Thursday, 28 June 2012

Wash Out 2: Return of the Tide

Whilst writing the final report for last year’s project, we joked that in the recommendations section we should suggest that Liam Neeson be hired as a warden in future years (if you’ve seen Taken then you’ll know why...Foxes & crows wouldn’t stand a chance!). In any case, this year I think we’ll be asking for Moses to be employed as Chief High Tide Warden, as we sure could have done with him two weeks ago! 

The aftermath of the June Bank Holiday Spring high tide revealed a beach in very poor condition, at a much lower than before and devoid of the gullies & furrows along the foreshore which would help slow the momentum of any waves trying to make their way up. All this proved fatal for our second clutch re-lays which, as reported in the last update, began appearing on Sunday 10th June. Over the next few days we had recorded up to 24 nests of which one was predated by an Oystercatcher and one was abandoned soon after laying. The rest however were lost from Thursday evening onwards when a measly 3.3m high tide was able to race up the shore towards the Marram dunes once more thanks to the backing of a F6 E-NE wind. I would never have considered that a tide of this height could cause any real damage but such is the state of play this season.   

Erosion along the foreshore, eating away once viable nesting habitat & getting dangerously close to the fence! © Niall Keogh

This latest inundation swept away most of the nests and in subsequent days the remainder were lost to persistent Hooded Crows, once again attracted onto the beach by piles of fresh seaweed for them to pick through. Despite some drastic wardening efforts, they managed to get the better of us and by Sunday morning the colony fell silent once more.

Over the following week it was evident that the terns had suffered enough. Flock counts started to drop dramatically, often with just 20-35 birds present, usually for a few hours in the early morning before heading off to sea for the day, presumably to feed. Small parties would occasionally make their presence known in the afternoon, wheeling over the colony with males in tow carrying fish as if to get the ball rolling on courtship once more.

Courting Little Terns © Ronnie Martin

This activity decreased further still and the whole of Saturday went by without a single sighting of a Little Tern! Thankfully there has been a moderate increase in the past two days with up to 45 birds present in the morning, some of which have EVEN been seen landing on the beach! (amazing how small things like that get you excited when all seems lost). A glimmer of hope may reside in the fact that last year, our latest nest which went on to hatch & fledge successfully was laid as late as the 9th July, but saying that a large breeding colony was in full swing at that stage so a late nester may have felt more comfortable in doing so. 

So the big question now is...are we at too late a stage in the season for the Little Terns to start again from scratch?

Only time will tell. 

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Back in Business

After the recent combination of a Spring tide wash out and subsequent crow predation leading to the loss of all nests at the colony, our Little Terns became quite unsettled and by mid last week nearly all the birds seemed to have left the site for the most part. Some small groups would appear during the day, wheel around for a few minutes and then head back out to sea, roosting flocks arrived very late in the evening and birds were generally only present for a few hours the next morning with numbers just reaching about 50 terns. Several hours would go by without a single tern being seen and the silence was most certainly deafening, a development noted by several members of the public just as much as the wardens!

A relatively quiet past week allowed us to get some jobs done, such as building our research & monitoring hide © Niall Keogh
Little Terns will often 'jump ship' and move to another colony if a disaster strikes during their first breeding attempt of the season. This has happened in years gone by where birds breeding in Wexford abandoned their site due to some persistent Peregrine activity followed by a move to Kilcoole. Taking this into account, we were keen to find out if the other major east coast breeding colonies of Little Terns had been affected by the same misfortune we had and whether their numbers would increase or decrease there over the coming weeks as a result of birds redistributing.

The news we received was bad. The Little Tern project at Baltray in Co. Louth was also washed out by the Spring tides and a large colony in Wexford which is being monitored by NPWS staff suffered 100% loss at the same time. Much to the delight of both the wardens and the public, the situation at Kilcoole however has improved markedly in the past few days.

I awoke on Sunday morning to the raucous chatter of flocking and displaying terns over the colony, a sound which actually warmed my heart and I was overcome with a sense of relief. The birds were quite obviously settling back down with plenty of courtship feeding, nest site selection and some successful mating was noted throughout the day. Later that evening, the distinctive posture of incubating birds heralded the arrival of new eggs! Laying has continued since & as of this afternoon we have 16 active nests with 23 eggs. Clutch sizes have been limited to 1 or 2 eggs but this is expected with re-lays, which are always smaller than the first attempt. 

