Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Wildlife Sightings 20th-28th May

Over the past week or so it has been quite apparent that Spring is drawing to a close. Resident species are busy feeding their recently fledged or hatched young, many of our summer visitors are still setting up territories or building nests & there has also been a notable Northward movement of High Arctic breeders, hoping to reach their nesting grounds just in time for the frost to subside...

Up to 18 Mute Swans are present on the marshes & estuary behind the tern colony. Most of these are non-breeders or one year old 'loafers', but two pairs have hatched a total of 13 cygnets in the past few days (broods of 6 & 7 respectively). We also have up to 18 Shelduck present but no sign of any young yet & small numbers of summering wildfowl persist in the form of 2 Wigeon, 3 Shoveler, 2 Gadwall & 4 Tufted Ducks.

Mute Swan pair with 6 cygnets © Niall Keogh
Seawatching (more fun than it sounds!) has been quite productive despite the settled conditions. Species which breed on headlands & cliffs in the Irish Sea such as Kittiwake, Guillemot, Razorbill, Black Guillemot, Gannet, Fulmar & Manx Shearwater are regularly seen feeding or passing by. A Puffin flying North with a 'train' of auks on 27th was a nice local record & could well have originated from Wicklow Head where a tentative breeding population may exist. Migrants have included small numbers of Red-throated Divers & Common Terns, an Arctic Tern, a stunning Great Northern Diver in full summer plumage on 20th (followed by a comparatively dowdy 'winter' plumaged bird on 22nd), a Great Skua flying South on 27th & some nice Common Scoter passage which has seen a total of 78 birds recorded during the period in question.

Wader migration is at a crossroads. Numbers of Temperate or Low Arctic breeders have decreased, most notably Whimbrel, with a count of 24 on 20th reducing to 3 on 28th. Sanderling passage has picked up with a total of 70 moving through over the past week & a nice flock of 104 Dunlin on 26th included a striking 'arctica' type bird, which should be heading for Greenland. Other peak counts include: Oystercatcher (33 non-breeders), Bar-tailed Godwit (8 non-breeders), Black-tailed Godwit (7 non-breeders), Turnstone (7 flying North), Knot (1 non-breeder), Golden Plover (1 flying North), Curlew (1 flying South!) & 3 Snipe 'drumming' over the marsh.

Whimbrel © Niall Keogh
On the surrounding farmland, the dawn & evening chorus is enriched with the sound of Collared DoveYellowhammerBlackcap & WhitethroatPied Wagtails & Linnets have been confirmed as breeding successfully with recently fledged juveniles of both species seen in the past week. Stock Doves are ever present, as are a pair of Sparrowhawks & a pair of Kestrels which are still hunting the area, so all three may well be feeding young locally. Wheatears have disappeared completely after the large fall earlier in the month whilst what was presumably the same female Yellow Wagtail as seen previously showed well on 28th, this time along the path right beside the tern colony.

A male Sparrowhawk which caught a juvenile Starling © Niall Keogh 
Skylarks love to perch & sing from the tern colony fencing © Niall Keogh
Meadow Pipits are also breeding in the dunes © Ronnie Martin

You'll be glad to know it's not just all birds either! We've had four sightings of Harbour Porpoise & daily occurrences of 1 or 2 Grey Seals offshore. A pair of Rabbits, a Brown Rat & calling Pygmy Shrews are in the Marram dunes along the railway line. Leisler's Bats can be seen most evenings feeding over the wardens camp site whilst Pipistrelle bats prefer the more extensive tree cover surrounding the nearby farmyard. The Otters have also finally put in an appearance! Cole reports that up to two animals are feeding & calling in The Breaches estuary at night.

The recent run of glorious weather has even enticed a few butterflies onto the wing, but in much reduced numbers compared to previous years. PeacockSmall TortoiseshellSpeckled WoodGreen-veined WhiteLarge White & Common Blue have all been noted but best of all was a nice Clouded Yellow which flew alongside the tern colony, stopping to feed briefly on 21st. The warmth has also brought out some Fox Moths which flutter erratically over the dunes & Viviparous Lizards which emerge from dune tussocks to bask in the morning sunshine along the coastal path & railway line.

"Webb's field" NPWS Reserve...our back garden! © Niall Keogh
Morning light along the electric fence © Niall Keogh

Friday, 25 May 2012

Egg-cellent News

It almost felt like it wasn't going to happen. Wardens on site for over 2 weeks, fencing around the main colony completed well in advance, Little Terns arriving in their droves and even the Ringed Plovers & Oystercatchers were getting on with the business of nesting but where were the tern eggs?

