Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Hows about that weather?!

A bit windy yeah? A load of fun that was...the fences are bent, the hide is tilted, marquees imploded but at least the caravans are still standing (just about!). Using the Port-a-loo in a Force 8 wind is also an experience to say the least! Anyways, enough of that...onto the birds!

The number of adult Little Terns present seems to be staying put at about 110 birds which fits in nicely with the number of pairs floating about at the moment. With any luck a new batch of birds will arrive in the next 2 weeks but until then we have, as of this morning, 51 active nests with 115 eggs! The tally would be slightly higher except for 2 tern nests (K3 & K21) which appear to have abandoned already. Terns will normally only abandon their nest after significant disturbance/predation or when they have laid too late in the season, so it is odd that these two have given up (for now) as early on as this. They still have quite some time however to get another clutch on the go if they wish to do so. 

I was trying to come up with possible explanations for abandonment over the past fews days (perhaps they were young & inexperienced? or perhaps they knew the eggs were infertile already?) but on Sunday morning Jason saw the 'resident' Peregrine swoop across the K-colony & nab an adult Little Tern! With so few non-breeders hanging about it is likely that a breeding bird was taken so this may well the cause of one nest abandonment? Hard to say really. The Peregrine has been seen 'attacking' the colony up to 3 times in an afternoon over the past few days & is causing some serious panic amongst the terns, causing them to take off & flock out at sea on a regular basis meaning that the nests are often exposed more regularly than they should be. The knock on effect of this is that there's a couple of Hooded Crows & an adult Rook hanging about the K-colony testing the defence capabilities of both the terns & the wardens! Unfortunately one nest on the edge of the K-colony (K43) vanished some time yesterday afternoon, with the likely culprit being the adult Rook....I know this because it tried to do it again right in front of me! After a bit of yelling & flailing of arms the Rook promptly left. I've also found that shouting 'Oi!' at the Peregrine also works for a short while...

Anyways, other than the aforementioned nests lost over the past couple of days, I'm happy to report that everything else is going well. Only 3 nests have yet to finish laying so all the rest are busy incubating & are on the home stretch leading up to hatching. The week of high tides has past with no negative effects. Some minor readjustments to the seaward fence needs to be made after the strong winds but that's no problem.

Surveying the southern half of the K-colony © Niall Keogh
Our two pairs of Oystercatchers are still incubating whilst the 4 pairs of Ringed Plover currently have a total of 15 chicks running about like there's no tomorrow! See some pics of the plover chicks on Siobhan McNamara's Drimnagh Birdwatch blog - http://drimnaghbirdwatch.blogspot.com/2011/05/little-tern-colony-kilcoole.html

One advantage of the windy weather is that there has been some nice seabird passage with Manx Shearwaters & Gannets showing particularly well, feeding very close offshore at times. After doing a few tern incubation checks yesterday morning I took a quick look out to sea expecting to catch a few 'Manxies' drifting past but instead saw two cracking adult Long-tailed Skuas zip through my field of view! A subsequent 2 hour seawatch notched up a pale phase Arctic Skua, good numbers of Black Guillemots, 3 summer plumaged Great Northern Divers, 4,500+ Manx Shearwaters & 3 Bottlenose Dolphins! Two Storm Petrels were loafing about offshore later that morning. The wader passage has died off now, save for some nice flocks of Sanderling moving north (e.g. 28 on 21st). The best of the rest include a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers flying south on Friday, a male Tufted Duck in Stringer's channels on Saturday & the Otter which is still knocking about in the evenings.

Little Tern egg & nest variation © Niall Keogh

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Predators aplenty

A quick update with a few pics for you guys today. Lots of new nests found over the past few days with the tallies now reaching 36 active Little Tern nests with 86 eggs! The bulk of these (31) are found in the main K-colony whilst 5 nests are located south of The Breaches in the sub N-colony. No more losses to corvids since my last post but a Hooded Crow continues to hang around the very southern limits of the colony whilst a juvenile Rook is being a bit of a nuisance around the north, thankfully the terns are still giving both of them a hard time!