Some eggs are most certainly better than none however!

K86, the first of the re-lays © Niall Keogh
Since then we have been flat out trying to ensure these new nests receive the utmost protection we can provide with several volunteers coming down to help us out who have rallied to the cause after hearing about last weeks misfortune. Crows have been chased, Foxes have been shouted at & I even frightened off a Short-eared Owl which landed on the beach at 23:50 last night! 

The only loss to report on was a most unexpected one. Yesterday afternoon, whilst the terns were off on a social flocking 'dread', an Oystercatcher lifted a single, unguarded egg out of nest K92 and flew off with it! I was totally shocked at this latest development. Oystercatchers are regarded as infrequent predators at Little Tern colonies & a small number of losses have occurred at Kilcoole over the years (with the most recent confirmed Oystercatcher predation as far back as 1997). I'm convinced that this Oyc wasn't one of our breeding birds, merely an interloper which saw an opportunity for a quick meal. The two pairs nesting alongside the terns have done so for the past few weeks without any incident so why they would change their behaviour all of a sudden is beyond me. In any case, we'll keep a close eye on any Oycs in the colony over the coming days for further signs of divilment!

Stay out of trouble! © Niall Keogh

Monday, 11 June 2012

Blackboard Gets A Facelift

Upon arrival at the Little Tern colony site, visitors are welcomed by a series of detailed project information signs & a set of blackboards which we update with the latest tern news and keep a list of Bird & Wildlife sightings from the general area.

They're a real hit with members of the public & many locals extend their morning walk along the beach to this spot just so they can catch up with the latest goings on!

One of the blackboards which has been on the go since the early days of the project was in dire need of some TLC. Fellow BirdWatch Ireland staff member, Jerry Wray, was kind enough to give the 'old veteran' a sanding & a lick of paint so the "Colony News" may continue for another season. Furthermore, he also made an entirely new double sided blackboard where we now log our Bird/Wildlife sightings & mounted some updated information posters in weather proof frames (which were funded by a Wicklow County Council grant).

So a big thanks to Jerry is most certainly in order. We really appreciate all the work he has put in to making the path alongside the colony a more informative & enjoyable place for visitors.

The main 'entrance' to the colony site © Niall Keogh

Blackboards © Niall Keogh
New information sign © Niall Keogh

Saturday, 9 June 2012

King Neptunes Revenge

Much to the chagrin of teenagers across the country, early June is traditionally bathed in a glorious spell of unbroken sunshine, arriving just on time for the first week of the secondary school state examinations. Well, at least that's how I remember it!

The good news for school kids everywhere is that the weather has been horrendous nearly every day this week so they're not missing out on what precious little summer weather we may get just yet. Unfortunately for the Little Terns, the howling wind & rain has led to the complete loss of all the nests at Kilcoole!

It started on Saturday evening, just as the mist was beginning to close in. Day warden Laura & volunteer Siobhan McNamara had been flat out over the past two days making sure all the incubation & nest checks were done as well as marking off a few new nests bringing the total to 86 pairs with 224 eggs by Saturday afternoon. There was just one nest they couldn't confirm for incubation, N1, one of the most recently found nests, on it's own in the sub-colony site South of The Breaches. This nest was located some 60m to the south of the fencing we had erected there 10 days previously. With our materials already stretched to the limit, I was hoping to find some new fence posts in the coming days in order to make a simple cordon around it but on closer inspection later that evening it was clear that this was no longer needed. How a relatively tiny, 10cm wide nest scrape manages to get trodden with the whole other expanse of beach surrounding it is beyond me but it happened anyway.

Two eggs, located neatly in the heal of someone's footstep © Niall Keogh 
I was hoping the next day may bear fruit in the form of new pairs with eggs which may have provided some consolation for the first loss of the season. However, Sunday 3rd June will be a date etched in my brain for the rest of my life, but for all the wrong reasons.