The typical window for finding the first nests at Kilcoole would be between 18th-21st May but those dates came & went without a hint of any laying. There was some decent weather over the weekend, large numbers of birds were present, mating had been confirmed & nest site selection had increased dramatically but we just couldn't find an active nest. Then, as blasé as anything, on Tuesday 22nd May, a Little Tern was seen sitting low against the shingle in a rather suspicious manner. After all the terns in the area took flight in a dread (a form of social flocking), the bird in question returned to the same spot & shuffled down...This was it! I creeped slowly out across the shingle, staring no more than a few inches ahead of each footstep for fear of crushing something precious but then there it was, as plain as day, a lovely egg! WE'RE IN BUSINESS!!!

K1 on Tuesday © Niall Keogh
The nest was marked as K1 and some relevant details such as position, width of scrape, substrate type (sand/shingle) & presence of any decoration (mussel shell shards, plant debris etc.) were noted. Laura had no bother finding K2 the next day, also incubating 1 egg...her first Little Tern nest! Observations on Thursday revealed another 6 new nests with an additional 3 found & marked this morning. What's more, K1 now has a full clutch of 3 eggs & several more have laid their second. So, as of this evening we have 11 pairs of Little Terns with 16 eggs.

K1 on Friday © Niall Keogh
K1 female, incubating away like there's no tomorrow! © Niall Keogh
A peak count of 187 Little Terns was made last Saturday afternoon when most birds were day roosting along the foreshore. Since then, mid-week flock counts have been fluctuating between 110-155 birds but courtship display, mating & nest site selection are still ongoing at a tremendous rate. It was no surprise that the first nest was found early this week as soon as the weather improved & the shingle started to warm. This was certainly the trigger the birds were waiting for. With a favourable forecast for the next week we are hopeful that it will only get busier.

A fish 'gift' from the male is usually an essential precursor to a successful mating © Niall Keogh  
Little Terns mating © Niall Keogh
In anticipation of several pairs of terns settling at the sub-colony site south of The Breaches (N-colony), myself & some volunteers fenced off a section of the beach there on Wednesday. A pair of Oystercatchers & a pair of Ringed Plovers both of which are incubating full clutches of eggs are also present at the N-colony & are now availing from the extra protection. Furthermore we have discovered a third pair of Oystercatchers, nesting inside the K-colony just 20m from the original nest there, something which I have not witnessed during my time as a warden at Kilcoole. Oystercatchers are extremely territorial so how these 2 pairs are tolerating each other is beyond me. In any case, the new 'tenants' are most welcome as they have been ferociously fending off any Great Black-backed Gulls or Hooded Crows that have strayed too close over the past couple of days. Not to be messed with! 

Fencing system around the K-colony © Niall Keogh
Volunteers Joe Byrne & Finnian Kelly © Niall Keogh

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Nearly There

It's really starting to kick off down on the beach. After completing the full system of flexi-net & electric fencing around the K-colony during the week, the Little Terns started settling down straight away, almost as if they were waiting for us to finish it! Several pairs have been busy up on the highest parts of the beach, digging around looking for nest scrape sites & lots of attempted matings noted. About 70-100 birds were present most days but numbers peaked on Thursday with a whopper 164 terns counted around 2pm when most were day roosting along the foreshore. Whilst scanning through the flock a pair were seen displaying in a manner suggesting they were about to mate...and they did! Laura has reported 3 more confirmed copulations this morning so it could well be this weekend when we find our first nests (fingers crossed).

Scrape digging © Niall Keogh
Attempted mating! © Laura Nuttall
The number of Ringed Plover pairs breeding in the colony has risen to six (1 pair with a chick & 5 pairs on eggs), whilst the Oystercatchers are still incubating away in almost exactly the same spot they nested last year. The 'Oycs' are great to have around as they add some serious muscle to the colony defence force, readily driving away any crows or gulls that come too close as well as causing a racket if any Foxes or Hedgehogs were to pop in at night. 

Ringed Plover © Niall Keogh
Oystercatcher © Niall Keogh
On the subject of predators, there are plenty of Hooded Crows & Rooks about, mostly feeding in the estuary & in the fields but thankfully their presence on the beach has diminished since the wardening effort stepped up a notch after the fencing was completed. A pair of Kestrels & a pair of Sparrowhawks have been seen frequently, most often around the Sea Buckthorn where they are busy hunting for their favoured prey (small mammals & small birds respectively). A Peregrine has homed in on the area & and has made three attempts on the Little Tern colony to date, one of which was successful! Cole saw the adult Peregrine take a Little Tern in flight over The Breaches on Wednesday. For the past few years, Peregrines have predated a small number of terns, usually at the start of the breeding season, but not in any numbers to cause abandonment of the colony site. There has been no sign of any mammalian predator activity which is encouraging. We conducted a thorough check of the Marram dunes for Hedgehogs & found nowt but a Field Mouse!

