looks like it could devour a tern!
 Poplar Hawk-moth © Andrew Power
Garden Tiger Moth © Andrew Power

Andrew Power and Darren O'Connell 


Thursday, 10 July 2014

We have lift off.....

It's hard to believe that it is already mid July, the season has really flown by. But it's not the only thing flying in Kilcoole as the first wave of Little Tern chicks have begun fledging! The first chick, K1, was first seen in the air on the 4th of July (celebrating independence day) and the rest are starting to follow suit. We almost have the full range of Little Tern age groups on the beach now with 20 eggs left to hatch, 194 chicks of all sizes (getting close to the magic 200!) and, of course, the adult birds themselves. The only thing missing is a 2nd calender year bird which is a rare occurrence in Ireland. 2nd calender year Little Terns do not breed and tend to stay in Africa during the summer instead of migrating back to Ireland. However there is one or 2 knocking around in Baltray in Co. Louth.

A cute, one day old, Little Tern chick © Andrew Power (Picture taken under NPWS  licence)
An older, not so cute, Little Tern chick © Niall Keogh (Picture taken under NPWS  licence)

Each stage of the season has different and unique challenges. Bird of prey activity has skyrocketed in the past couple of weeks. A juvenile Peregrine Falcon has frequented the colony practically every day for the past week and sometimes comes in 2 or 3 times a day. Luckily, the juvenile Peregrine is still learning it's trade and hasn't managed to pick any off any just yet. However, an adult Peregrine took out an adult Little Tern over the colony on the 7th of July. There is nothing we can do to prevent a hit and run predator like a Peregrine Falcon attacking the colony. It is the fastest bird in the world after all! Fortunately they do not tend to take many birds. Peregrine Falcons employ an almost cheetah like strategy where they use an incredible burst of speed to attack the colony and single off an individual bird. Little Terns are also master aviators and are usually capable of avoiding such attacks. Kestrels, on the other hand, will come to the colony and hover looking for the chicks. This gives us time to chase them off using state of the art anti-Kestrel technology (see below pic). If you ever see a warden running down the beach banging a frying pan and a saucepan together do not worry we haven't gone crazy (although that should not be ruled out!) we are just trying to scare off the Kestrel. Luckily we have only had to do that once this year. The Kestrels have not yet copped that there are chicks on the beach and hopefully it will stay that way. We have had occasional glimpses of Sparrowhawk (which took an adult Little Tern last year) and Long-eared Owl but they have not yet posed any threat. We have spotted a Fox on the beach on 2 occasions well north of the colony, snooping around, but it hasn't taken any notice of the terns.

Anti-Kestrel defence system © Andrew Power

So, all in all, everything is going according to plan. If the wee chicks can get through the next 3 or 4 weeks unharmed they will begin their journey back to Africa. We will be here, doing our best, to make sure that they get that far.

Next week's blog preview: Kilcoole and Baltray Little Tern colour ringing scheme and celebrity volunteers.

Andrew Power and Darren O'Connell

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Chicks, chicks and more chicks!

Wow, what a busy couple of weeks we have had in Kilcoole! Apologies for the lack of recent updates, the beach has really come alive since our last blog post. It is a minefield out there with new nests still being found and chicks running riot. We now have an army of 150 chicks on the beach with a further 90 eggs expected to hatch! It's a great and busy time to be a warden and we are thankful that the good weather is holding up. 

Kilcoole Little Tern flying off nest © Peter Cutler & Andrew Power (Picture taken under NPWS  licence)
On the 19th of June, after the Spring tides, disaster struck the colony. A mild easterly combined with a high tide was enough to flood the foreshore and it effected almost 30 nests. 10 nests were destroyed completely and it was horrible seeing random eggs washed up in amongst the seaweed. Some nests were completely submerged but stayed put, others were carried by the tide into different locations (and later regathered by the adults) and other nests lost some of their eggs. However, Little Tern eggs are resilient and it was with great joy that we watched the majority of the tide effected nests hatch in the past couple of days. Needless to say that chicks are much better than eggs at avoiding the tide!

Some of the chicks hatching are incredibly small, the smallest chick to date hatched today and weighed a mere 4.57 grams. The first chick to hatch (K1) which is the largest one by some distance (nicknamed Juggernaut) has walked about 400 metres north and out of the colony protection. It may be the biggest but not the brightest! Hopefully it will go undetected outside the colony and fledge successfully. Unfortunately we found 2 more nests far outside the main colony, 1 with chicks and 1 with eggs. Sadly there is not much we can do in this situation so we ask any people walking the beach to try and stay on the path or at least be mindful that not all the terns are in the safety of the fencing!

Little Tern chicks showing different colour legs © Féaron Cassidy & Andrew Power (Picture taken under NPWS  licence)
Kilcoole Little Tern chick (Cedric) © Andrew Power (Picture taken under NPWS  licence)

We would not be able to stay on top of all the work here in Kicoole if was not for the help of our volunteers. We are very grateful for all the hours they have put in and it really makes a big difference to our efforts here! So, all in all, things are looking very good in Kilcoole. Regardless of what happens with the rest of the season we know that the Little Terns are doing well by the record numbers here and in Baltray. It is a great time to come down and see the colony so why not pop down for a visit?

Volunteer Cian Cardiff helping warden Andrew Power © Chris Dobson

Andrew Power and Darren O'Connell