Friday, 26 June 2015

Another record year?

Numbers are booming at the Little Tern colony in June. The nest count, which continues to rise daily, has reached a whopping total of 164 nest attempts! Of these nest attempts, 57 nests have hatched and there are 139 little ternlets running around the beach. There are still 81 active nests left to go - that's 81 birds sitting on 195 eggs!

Last summer in Kilcoole was a record smashing season. 219 Little Terns fledged - a number literally off the chart since the project began in 1985! With well over 100 eggs hatched and almost 200 more left to go, the 2015 season is also showing exceptionally high productivity.

However, one must never count one's Terns before they hatch. We will be working even harder to keep the colony protected through July, so with some kind weather, west winds and uneventful spring tides, perhaps Kilcoole might be able to break its own records again this year!

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

A Quacking Good Time

The list of chicks that attempt to give me heart failure at this colony continues to lengthen - from Little Tern chicks who wander worryingly far from their parents on a cold, windy evening, to Oystercatcher chicks traversing the train tracks (see "A Tale of Two Oystercatcher"), to Ringed Plover chicks gambolling on the pedestrian footpath. But a new species was about to give them a run for their money...

We have a single Mallard duck breeding in the Little Tern colony, along with Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover and Skylark. The wardens observed her flying in and out daily and heard her honking in agitation when the Terns were alarmed. Initially, she had a clutch of 10 eggs, though one was predated before it could hatch. Eventually, 9 adorable little dark brown and yellow ducklings were produced.

When the brood was just a matter of days old, I was walking the pedestrian path when I saw mother and ducklings snaking across the track, crouched low to the ground until they made it into the long Marram grass. I followed their progress, moving as a single shuffling snake through the grass alongside the railway fence. To my utter dismay, mother duck ducked under the fence and led the 9 ducklings onto the track. This happens every year when Mallard and Shelduck nesting on the beach make the decision to move their young family to the lagoon on the other side of the track, where foraging opportunities are better. The ducklings, however, find it impossible to jump the lip of the train track and instead huddle as near to where their mother crossed, while she quacks encouragement from the other side.
Ducklings can't follow their mother 
Seeing myself the hero, and expecting this to be an easy rescue, I gathered the ducklings and carried them to the other side in one swift step. Of the 9 ducklings, 7 of them jumped out of my arms on the other side and dived into the Bramble and back into snake-formation with mother duck at the head. Unfortunately, 2 ducklings ejected early, almost floating out of my grasp and darted back the way they had come.

I heard the distant sound of the commuter train at Newcastle Station and dutifully removed myself to the pedestrian footpath. Several minutes later, the train thundered by. It passed just in time for me to catch a last glimpse of the mother duck and the ducklings vanishing into the thick long grass of the cattle field on the other side of the lagoon. She had left 2 ducklings behind!!

I found them by following their high pitched cheeping in the grass. A pair of lost little ducklings. I wrapped them up warm and we headed out on a driveabout through the channels and pans of the salt marsh to catch up with the rest of the family.

The two that got left behind :-(
Alas, an hour an a half later, despite encountering several Mallards, there were no brooding females to take the ducklings in. We made the decision to have them adopted by one of the wardens and raised with the view of releasing them once they are big enough. But before journeying to their new home, the ducklings had to survive a night in the camp, with few provisions, no electricity and, most importantly, no heat source...

Using our telescope box and the fluffiest fleece we had between us, we designed them a little habitat for the night. Various bottle caps and dishes were used to provide them with what little duckling-digestible food we had to offer: cooked carrot, milk, green grass and what few lagoon critters I could catch. As luck would have it, this night was a cool one after a string of balmy warm weather. I filled two plastic water bottles with water straight out of the kettle to keep the box warm. Although the water was near boiling, both ducklings cuddled up to the bottles throughout the night. Thanks to the diligence of night warden Cole, the bottles were refilled with hot water several times in the night. You can only imagine my delight to open the box at half 5 this morning to find the pair blinking up at me.
A makeshift brooding box with the best we could think up!
The ducklings arrived at Jerry's house this morning and I hope to hear that they are doing well.

Days like this make me glad that the Little Terns do quite the opposite - instead of heading for the lagoon, these chicks head for the tide line when they are old enough. Some of our chicks are well over a week old and move about quite independently on the foreshore. Their parents still hunt and bring them food, of course, but they are growing much bigger and more robust by the day. New nests continue to hatch every day, so we have no shortage of vulnerable little fluffsters along with the big boys.

