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!


  1. Terrible news Niall. I know its all part of the way Mother Nature works - but jeez it must be depressing for you guys to see that happen. Here's hoping the Terns get another crack at it - a bit higher up the beach this time lads!

  2. A distressing but really well written blog update. I'm glad to read you haven't lost heart. Keep the heads up lads.