Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The last egg and the Norwegian Blue Parrot

We're delighted to announce that the last Little Tern egg has hatched. 111 Little Tern pairs successfully hatched young this year, more than any other year since the project began. We have a total of 213 chicks, most of which have fledged. Little Tern numbers in the colony are noticeably smaller as they start to leave the colony so the season is well and truly winding down. The only small concern we have is a Peregrine Falcon that pays the colony a visit every other day, we've seen it take at least 3 birds this year but given how quick they are the number is likely to be higher. However we are not too worried as they do not take many and it would be foolish to think that we can protect every individual.

Kilcoole Little Tern fledgling © Cian Cardiff 
The Otters have been ever present this year and we often watch them hunt and play from our caravans. They seem to be particularly fond of crabs, munching loudly on them all night. Birds appear to be on the move now and we've had good numbers of Black-tailed Godwits, Curlew and Common Sandpipers  show up in the lagoon. Willow Warblers can be seen passing through the Buckthorn and a pair of Wheatear were spotted in the colony yesterday. We were also lucky to see a Red Kite glide past the farmland last week. Yesterday our first Clouded Yellow of the year in Kilcoole made an appearance. Clouded Yellows are a migrant butterfly that comes all the way from Spain/North Africa. Some years they can be very scarce and some can be just the opposite, like the Waxwing, so here's hoping we have a good Clouded Yellow year. They are unmistakeable bright yellow butterflies that are a joy to see.

An otter (not the Loch Ness Monster) eating a crab outside the caravans © Andrew Power
Wheatear on the fence © Cian Cardiff
 Clouded Yellow © Andrew Power  

In recent years in Kilcoole we leave a little joke around the colony. Last year we put a plastic owl on a fencepost near the caravans. It was almost heart breaking telling excited onlookers that it was plastic! One year on our species board we had Unicorn listed. To our surprise this did catch one person out! This year we went for a more subtle approach. On our species board we listed "Norwegian Blue Parrot (dead)". This was lost on most people and it didn't seem worth it. We had many people asking us where we saw it and how it got here. But it was all worthwhile (to me anyway) when I saw a couple of people delighted with themselves after getting the joke. After which the flood gates opened and more and more passers by gave me their approval. The parrot is a reference to the infamous Dead Parrot Sketch performed by the legendary Monty Python gang - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4vuW6tQ0218. And it wasn't dead, it was resting.

Norwegian Blue Parrot (bottom right)

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Unsung heroes: Volunteers

There are 5 Little Tern eggs left to hatch in Kilcoole and 212 chicks of all sizes. It is an excellent time to come and visit the colony as there are fledglings everywhere learning to fly and hunt. We have counted a minimum of 86 fledglings on site which is excellent, we suspect some of the older chicks (Juggernaut and friends) have moved out of the colony to somewhere else along the east coast, or beyond. Many of the chicks are pretty advanced and have darker crowns than their younger cousins. They're still a bit clumsy in the air and haven't mastered the art of diving like their parents. We often see them hunting close to the surface and then bellyflop into the water after a fish without success. However, Little Terns learn quickly and they will be making their way to Africa, for the first time, very soon. The Bray airshow was on recently with many of the planes practising in the Kilcoole area, it was amazing to see but even the most elaborate aerial displays by the stunt planes were no match for the grace and aerial prowess of the Little Terns! We are delighted with the progress of the terns and so far everything is going according to plan. Touch Wood. 

Kilcoole Little Tern © Chris Dobson

It has been very exciting to be involved in a record year and we are extremely grateful to our volunteers for all their hard work and dedication. Since the project began in May we have had an overwhelming response from volunteers and their help has been integral to the successful running of this project. What is incredible is the contrast in our volunteers. We have teenagers fresh from doing the Junior Cert to old age pensioners helping us out on the beach. We also have volunteers that are expert birdwatchers and skilled researchers in wildlife conservation as well as volunteers who are beginners and don't even possess a pair of binoculars. One of our volunteers Seán Kelly is a PhD student in Trinity College Dublin and was recently the centre of media attention after the publication of his paper in the scientific journal PLOS ONE. Seán has spent the last few years looking at bird speciation in Indonesia and his paper classes the Wakatobi Flowerpecker as a full species for the first time! Like all great discoveries this story ended up on the cover of the Metro newspaper, it also appeared in the Irish Times, Independent and countless websites and Seán was interviewed on the radio and television. We were all delighted at how well Seán's work has been received and we had more than a few members of the public asking us in Kilcoole about the Wakatobi Flowerpecker. For the full story and a link to the paper check out this article - http://www.headstuff.org/2014/06/reclassification-bird-species-matters-introducing-wakatobi-flowerpecker/wakatobi-flowerpecker-nlb/. Another volunteer, Des Higgins, was also in the limelight recently as he was named as one of the most "influential names in science" and in the world's top 3,000 researchers for his work on the Bioinformatics tool Clustal. Find out more here - http://www.ucd.ie/news/2014/07JUL14/020714-Two-UCD-researchers-among-most-influential-names-in-science-according-to-Thomson-Reuters.html. Des had to get a taxi down when he volunteered last time as he thought we would be late, dedication!