The moon phase last weekend saw a run of Spring Tides occurring, with a 4.2m high due around 11am on Sunday. We're always mindful of anything above 3.9m as these, coupled with strong onshore winds can cause the waves to wash across the foreshore, damaging fencing & sweeping off chicks or eggs located beyond the lower reaches of the protective cordon. The winds throughout Sunday morning were fresh-strong Northeasterly and as the tide rose so did the momentum of the waves. It was quite evident that some of the nests located closest to the shoreline were going to be lost. These were probably laid by young birds who are unaware of the dangers of nesting this low down on the beach and a small number of nests like these are lost every year to the highest tides. Part of the natural rhythm. What was to happen next was not only going to teach the young breeders a lesson in nest location, but all pairs at the colony, even those experienced enough to know that the higher you nest the safer you are (or so they thought).

Those waves which began lapping over the foreshore ridge at around 09:30am started forming pools in a gully between it & the seaward fence line at 10:00am. Fifteen minutes later they were touching the base of the fence itself. Come 10:30am the fence was flattened, by which stage some 20+ nests were lost and I was out doing my best to round up what fencing materials I could so as not to have them swept away. By 11:00am, the seaward fence, along with the majority of the nests in the colony, had been washed by the waves right up the beach to the Marram dune line in places. I couldn't believe it. This was the worst I have ever seen it get. And all I could do was watch...

Scenes of destruction © Niall Keogh
Once the tide receded, it was time to take stock. It was hard to discern which part of the tideline was fencing & which was seaweed. A big tangled mess! Even worse was the fact that there were precious few incubating Little Terns left. In fact there was only 6! The rest of the terns were flocking nervously over the colony & dreading frequently. Many were searching frantically for lost eggs and the sense of distress in the air was most definitely tangible. Of the 6 remaining incubating birds, 4 were sitting pretty on eggs dry & untouched by the waves whilst another two had found their clutches after they were moved a foot or so from their original positions. As long as eggs haven't been cracked or left exposed for too long they can go on to hatch successfully.

Whilst the threat of the sea had dissipated, the piles of fresh seaweed now dumped on the beach had attracted the attention of 50+ Herring Gulls, 15+ Great Black-backed Gulls, 10+ Hooded Crows & a hybrid Carrion X Hooded Crow which were feasting on bits of organic debris such as crustaceans, starfish and most likely some scattered tern eggs. The Hooded Crows became a constant nuisance over the next two days, regularly making sorties onto the beach to sift through the tideline which was perilously close to the remaining six nests. No matter how much we scared them off they just kept coming back and by Tuesday afternoon, under the cover of mist & rain, they had managed to take the remaining eggs.

The total now stands at 0 pairs with 0 eggs!

All is not lost however! It is still early days yet. Little Terns which lose their eggs before hatching can re-lay once the loss occurs before mid-June. We still have birds present at the colony which have been going through the motions of courtship & display throughout the week. Males have been flying around with fish, chasing females & a pair was even seen prospecting for a nest site. As such, we will be on the look out for the first re-lays as of next week, once the birds have had enough time to feed-up and get back into breeding condition.

So if all our readers out there could light a candle, pray, think happy thoughts & generally get some good vibrations on the go it would be most appreciated!

Tuesday, 5 June 2012


Having not had a proper day off for some decent R&R in quite a while, I decided to head into Dublin last Friday to go see a friends concept garden that was on show at Bloom, catch a film & reacquaint myself with one Arthur Guinness. It was all going lovely until I received a text from local birder, Tommy Cardiff to say that himself & Justin Ivory had a Hobby fly through BirdWatch Ireland's East Coast Nature Reserve which may well have been heading for Kilcoole. Brian Haslam got in touch later that evening with news of the bird in question, which was now sitting on the fence right beside the Little Tern colony. TYPICAL!!! 

Whilst heading back on Saturday afternoon, Laura rang to hurry me along as the Hobby was perched beside our caravans! Sure enough as soon as I was on site there it was, on show less than 100m from the camp. Superb views to say the least & it even made a few half-hearted attempts at catching moths, just to show off it's aerial prowess. Easily aged as a 2nd calendar-year (i.e. a 1st-summer) based on the two generations of feathers in the upperparts & rusty orange 'trousers'.