Lots more action from other predators around the area though. A male Peregrine has made a couple of attempts at catching adult terns but remains unsuccessful, a male Kestrel has been hunting lizards in the dunes right inside the K-colony fencing & is getting a lot of grief from the terns for it, a Buzzard even soared right over the colony a couple of days ago, causing a bit of a panic amongst the terns & there's a least 3 Foxes patrolling the fields inland from the colony with one in particular out & about early in the evening. No sign of any Hedgehogs....yet!

We've had to be mindful of the current high tides (as a result of the full moon), as the seaward section of fencing & low nests are vulnerable if strong easterly winds were to coincide. Although the wind has been strong all week, thankfully it has been coming from the West-Southwest & should continue to do so up until the last high tide on Sunday.

Two Great Northern Divers in full summer plumage offshore from The Breaches yesterday were nice to see, the Dunlin flock has reached 50+ over the past few days & the largest flock of migrating Sanderling recorded was of 24. The Otter continues to be seen, mostly at night however. 

Female Little Tern incubating © Niall Keogh

A group of eligible bachelors on the foreshore © Niall Keogh
Cole & Jason keeping a watchful eye © Riona Howard
Niall treading carefully during nest checks! © Riona Howard  
Swallow nest © Niall Keogh
Or the warden will get ya! © Jason McGuirk

Monday, 16 May 2011

Volunteers needed

We're always happy to have a few volunteers down at the colony to lend a hand. This could involve wardening the colony for a few hours or even helping us out with a few bits of work that need to be done. Whatever you want to do is up to yourself but every little helps!

We're particularly keen to get a few volunteers down over the next 3 weeks, so if any of you guys are interested then send us an e-mail at littletern@birdwatchireland.ie

All volunteers will be 'trained' in by the wardens on what to do. No qualifications necessary!

See ya,
The Little Tern Lads!

Highs & lows

Early last Thursday (12th May) I went out to the north end of the K-colony to do my morning census (a good spot to get an accurate count of the terns). The numbers have levelled off at c.90 adult Little Terns since my last post, with approx. 70 in the K-colony & 20 in the N-colony most days. At this stage of the season, birds who haven't found a mate yet roost out on the foreshore near The Breaches whilst paired birds can be seen higher up on the beach displaying, carrying sandeels & digging some 'test' nest scrapes. 

Female Little Terns wander around the beach looking for suitable nest sites, often sitting down in one for a few minutes to see if they like it. The males are nearly always close by, following their mate & generally carrying a sandeel for her (how nice!). Sometimes the females can look like they're sitting on eggs when testing out nest scrapes but they often get up & waddle on a short while later. Birds who are actually incubating eggs sit low & tight with their wing tips often higher than the level of their head.  On Thursday morning, I spotted one tern doing just that, high up the beach in amongst some dried seaweed looking suspiciously like she was incubating! So I kept on eye on her for a while and there was no getting up & waddling off to test a new nest scrape or even a male in attendance with a fish....more suspicion! Then all the terns took flight off the beach for a bit of a dread & sure enough, the tern I was watching arrived back & landed in the same spot, pointing her beak under her belly & shuffling down as if she was readjusting  something underneath her....AN EGG!!!

I went in to check the nest site & sure enough there was a single egg all right! The relevant nest details (position, scrape size, substrate, extent of decoration etc.) were taken & it was marked as K1. I was overjoyed at the sight of the first egg of the season but at the same time was suffering from a 'mild' bout of panic...THE FENCE ISN'T FINISHED! The average laying date at Kilcoole is the 19th May & the first eggs are always found a day or two around that so needless to say we weren't expecting any at all this early! I ran back & burst into Jason's caravan, waking him up with "WE HAVE EGGS!!!" and ran back out again to the colony to look for more nests! Sure enough I picked up another tern sitting low & tight so I went out to check if she was on eggs. Every step you take when in the colony has to be a calculated one as there's always the risk of trampling an egg or chick that you're not aware of if you're not careful. On the way out to check the potential new nest I had my eyes glued to the shingle as I suspected there may be some Ringed Plover chicks knocking about & I couldn't believe it when I came across another completely different tern nest scrape with a single egg in it! So I marked this new one as K2, proceeded to make my way towards the original possible nest when I happened upon ANOTHER unknown nest with a single egg, K3! Sure enough the nest site I was originally going to check was active & even had 2 eggs in it, K4! 