Ignore the jail and hammer headline! 

Volunteer Seán Kelly looking very smart!

Volunteers Des and Aoife Higgins with tern warden Andrew Power © Niall Keogh

Many of our volunteers are students in Tralee, Cork and Dublin etc. who are trying to put their summer to good use and we also have volunteers from a wide range of occupations who squeeze in some hours at weekends or after work. Some people go to great lengths to get here spending hours on public transportation and walking to get here and occasionally helping out in horrid weather (we don't expect this from everyone!). There has also been a multicultural array of volunteers this year with people from France, Lithuania, Peru and Poland (to name but a few) helping us out! All of our volunteers do share one thing in common and that is they have all helped in the conservation of a beautiful and endangered bird as it does not matter who you are or how qualified you are you can still play an important role in this project. Regardless if someone has helped out for an hour or for a whole season we are extremely grateful and we would find it very difficult without the help! We are also particularly grateful to the volunteers that donate chocolate to the project. Last week I carefully left a KitKat chunky in the Buckthorn so I could run off and do something else. When I returned it was gone, I was convinced it had been stolen until I caught a glimpse of the shiny foil of the packaging in the corner of my eye. A rat had taken my KitKat and devoured it, devastation and surely one of the biggest losses of the year in Kilcoole. After hearing my tale of woe a volunteer generously donated some chocolate to the project. So there you have it, volunteers, what a great bunch they are. Thank you.

P.S Our e-mail account littletern@birdwatchireland.ie stopped working recently, we are trying to fix it. Apologies for any inconvenience caused, you can e-mail me at powera2@tcd.ie.

Andrew Power

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

200 chicks, colour ringing and Moths!

This year has been all about records. We have reached 2 milestones in the last week, we now have 208 (!) chicks on the beach with 13 eggs left to hatch and today we colour ringed our 100th chick! The numbers are extremely high and the colony is buzzing at the moment with plenty of fledglings in the air and 113 active pairs of Little Terns.
Colour ringed Little Tern chick © Kristina Abariute and Andrew Power (Picture taken under NPWS license)

This is the first year we have colour ringed Little Terns  in Kilcoole. We put metal rings on every Little Tern chick that hatches in Kilcoole (and have done so for many years) and they can be put on the chick when they are only a couple of days old as their leg doesn't change in diameter as they get older. We can only put colour rings on Little Tern chicks that are a couple of weeks old as colour rings are longer and we have to wait for the chicks legs to stretch out a bit first. Chicks start to leave the nest after 2 or 3 days so finding old enough chicks to colour ring is a little more difficult than metal ringing. At that age chicks congregate on the foreshore and, unlike their younger cousins, can run! So when we look for suitable birds to colour ring we usually end up catching a big group of them at once. The fact that we have colour ringed 100 out of 208 birds is incredible and it also gives us a good indication that many of the birds have survived the first 2 weeks, bearing in my mind that a fair chunk of the birds are not old enough for colour ringing!