Hedgehog checking © Laura Nuttall
Kestrel © Niall Keogh
Birding in the area has been quite productive lately with the highlight certainly being a PECTORAL SANDPIPER which was found in 'Webb's field' on Tuesday evening. This North American vagrant was most likely blown across the Atlantic last autumn during Hurricane season, migrated south during the winter & is now heading back North in Spring, but just on the wrong side! It was twitched the next day by about 10 local birders.

Pectoral Sandpiper © Niall Keogh
There was a large fall of Wheatears last weekend, with a peak count of 85 on Sunday. Most hung around for a few days after & were joined by a female Yellow Wagtail & a couple of White Wagtails. No sign of the Spring wader migration slowing down yet either with lots of Whimbrel (70+), Dunlin (95+) & Oystercatchers (40+) about in particular. Groups of summer plumaged Turnstones & Sanderling are migrating North along the coast & small numbers of scarce Wicklow species such as Grey PloverKnot & Bar-tailed Godwit add a nice Arctic flavour to the mix. Summering wildfowl still about include 4 Gadwall, 3 Wigeon, 4 Shoveler, 2 Tufted Ducks & 2 Pochard.

Female Wheatear © Niall Keogh   
Linnet © Niall Keogh   
A couple of pairs of Swallows are breeding under The Breaches bridge © Niall Keogh      
An injured Dunlin © Niall Keogh  

Monday, 14 May 2012

Otters on Elev8

Jamie Durrant (BirdWatch Ireland) was on site this morning with a crew from RTÉ filming a piece on Otters for the kids programme, Elev8 which is due to broadcast this Wednesday at 4pm on RTÉ 2.

No sign of the animals themselves but at least there was plenty of very fresh Otter tracks & signs for the guys to look at on the saltmash & under the bridge.

Otter spraint © Niall Keogh
Otter tracks © Niall Keogh

New Warden

We're delighted to announce that Laura Nuttall has joined the 2012 Kilcoole Little Tern Conservation Project team & has started her new position as a Day Warden today.

Laura has worked for BirdWatch Ireland & the RSPB on a range of projects since 2008. These have included Dunlin breeding ecology in Co. Mayo, Golden Plover habitat use & productivity, waterways bird surveys focussing on Kingfisher, low tide counts and Bird Atlas surveying. She has also worked on two desk studies, one looking at long term trends in wintering waterbirds and another on the potential impacts of flood risk management methods on birds. With the exception of the Golden Plover project, all of these have been in Ireland. She is now looking forward to spending this summer as a warden at the Kilcoole Little Tern colony and to meeting as many of our readers as possible. In her spare time Laura enjoys climbing hills. 

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Numbers Building

Wet, windy & miserable! Pretty much sums up the past week for us down here on the beach. Strong South Easterlies coupled with a Spring tide hammered the colony site on Monday, with waves reaching well up beyond the half way mark in places. Exactly the sort of weather event we don't want in a month or so! Thankfully none of the Little Terns have started nesting yet, with most birds spending alternate days fishing at sea. 

Little Tern © Ronnie Martin

Serious bit of weather! © Niall Keogh
Flock sizes have been fluctuating markedly throughout the week, typical for this time of year as birds move between sites before finally settling down to breed. At times the colony can seem almost deserted, then all of a sudden a flock of 50-80 terns will land in, forming a raucous line along the foreshore with birds displaying to each other between bouts of preeningOur peak count was of c.120 terns during the rough weather on Monday, 70 of which were resting along the K-colony foreshore whilst another 50 were out to sea. Amongst the resting flock was a tern sporting a blue plastic ring, most likely one of two blue colour-ringed birds we have seen here in 2004, 2010 & 2011. The terns were more settled yesterday with several pairs prospecting for nest sites & even a failed mating attempt noted. It's starting to feel like a real colony now. 

Little Terns in courtship flight (male on the left with the fish) © Ronnie Martin
Foreshore antics! © Niall Keogh
Our first nests were discovered on 12th May last year (quite an early date) so I reckon if we don't find any by the end of this weekend it will be next weekend before any action happens (the traditional first egg laying dates would be around 18th-21st May). The system of fencing around the main colony is nearly finished with the landward section, including designated viewing areas for the public, fully set up. We're just waiting for the high tides & rough weather to abate before deciding on where to place the seaward length of fence.

Other species of birds breeding locally have been performing well too. The Lapwing in Webb's field are now up to 20-22 pairs (15 of which have a min. of 40 chicks), a few pairs of Shelduck have been mooching about potential nest sites, the Skylarks in the K-colony dunes are busy feeding their first brood, 4 pairs of breeding Ringed Plovers have been found within the tern colony area & 2 pairs of Oystercatchers have also been seen mating and are expected to lay eggs any day now.