K1 which now has 3 eggs © Niall Keogh

Little Terns stagger their laying with a new egg laid every second day or so until there's (usually) 2 or 3. They don't begin incubating properly until all the eggs have been laid so it's often quite difficult to pick up on new nests with the first egg as the birds spend very little time on it during the day so your chances of finding it are much reduced. I was just lucky to have found K2 & K3 on the way out to K4, but then again the terns do nest in little close groups or clusters like this. The fact that K4 had two eggs in it also means that the first one was most likely laid on Tuesday (10th)!

There was a bit of a mad dash to get the fencing finished around the K-colony as soon as the first eggs were discovered & we went right ahead & enclosed the N-colony with the remaining flexi-net, rope barriers & signs even though no nests were found in it at that stage but it's a good thing we did as the next day I found a Little Tern nest there (marked as N1)! 

Looking north through the K-colony. Most of the nests so far are either side of or in the band of seaweed © Niall Keogh  

The total number of nests found increased from 4 on Thursday to 8 on Friday, 14 on Saturday, 19 yesterday & 25 now today! Some birds have finished laying and are now incubating their clutches of 2 or 3 eggs whilst other birds are still busy popping out fresh eggs! All this early laying should hopefully result in the first hatching sometime around the first week of June & should give the young as much time as possible to strengthen up before making their first journey to Africa (although lets not get ahead of ourselves here, we still have another couple of weeks to get through before we can even think about hatching, let alone fledging!!!). There are always set backs along the way and I'm afraid to report that we've already had our first predation. Whilst out doing nest checks today, Jason noticed that two of the nests right at the south end of the N-colony (N1 & N2) were missing their eggs! It's hard to say for definite what was the cause was but it seems likely that a Hooded Crow may have been responsible. The eggs were taken clean out with no traces of eggshells or spilt yoke in the nest scrape. Foxes & Hedgehogs eat eggs at the nest scrape and leave a mess whereas crows take them away to eat. I have seen a Hooded Crow a couple of times in this area over the past few days but the terns & Oystercatchers were always quick to chase it off. Jason did manage to find a piece of eggshell further up the beach so it's likely that the eggs were consumed there. With the colony stretching a full 1km between the north end of the K-colony & the south end of the N-colony, it can be hard for the one warden on duty to chase off crows effectively so this is where volunteer wardens can come in handy! Please feel free to get in touch if you wish to do a few hours wardening for us at any stage over the summer (e-mail us at littletern@birdwatchireland.ie).

Hooded Crow © Siobhan McNamara

Thankfully the terns from N1 & N2 who lost their eggs still have plenty of time to start again at a second second clutch so we should expect to see them mate & relay during the week. As it stands, the current tallies are 23 active Little Tern nests with 52 eggs! 19 of these nests are in the K-colony with the remaining 4 nests in the N-colony.
A second pair of Oystercatchers have laid 2 eggs in the K-colony whilst the first pair in the N-colony are still incubating their 3 eggs. We've still got 3 pairs of Ringed Plover in the K-colony plus another 2 pairs in the N-colony. Up to 8 pairs of Lapwing have bred in the fields behind the tern colony & Jason was lucky enough to find a chick near the caravans yesterday!

Lapwing chick © Jason McGuirk
The 2nd calendar year Hobby that I mentioned in my last post made a re-appearance on Friday morning as it was seen drifting north from Six Mile Point over Stringer's channels. There has been no sign of the Marsh Harrier since last Tuesday but it turns out a second female type was also seen that day, flying south over Six Mile Point. An adult Peregrine made a swoop over the K-colony yesterday & tried to catch an adult tern, but thankfully failed! The male Kestrel continues to hunt along the dunes catching Viviparous Lizards and up to 3 Buzzards have been seen soaring over Stringer's farm along with a Sparrowhawk on a couple of occasions. A ringtail (i.e. female or immature) Hen Harrier was also seen yesterday. 