Volunteer Kristina Abariute helping us colour ring the chicks © Kristina Abariute and Andrew Power (Picture taken under NPWS license)
Even though the Little Tern is a flagship species there are still many mysteries surrounding it's migration behaviour. We know they go to west Africa but west Africa is a big place and we are not certain what their migration routes are. We know that Little Terns move between sites, a dead adult tern was found last year in Baltray that was originally ringed in Kilcoole in 2010 and an adult bird was trapped on the Isle of Man last year that was also a Kilcoole bird ringed in 2010. We hope that colour ringing the birds will allow us to see the extent these birds move between sites. Colour rings are far more visible than metal rings and we hope this will lead to many re-sightings, especially considering that many Little Tern sites are actively wardened. We also hope that more re-sightings will happen along their migration routes. Most adult Little Terns are metal ringed but it is impossible to read the code from a metal ring, without catching an adult or finding a dead bird, so we don't know where they originated. This will not be the case with colour rings as the code is much easier to read but even if it is not possible to read the ring we can still get extremely useful information simply from the colour of the ring and what leg it is on. We are using green colour rings in Kilcoole with white writing on the left leg of the Little Tern. They are also colour ringing in Baltray and putting green colour rings on the right legs of the Little Tern. A colour ringing scheme is also underway in the Isle of Man where they are using yellow rings. Hopefully other tern colonies will follow suit and keep colour ringing for years to come as it should provide excellent long term data. Understanding everything about a species can be vital for determining it's conservation requirements. We can do everything we like to save a migratory species in our own country but if they are being killed in their wintering grounds it could count for very little. Hopefully this scheme will help us see the bigger picture. So remember if you see a colour ringed Little Tern report it!

Colour ringed Little Tern chick © Niall Keogh (Picture taken under NPWS license)

Kilcoole wardens Andrew Power and Darren O'Connell releasing colour ringed chicks © Niall Keogh (Picture taken under NPWS license)

And now for something completely different....
Stephen McAvoy paid us a visit last week and brought along his Moth trap. I was very lucky to see some real beauties before he let them back into the wild. The Poplar Hawk moth looks like it could devour a tern!
 Poplar Hawk-moth © Andrew Power
Garden Tiger Moth © Andrew Power

Andrew Power and Darren O'Connell 


Thursday, 10 July 2014

We have lift off.....

It's hard to believe that it is already mid July, the season has really flown by. But it's not the only thing flying in Kilcoole as the first wave of Little Tern chicks have begun fledging! The first chick, K1, was first seen in the air on the 4th of July (celebrating independence day) and the rest are starting to follow suit. We almost have the full range of Little Tern age groups on the beach now with 20 eggs left to hatch, 194 chicks of all sizes (getting close to the magic 200!) and, of course, the adult birds themselves. The only thing missing is a 2nd calender year bird which is a rare occurrence in Ireland. 2nd calender year Little Terns do not breed and tend to stay in Africa during the summer instead of migrating back to Ireland. However there is one or 2 knocking around in Baltray in Co. Louth. http://www.irishbirding.com/birds/web/Display/sighting/69114/Little_Tern.html

A cute, one day old, Little Tern chick © Andrew Power (Picture taken under NPWS  licence)
An older, not so cute, Little Tern chick © Niall Keogh (Picture taken under NPWS  licence)

Each stage of the season has different and unique challenges. Bird of prey activity has skyrocketed in the past couple of weeks. A juvenile Peregrine Falcon has frequented the colony practically every day for the past week and sometimes comes in 2 or 3 times a day. Luckily, the juvenile Peregrine is still learning it's trade and hasn't managed to pick any off any just yet. However, an adult Peregrine took out an adult Little Tern over the colony on the 7th of July. There is nothing we can do to prevent a hit and run predator like a Peregrine Falcon attacking the colony. It is the fastest bird in the world after all! Fortunately they do not tend to take many birds. Peregrine Falcons employ an almost cheetah like strategy where they use an incredible burst of speed to attack the colony and single off an individual bird. Little Terns are also master aviators and are usually capable of avoiding such attacks. Kestrels, on the other hand, will come to the colony and hover looking for the chicks. This gives us time to chase them off using state of the art anti-Kestrel technology (see below pic). If you ever see a warden running down the beach banging a frying pan and a saucepan together do not worry we haven't gone crazy (although that should not be ruled out!) we are just trying to scare off the Kestrel. Luckily we have only had to do that once this year. The Kestrels have not yet copped that there are chicks on the beach and hopefully it will stay that way. We have had occasional glimpses of Sparrowhawk (which took an adult Little Tern last year) and Long-eared Owl but they have not yet posed any threat. We have spotted a Fox on the beach on 2 occasions well north of the colony, snooping around, but it hasn't taken any notice of the terns.

Anti-Kestrel defence system © Andrew Power

So, all in all, everything is going according to plan. If the wee chicks can get through the next 3 or 4 weeks unharmed they will begin their journey back to Africa. We will be here, doing our best, to make sure that they get that far.

Next week's blog preview: Kilcoole and Baltray Little Tern colour ringing scheme and celebrity volunteers.

Andrew Power and Darren O'Connell