Two days ago, the colony crossed the one-hundred point mark - the evening nest round totaled at 115 chicks! There are many many more nests to go, so with some grace from the weather and our own hard work to keep the predators at bay, this season may turn into another boom-year!

Susan and Paddy

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Unexpected visitors

There were two unusual visitors at the colony over the past few days.

The first was a Manx Shearwater. Generally only seen far offshore through our telescopes, this bird was caught during an overnight mist-netting session by Declan Manley. After taking and recording its body measurements, the Shearwater was released back into the night with a shiny new ring on its leg.

Manx Shearwater mist-netted near Kilcoole last week
The second visitor was even more unexpected. Our warden Jerry was keeping an eye on things from the bird-hide when he heard a scratching on the roof above his head. Thinking it might be a small flock of the juvenile Starlings that landed on top, he leaned out the window only to find himself face to face with a Grey Squirrel. Moments later, the startled squirrel was racing away down the train tracks with an angry mob of Terns on its tail.

A squirrel is indeed an unusual sight in the colony, since there isn’t a tree for miles. He is unlikely to be of any threat to the Terns, but their intensely defensive behaviour probably scared him off for good. However, it is great to see the colony protecting their eggs and chicks so fiercely. We have over 70 chicks on the beach today and it is good to know they are so well guarded!

Susan and Paddy

Friday, 19 June 2015

Kilcoole Nursery

What a wonderful week we have been having down at the colony. After the exciting news last Friday that our first nest hatched two chicks, the fluffy-count has shot up. Today we have 54 little ternlets on the beach, and I daresay that number will be up again after this evening’s nest rounds. There are 117 active nests still out there with 240 potential hatches!

We have had all sorts of chicks. The first two that hatched are a week old now. They have moved away from Nest No.1 permanently and always appear in the same seaweed pile every morning. They’re huge, and gambol about after their parents with their tiny fuzzy wings outstretched for balance.

Younger chicks, such as those of Nest No.8, haven’t quite mastered the art of scampering during their first 24 hours on this earth. Master Nest No.8 gave me a right laugh this morning when he tried to climb out the sides of the nest scrape. On finally summiting the lip of the nest, he lost his balance, tipped over backwards and rolled all the way back down, finding himself with his little red legs and fuzzy white belly in the air before he was swept back under a protective grey wing.

We also had a most unusual sight when we reached Nest No.7 on last night’s nest rounds. Two of the three chicks are the usual sandy-and-speckled-black cuties, but the third is a snowy white albino tern with red eyes. Although the parents were happily brooding all three this morning, the albino is noticeably tinier and more helpless than his brothers. Only time will tell whether he is healthy enough to pull through his first days.

a snow white albino chick in the nest with his brothers © Paddy Manley (taken under NPWS licence)

© Paddy Manley (taken under NPWS licence)

For all the other ternlets on the beach, their first days have been kind to them. The weather is dry and so warm that many chicks are lying out in the sun next to their parents instead of cozied up under them. We have put out old roofing slates as “chick-shelters” to provide cool shade on intensely sunny days as well as a refuge in wind and wet. While one parent broods, the other hunts and brings food back to the nest. He lands beside his brooding mate, enthusiastically brandishing a sandeel in his bill. He holds it with great hope next to one wing, waiting for a young one to poke a head out. Nothing. He hurries to the other wing and waves the sandeel around in delighted anticipation. Finally, one chick catches on to the situation and the brooding parent jumps up suddenly as all three chicks struggle out from under her and come greedily running. The first one to the finish line wolfs down the eel, and straight away the parent is soaring back out to sea for more.

More tales from the colony to come.

Susan and Paddy


Big thanks to Seamus (again) for mending our gear (again).

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

A Tale of Two Oystercatcher

Little Tern chicks are not the only new faces about the colony. Only a couple of days ago, the first of the colony’s two Oystercatcher nests hatched. There were two dark brown and fluffy chicks huddled among the rocks, giants compared to the tiny tern chicks, yet still no bigger than my fist. Evening was closing in fast, so after a quick photo, I left their dubious parents to come back to brood.
Although tiny, Oystercatcher hatchlings are far bigger than Little Tern chicks

The following morning, I combed through the vegetation with my telescope to see how the new arrivals were getting on. The two were still close to the nest, crouched low into the stones while the parents scrutinized me from afar. I expected that I would find them in the same area of beach for at least the next few days, while they were still so helpless and fluffy.