Buff-breasted Sandpiper came in off the sea & landed in The Breaches on Tuesday evening (11th) which was a nice surprise! They are a rare but regular migrant from North America in Autumn but Spring records are more unusual (turns out others were seen in Wexford & Mayo too at the same time). It only spent about half an hour on site before flying off north. We also saw it give a couple of wing displays to nearby Turnstones which is something I've always wanted to see!

Buff-breasted Sandpiper (taken with a Blackberry/telescope combo!) © Jason McGuirk
Barnacle Goose in Webb's field on Thursday was probably a feral bird or an escapee from a collection somewhere. Other highlights over the past week include a summer plumaged Great Northern Diver offshore from Newcastle & a female White Wagtail on the beach yesterday, a nice northward passage of Whimbrel (53 on Saturday) & Sanderling (12 on Friday), 50+ Dunlin feeding in The Breaches at low tide & 3 Wheatears on the rocks there too. A large swarm of St. Mark's Flies is present on the sheltered side of the Buckthorn bushes being gobbled up by Swallows, martins & Swifts. Lots of butterflies about too, mostly Common Blues & Green-veined Whites but also a Small Copper & 2 Painted Ladies. The Otter has only been seen late in evening over the past couple of days & 2 Bottlenose Dolphins were seen close offshore, travelling north past the K-colony at 11:20 on Saturday (these were most likely the 'resident' pair often seen around Dalkey & Killiney Bay).

Information signs & blackboards © Niall Keogh
The wardens camp - Home sweet home! © Niall Keogh

See ya,

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

On the up!

The weather eventually calmed down enough yesterday for us to make a start on getting the seaward fence back up. As it stands we should have the fencing around the K-colony (i.e. the section of the colony north of The Breaches, on the Kilcoole side) finished by the weekend. The section of the beach south of The Breaches, known as the N-colony (i.e. on the Newcastle side) irregularly supports breeding Little Terns from year to year. The numbers present there can range from none at all to quite significant (e.g. 15 pairs in 2010 & 20 pairs in 2009). I suspect that several pairs may nest there this year given that the extent of the K-colony section of beach is much reduced so we'll get around to fencing an area south of The Breaches as soon as we can.

The fine weather this morning finally allowed for some decent censusing too. A lovely flock of c.120 adult Little Terns were resting at the mouth of The Breaches at 06:00am, making frequent dreading flights. Many others were present higher up on the beach continuing with nest-site selection. It'll be interesting to see how the numbers pan out on the run up to the first egg being laid. Early on in the season the terns may travel widely, visiting different colonies along the East coast before they settle down to breed so we may have 50 birds one day, 80 the next, 20 the following day then 150 the day after!

We've now got 4 pairs of Ringed Plover breeding on site, consisting of 3 pairs in the K-colony with a total of 12 young (8 of which I've ringed) & a 4th pair at the N-colony currently incubating 4 eggs. Furthermore, there's also a pair of Oystercatchers nesting in the N-colony & incubating 3 eggs (typical clutch size) which have been coded as OC1 (I'll let you work that one out yourselves!). Both the Ringed Plover & Oystercatcher nests in the N-colony have been temporarily fenced off with flexi-net & marked with signposts to ensure that people or dogs don't trample the eggs.

Oystercatcher nest pics from last year © Niall Keogh

The 'big news' yesterday involved the finding of a SHORT-TOED LARK (rare vagrant from the Mediterranean) by yours truly along the coastal path between the N-colony & the railway track at midday. It was a lifer for me (a species I've never ever seen before) & the 1st record for Co. Wicklow apparently so needless to say I did a little victory dance on the beach!!! A great bird which showed very well at times. It moved up & down the beach between The Breaches & Six Mile Point (Newcastle) for most of the day and was seen right up to 20:00pm. It was successfully twitched by about 15 birders over the course of the afternoon/evening. No sign of it this morning though unfortunately.