Shelduck © Niall Keogh
Ringed Plover © Ronnie Martin
An incubating Ringed Plover keeping a watchful eye! © Niall Keogh
Ringed Plover egg & chick © Niall Keogh
Skylark chicks in the nest © Niall Keogh
Oystercatcher at the K-colony © Niall Keogh

Wader passage has been much the same since my last update with max. daily counts as follows: Dunlin (91), Whimbrel (82), Oystercatcher (36), Turnstone (29), Sanderling (15), Black-tailed Godwit (13), Ringed Plover (10), Curlew (5), Grey Plover (2), Redshank (1), Bar-tailed Godwit (1) & Snipe (1).

Other birding highlights include: a 2nd calendar-year Little Gull in The Breaches, a Red-breasted Merganser flying South & a 2nd calendar-year Mediterranean Gull flying North at sea on Sunday 6th. A rather tired looking Lesser Redpoll was seen in the K-colony dunes on Monday 7th (bizzare record!) & a stunning 2nd calendar-year type female Marsh Harrier flew through on Tuesday 8th. Another Marsh Harrier was also seen on Tuesday by Brian Haslam, this time a 3rd calendar-year type male, south of The Breaches.

Whimbrels (curved bills) & Bar-tailed Godwits (straight bills) © Ronnie Martin    
Summer plumaged Red-throated Diver just offshore © Ronnie Martin
Summer plumaged Dunlin on the beach © Ronnie Martin

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Moving In

After a very wet week it looked as if setting up for the project was going to hit a serious wall. Every year we have to bring the wardens luxury accommodation (three caravans!), all the necessary fencing equipment & signs across 'Webb's field' NPWS nature reserve, to the camp site located just beside the main Little Tern colony (aka 'K-colony'). For the past two years this has been relatively easy to do due to dry conditions but the tracks across the reserve were flooded during the week & by Thursday it seemed as if they were still too muddy to drive across let alone drag a caravan with us! Thankfully the tracks had dried out sufficiently enough for us to bring all the caravans & equipment across yesterday afternoon, so as of this weekend the 2012 Kilcoole Little Tern Conservation Project is good to go! First job on the list is to put the perimeter fence & information signs up around the K-colony indicating which sections of the beach & coastal path are safe for the public to use.

The numbers of Little Terns present has increased dramatically since my last blog post. There are now 70+ birds present at the K-colony, most of which are already going through the motions of courtship. Superb aerial displays, males presenting Sandeels to females & even some apparent nest-site selection have all been observed in the past two days. Once we have an idea of where the terns seem to be settling down to breed then we'll make a start on putting up the protective flexi & electric fencing.

A male tern presenting a sandeel to a female © James Hayes

Little Terns chilling out on the foreshore © Niall Keogh
Before moving the caravans across Webb's field, I censused the area for breeding Lawping in order to mark out a safe route for us to cross. To my surprise there were even more breeding pairs than I had ever anticipated! Up to 17 pairs are present, consisting of 10 pairs with chicks, 4 pairs sitting on nests & another 3 pairs which seem as if they are holding territory. A fantastic result for them so far & the large number of chicks present indicates there hasn't been any major Fox activity in the area lately. We'll be sure to keep a close eye on their numbers over the season. One brood of four chicks were sighted near the track whilst we were driving across the field so I took the opportunity to ring them.

Lapwings © Niall Keogh
There are still some nice numbers of migrant waders present with peaks counts over the past few days as follows: 145 Dunlin, 53 Whimbrel, 47 Oystercatchers, 33 Ringed Plover, 7 Sanderling, 6 Turnstone, 6 Bar-tailed Godwits, 3 Black-tailed Godwits, 1 Curlew, 1 Redshank & 1 Common Sandpiper. Of particular interest were a couple of 'arctica'-type Dunlin & 'tundrae'-type Ringed Plover which are on their way to breeding grounds well to the North as their names suggest!

Other sightings of note in the area: 16 Light-bellied Brent Geese, 5 Gadwall, 3 Wigeon, 3 Shoveler, 7 Teal, 13 Shelduck (including a prospecting pair), a Peregrine, 5 Little Egrets, a male White Wagtail, 6 Wheatears, 5 Sedge Warblers, small numbers of House Martins, Sand Martins & Swifts, good numbers of Swallows (200-300 North per. hour on Thurs), 3 Stock Doves, a singing Yellowhammer & a nice pair of Stonechats at the BirdWatch Ireland reserve.

Male Reed Bunting at the BirdWatch Ireland reserve © Niall Keogh
Some of the Brent Geese in Webb's field © Niall Keogh