A fantastic bird & great to get such a good look at it 'on the deck' as they're normally zooming around, catching insects high up over reedbeds on hazy summer afternoons. The fact that the views were so good & that it was showing little interest in hunting for the most part was slightly worrying. The bird also sat out in the rain for a good 3 hours & got fairly waterlogged before roosting in the Sea Buckthorn at about 8pm on Saturday. I haven't seen it since so I fear the worst...

In any case, here's the best pics I could manage on a dull, grey afternoon.

2nd calendar-year Hobby © Niall Keogh
Dick Coombes getting a few snaps in © Niall Keogh

Saturday, 2 June 2012

What a Difference a Week Makes


Since the first nest was discovered, laying has increased at a phenomenal rate. The total number of active nests/pairs on consecutive days (Tues 22nd May-Friday 1st June) worked out as follows: 1, 2, 8, 11, 19, 33, 44, 62, 75, 79, 82 and as of this afternoon 84 nests with 218 eggs. An amazing tally already and we're only one month into the project!

Nest K14 © Niall Keogh
I've never had so many nests with eggs to monitor at the one time before. First thing each morning, a round of incubation checks are completed, with the presence of a sitting bird confirming that a nest is still active. Later in the afternoon, myself and Laura enter the colony to check any recently discovered nests for an increase in the number of eggs or indications that the clutch is complete (i.e. no change in the number of eggs laid over 3 days). We like to get this over and done with as quickly and as safely as possible, so a time limit of 30 mins spent inside the colony in dry/warm conditions only is adhered to. Recording new nests is often done whilst we are already in performing nests checks or preferably when we have a batch of at least 3 to mark off.

Males have been busy feeding the females who do most of the incubating © Niall Keogh  

It has been quite a challenge making sure we keep to our schedule whilst at the same time being on the ball enough to locate and mark off new nests which seem to be popping up all over the place. It is likely that new laying will start to trail off in the coming days and with that, any need to enter the colony...that is until the eggs are due to hatch!

We also have our first nest south of The Breaches, in what is known as the N-colony (i.e. on the Newcastle side). This sub-colony can hold anything from 5-20 pairs depending on how crowded the K-colony gets or if a disturbance event there has enticed them to move elsewhere.

Noisy Neighbours © Ronnie Martin

The majority of birds are ringed, such as this one © Ronnie Martin

The large numbers of raucous terns now in full breeding mode is certainly beginning to draw some attention from the local predators. Hooded Crows have been testing the terns defence capabilities and the wardens patience over the last few days in particular. High tide seems to be when they are at their most cheeky as feeding on the estuary is temporarily put on hiatus. During this time they can often be found sitting along the railway fence surveying the site or hanging out around the mouth of The Breaches. The terns do well to keep them at bay with persistent bouts of mobbing and swooping whilst myself and Laura have been running around, waving arms, shouting, throwing stones and generally looking a bit manic!

Fox activity at night has begun to pick up also. Cole reported up to 4 individuals in the general area this week, one of which was moving along the railway line south of The Breaches whilst another was walking across the embankment between the estuary and the marsh right beside the wardens camp! Thankfully none have made it on to the beach yet & there has also been no sign of any Hedgehogs for the moment either.

Some birding highlights over the past few days have included a female/immature Marsh Harrier that flew North on Wednesday 30th May, being mobbed by Lapwings and a great mornings seawatch on Thursday 31st May which saw a Balearic Shearwater, c.4,930 Manx Shearwaters, 11 Fulmar, 2 Puffins, 6 Common Scoter & 3 Black Guillemots move North between 07:20am and 09:20am. An immature HOBBY was seen at BirdWatch Ireland's East Coast Nature Reserve (approx. 1.5km to the south of us) yesterday afternoon followed by a couple of sightings of what was presumably the same bird right on site later that evening. It was even seen sitting on one of the colony fence posts and caused a bit of a stir amongst the terns!

Hobby © Brian Haslam 
Dawn on Wednesday © Niall Keogh