More on the lark here: 

Short-toed Lark © Mick Boyle

Just got a phone call off my father literally 2 minutes ago to say there's a 2nd calendar-year Hobby flying about Six Mile Point, hunting! And I'm stuck in the office here writing this blog! TYPICAL!!! Anyways, in other news, the female Marsh Harrier continues to show well, usually hunting in & around Stringer's channels and was even seen circling high above the tern colony at one stage yesterday, almost looking like it was heading out to sea (scared the bejaysus out of the terns too!). A Quail flushed along the coastal path at Newcastle yesterday by local birder Pat King whilst on the way up to see the Short-toed Lark was an excellent find! A female Red-breasted Merganser flying south at sea yesterday was a notable record (scarce in Wicklow), 4 feral Greylag Geese were feeding on the fields inland whilst Water Rail, Willow Warbler & Snipe were all noted this morning and new for the project list so far this season. Other than that, the usual waders are still moving through, a male Kestrel has been hunting along the dunes & the Buzzard is still present inland from The Breaches.

The Otter put on a fine display this morning, fishing in The Breaches at 08:00am & there's now plenty of Common Blue butterflies on the wing along the dunes.

Right...I'm off for this Hobby!

See ya,

Monday, 9 May 2011

Windy Business!

The strong Southerly winds over the past few days have been hampering our efforts to get the fence up around the colony. Some sections keep blowing over & have had to be re-enforced with extra posts. This morning I woke up to find that last nights hide tide coupled with the easterly element of the wind had flattened the seaward section of fencing overnight, which is rather annoying to say the least! At least we know now how far we can extend the fencing down the beach whilst keeping it out of reach from the tides. The shape of the beach this year might present a bit of a problem as it is very low & the high tide mark is quite far up compared to other years meaning that the amount of safe breeding habitat for the terns is largely reduced.

Wind + fencing = tired wardens! © Niall Keogh

It seems that the terns are aware of this already as they have been sitting up high on the beach over the past few days. With any luck the terns will take the hint & change the layout of the colony so as it is long & thin, ensuring the majority of birds nesting will be well out of reach from particularly high tides or storms. There are now approximately 85 Little Terns present at the colony & again there's plenty of courting, display flights & sandeel passing being observed. Some birds have even been seen apparently prospecting for nest sites. No mating has been noted yet though so we're still not expecting eggs anytime soon (the average laying date is about the 19th May).

Female Little Tern (right) after receiving a Sandeel 'gift' from a courting male (left) © Niall Keogh
The northward Spring passage of waders continues with counts of 35 Dunlin, 33 Black-tailed Godwits, 13 Bar-tailed Godwits, 5 Whimbrel, 17 Turnstone, 8 Oystercatchers, a Common Sandpiper & a single Sanderling. Bird of Prey have been particularly prevalent also with singles of Buzzard, Sparrowhawk, Peregrine & Kestrel hunting the general area & even a female Marsh Harrier on Stringer's land on Sunday morning. Other noteworthy species over the past few days include a female White Wagtail, a Red-throated Diver, Manx Shearwaters, a Wheatear, 5 Little Egrets, 3 Shoveler, 2 Teal, Swift, a Grasshopper Warbler & 2 Stock Doves. A young Otter seen on Friday was a rare daytime sighting for this time of year (they usually go very nocturnal in summer around here).

A Ringed Plover on the beach yesterday evening. The small size, dark colouration to upperparts & state of moult suggest it is a migrant from an Arctic breeding population as opposed to one of our own local birds © Niall Keogh

RP1 & RP2

A quick scan of the colony on Saturday evening revealed a female Ringed Plover sitting low & tight, indicating that she might be incubating eggs. A closer inspection confirmed that she was indeed on 4 eggs, a full clutch! The nest was a typical Ringed Plover scrape, decorated with white & amber stones as well as pieces of white seashells. The nest was then given the rather imaginative name of RP1 (i.e. Ringed Plover 1!) and marked nearby with a coded stone so we can find it with relative ease & check on it’s status over the coming days. The female plover is still present & incubating today.

