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



Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Spring tides and storms

The Terns and I spent Monday sheltering from the wind and driving rain. The sea was angry and, combined with Spring highs, crashed its way up the beach and into the colony.

Many of the chicks sought refuge in "chick shelters" that the wardens have positioned in strategic locations around the colony. These are roofing tiles placed on the ground that a chick can duck under in a hurry! While they were used as rain shelters on Monday, on warmer days the chicks will enjoy the cool shade the shelter provides, and they are also ideal boltholes when a bird of prey passes overhead!


Chick shelter (with no chick!)
Not quite what we had in mind.... © Niall Keogh (picture taken under NPWS licence) 


Unfortunately, we suffered heavy losses during the high tide and stormy winds. It has brought us rather abruptly close to the last nest hatching. Over the weekend, tides of 4.2m+ swept away 17 nests, and two chicks perished in the cold and the waves.

So where do we stand now?

Throughout the season, there have been 171 nesting attempts within the colony (plus 9 more attempts in 2 satellite colonies) with a total of 402 eggs laid. This implies huge productivity for the Little Terns and it is very encouraging to see how well they are getting on in Kilcoole for the past 2 years. So far, 149 of these nests have hatched, producing 286 chicks. On the other hand, 46 of the nests were lost (96 eggs overall). Almost 75% of egg losses were due to the tidal surge in June and the spring tide in July, with the remainder due to a combination of egg infertility, abandonment, loss of the parents and depredation, all of which are to be expected at any breeding colony. Despite rather heavy egg loss, the successfully hatched chicks have survived well, with only 9 losses, and 275 happy chicks currently gambolling about the shingle. If all these little chicks reach fledgling age, Kilcoole will have another record year to celebrate!

There are still 8 active nests on the beach with a total of 20 eggs between them. Now that the high tides are over, these eggs are much safer and, with any luck, we'll have a few more chicks to add before nesting is over.

Susan and Paddy 


Sunday, 5 July 2015

Colour-ringing at Kilcoole

With just over 275 chicks on the beach, the Kilcoole Little Tern colony is booming! The wardens are run off their feet monitoring the newly hatched fluffy chicks (the “tinys”), which weigh a mere 6 grams when they hatch, and keeping an eye on the older chicks (the “chunkys”), which rapidly increase their body weight to over 30 grams after only two weeks. 

The newly hatched chicks are fitted with a British Trust of Ornithology metal ring with an individual ID number when they are one day old - just before they leave the nest and set out to explore their exciting new world beyond the shell that is the shingle beach! In the coming days and weeks these chicks are caught again by observant wardens to take measurements of their wing length and their weight. This data is then added to an existing database collected over the years at Kilcoole that is used to calculate growth rates of Little Tern chicks. Such data is valuable to our ecological knowledge of the Little Tern as an Irish breeding bird.

Little Terns are fitted with a metal ring on the right leg
Chicks only weigh a couple of grams in their first days out of the egg

Once the chick reaches roughly 10 days old (definitely a chunky chick now!), its legs have lost their baby-fat and grown long enough for colour-ringing. These older chicks are fitted with a plastic green colour-ring with an individual 3-letter inscription. Unlike the smaller metal rings, these can be read at a distance with a telescope, therefore it is possible to receive reports on colour-ringed Terns from other parts of Ireland, the UK and on their migration to West Africa. The green colour and the letter “I” at the beginning of the inscription indicates this is a bird from Ireland, whilst the position of the colour-ring on the left leg indicates it is from Kilcoole. This colour ringing scheme was only initiated into the Little Tern project last year, and as terns do not breed until they are two years old, there are no adults with Irish colour rings returning to the colony this summer. Next year will be an exciting year, because those chicks colour-ringed in 2014 will hopefully will return here to breed!

A 10-day old chick gets his colour-ring "IPN"

So far we have ringed a total of 230 chicks with metal rings and 30 with colour rings. Many more chicks will come of age for colour-ringing in the next week. On top of this, there are still 26 pairs of Little Terns sitting on nests in the colony, which means we may potentially reach over 300 successfully hatched chicks for the 2015 season!


Susan and Paddy

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