But how they proved me wrong!

I was in the middle of dinner when I got a call to say both chicks were on a mission of lemming-like proportions, heading away from the nest. Their destination was the lagoon, which offers a safe haven with plenty of food, so their parents were calling overhead to encourage them to these greener pastures. However, the beach and lagoon are separated by the ultimate dangers: the railway track and the pedestrian footpath. Joggers! Dogs!! Commuter-rail!!!

The young chicks' destination...with a dangerous interlude!

The wardens jumped into action. When I caught up with their flight, they had survived the perils of the footpath, but were struggling to get through the railway fence and onto the track. We rescued them both inside a hat and hatched a plan to convey them across the tracks to the lagoon side, while making sure their parents knew to follow.

The reckless attempt is intercepted

The Oystercatcher parents were quite alarmed to see their young traveling over the fence in an upturned hat, but they got the jist of what was happening, because once we had turned the chicks out from their makeshift habitat, the parents were quick to circle in. After a few minutes of baited breath, I watched the family reunite from a hiding place in the boulders.

Today, the chicks are happy out in the lagoon, still in roughly the same spot they were released. We wardens will be better prepared for such exploits when the second Oystercatcher nest hatches, and hopefully these two chicks will be joined by four more in a couple of weeks.

Oystercatcher



Susan and Paddy

Friday, 12 June 2015

New life at Kilcoole

This week was a busy one at Kilcoole. Early in the week there was a large influx of adult terns into the colony, with max counts of over 250 individuals. This lead to great excitement amongst the wardens over this fresh potential for a large number of new nests. The large number of adults is also an advantage for the terns because they are better able to mob avian predators.

A substantial number of terns started to lay eggs and build scraps to the south of the protective predator fence. On Wednesday morning wardens were busy at work extending the fence future south as far as the breaches outlet to incorporate these new nests which would otherwise have been exposed to a number of mammalian predators.

By weeks end, the number of nests was up to 84, and included just over 200 eggs! Wardens continue to find new nests daily and this number is estimated to continue to grow well into next week.
Thursday afternoon saw the first cracks beginning to appear in the first nest that was discovered 21 days ago. Much to the warden’s delight, early Friday morning, there were two fluffy tern chicks freshly hatched in the nest. This nest was a very early layer and it is expected that no more eggs will hatch for another 3 or 4 days, and with a large bulk of the first batch of eggs hatching on the 19th and 20th of June.
The first two little Fluffies of the 2015 season
Little Tern chicks asleep in the nest

Two nests of Ringed Plover also hatched on Friday morning, with 4 chicks each. Unlike the terns these Ringed Plover chicks run off the nest on their very long legs to hide in the shingle mere hours after hatching! As a species, Ringed Plovers are very promiscuous, and chicks learn to feed and take care of themselves very quickly. All that was seen of these little chicks was the broken bits of shell which they had escaped from earlier in the morning. The Little Terns, however, require a lot of parental care and rely on their parents for food right up until fledging. We will be seeing a lot of this around the colony soon as all our eggs begin to hatch!

Ringed Plover up and ready to run before his brother even hatches!


Susan and Paddy

Monday, 8 June 2015

Sunny Side Up in Kilcoole

The Terns are doing a fierce job making nests and laying eggs. This week has been a brilliant one for new nest discoveries! Tonight, we have a tally of 75 active Tern nests and 189 eggs on the beach, which we are, of course, delighted about. The expected arrival date for the first little ternlet is coming ever closer – I hope to meet my first chick of the 2015 season within two weeks.

A Little Tern carefully checks how her eggs are doing © Chris Dobson (taken under NPWS licence)
Our remaining Ringed Plovers are very close to hatching. Several nests have slowly cracking eggs. Likewise, our first Oystercatcher eggs are cracking (ever so slowly), keeping us in great suspense! I regularly come across three of the four Ringed Plover chicks that hatched this week as they have stayed in the vicinity of their nesting area in front of the hide. The parents spend all day long searching for them among the stones, whistling and darting back and forth towards the chick’s calls. They find one, only to loose the other two and set off again. They try to sit and brood another, just to hear the call of the third and jump straight back up to find it, while the first scarpers into the grass again!


The good weather and sunshine looks set to continue for the time being. Hopefully the high pressure will keep the tide at bay and prevent a repeat of last week’s wash out. If the sunshine stays in Kilcoole, we may have another great rise in nest numbers by next week.

Susan and Paddy