Just a pile of shingle?...

Whats that in the middle?...

...4 eggs from Ringed Plover nest RP1 © Niall Keogh

Ringed Plover generally begin breeding well before the Little Terns do so it's no surprise that we have a nest with eggs already. Spurred on by the discovery of RP1, I gave the colony a thorough scan again yesterday. The strong Southerly winds that we're experiencing at the moment has meant that most birds out on the beach such as Ringed Plover, Little Terns, other species of wader etc. are all hunkered down & facing into the wind, making them all look like they are sitting on nests! One female Ringed Plover did look a bit unusual in her stance however, sitting upright with all her breast feathers fluffed out. This is typical behaviour of a bird that is 'brooding', i.e. keeping chicks warm or sheltered underneath it. When the wind died down a bit I approached the female plover who quickly scurried away & began her distraction display nearby. Sure enough there were 4 small Ringed Plover chicks (probably only a day or two old at most) huddled together doing their best to try & keep themselves out of trouble! The general are where the chicks are present was marked as RP2.

The 4 Ringed Plover chicks from RP2 © Niall Keogh

It's great to get two pairs of Ringed Plover breeding already this early in the season. It should give them a good head start on getting their broods out & fledged successfully. We'll keep monitoring these two pairs & any others which attempt to breed over the course of the season and keep you guys updated on how they are getting on.

See ya,

Friday, 6 May 2011


The number of Little Terns at the colony rose to 64 yesterday. Again there was plenty of dreading & courtship activity to be observed. Should be about 2 weeks until the first egg is laid! The string fencing & information signs are now in place around the main part of the colony between the Buckthorn bushes & The Breaches bridge whilst the first section of flexi-net is in position along the wardens path.

The Breaches is now open after being blocked for some time, so we're expecting the small estuary to become tidal again soon enough which should attract more wading birds to the area during the peak Spring migration period over the next couple of weeks. Thanks go to the staff at Newcastle Airfield for opening up the shingle bar at The Breaches which gets blocked during periods of strong North-easterly or Easterly winds, causing water to back up into the estuary & onto the marsh. It's important to keep The Breaches open as much as possible, not only for the local wildlife but also for the surrounding farmland.

Hi-Mac opening the shingle bar at The Breaches to release backed up water © Niall Keogh
Normal tidal patterns allow the small estuary at The Breaches to become a haven for wading birds, Kingfishers, Otters & Grey Mullet © Niall Keogh

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Day One!

Myself, Cole & Jason moved the caravans, fence posts & signs down onto the site today. The first set of barriers around the colony, comprising of string fencing & information signs will go up over the next day or two. This will mark out what section of the beach is off-limits and what section of the path is still open to the public. The main fencing around the colony (flexi-net & electric fencing) will be put in place over the next while once we get an idea of where the birds are settling down to nest.

Plenty of Little Tern activity at the main colony site with lots of courtship & display flights going on. Quite a bit of dreading was observed too, during which a total of 46 birds were counted (up from 10 birds when I visited the colony on Saturday).

The Breaches has been blocked for sometime now and the estuary is full to the brim. As such most of the waders in the area were in Webb's field (NPWS reserve). There was still plenty of them moving through all the same with 22 Whimbrel, 23 Black-tailed Godwits, 3 Bar-tailed Godwits, 18 Dunlin, 16 Turnstones & a Common Sandpiper noted this afternoon. I'm looking forward to seeing how the wader migration pans out over the next 3 weeks or so, let's hope for something good! The only other birds of note were a Swift & a Yellowhammer at the farmyard and a 'winter' plumaged Red-throated Diver seen offshore from the colony.

Anyways, it's great to be back. The raucous sound of Little Terns displaying overhead was a welcome sound!

I'll post again this weekend/Monday with some pics & an update on how the fencing/setting up process goes.

See ya,