Monday, 31 August 2015

Record success for 2015

With August coming to a close, how did the Little Terns do this year?

The answer is a record smashing success! This year an estimated 155 breeding pairs produced 301 chicks, 289 of which are presumed to have fledged and dispersed from the colony. This has been the most successful season for numbers of pairs and fledglings at Kilcoole since the conservation project began in 1985. Last year's breeding season (2014) was a record year, with at least double the number of successfully fledged chicks than in previous years. The 2015 breeding season surpassed this, breaking the record at Kilcoole again!

Although we had great success, it was not all plain sailing: Met Eireann reported parts of Ireland experiencing the wettest May in over 120 years, the coldest May in 19 years and the dullest since 1995. Such adverse weather significantly impacted the colony. The single greatest loss of eggs in 2015 was when 32 eggs were washed out from 17 nests during the spring tide and storm on July 4th, 5th and 6th. Earlier in the season, a tidal surge on June 10th overwashed 11 nests, destroying 29 eggs. The lowered profile of the beach, after the damage done by storms in 2012, has made the colony very vulnerable to the effect of high tides and the weather this season proved to be harsher than the previous 2 years. Despite the heavy egg losses, chick mortality was low. Just 3.9% of successfully hatched chicks are known to have died in 2015. This was generally due to natural mortality, but 3 chicks perished in the awful weather at the beginning of July.

A total of 267 Little Tern chicks were metal ringed this year. Trapping and measuring the chicks  gave an interesting insight into the growth rates of chicks. This year, chicks as young as Day 10 and 11 were approaching adult weight, indicating good food availability. As well as metal rings, the coordinated colour ringing programme at Kilcoole continued for its second year. Of the chicks presumed fledged at Kilcoole in 2015, 134 (46%) are colour ringed. These chicks have a green ring on the left leg with a white 3-letter or 3-letter-and-number inscription which are easily visible with telescopes. As they spend their first 2 years of life in West Africa before returning to Europe for their first breeding season, these chicks will not be back until 2017. However, the 2014 batch of colour ringed chicks will be returning to Ireland for the first time next spring. This will be the first time chicks colour ringed as part of this scheme will return to Ireland, so we are very excited to see what rings show up! Be sure to watch out for colour rings in tern flocks returning next April! 
The trend over the last 30 years (since the protection scheme has been in place) is clearly an increase in breeding numbers at Kilcoole.  The success of this breeding season is likely built on the good breeding seasons between 2003-2005 and 2008-2011, as many of the chicks fledged in those seasons have likely returned to Kilcoole to breed. Likewise, the success of 2014 and 2015 will hopefully provide a good base for breeding seasons in the future.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Spotted: 3 wardens migrating north on the N11

The field season for the Kilcoole Little Terns has come to an end in great celebration! This year has been incredible in terms of productivity, hatching success and fledgling success. On the day the wardens finally (sadly) departed the beach, the fledgling count was 291 fledges assumed alive. This is a staggering record and the highest ever produced in all 30 years of the project. Many have already left the site, with counts of less than 20 in the past week.

With the fences dismantled, we would like to extend our gratitude and thanks to all the volunteers who assisted with the project in the 2015 season. Volunteers are an integral part of protecting the breeding terns and their chicks. Such an effort requires a lot of dedication and time and the result of such work can be seen in the excellent success we have has this year. So thank you to Niall Galloway, John Wright, Fianna, Niall Houston, Candy Murphy, Chris Dobson, Jamie Ellis, Kate Bismilla, Cian Cardiff, Íosach Ó Riain, Adrienne Gallagher, Sarah Grimes, Cillian Roe, Darren O'Connell, Brian Power, Katie Manley, Jen Lynch, Niall Tierney, Ricky Whelan, Anne and Rosie Newton, Chris Webb, Meibh Foran, Lisa Doyle, Deirdre Reedy and Justin Ivory.

Also a special thank you to Niall Keogh for all his help and advice, to Declan Manley for providing invaluable cover and to Seamus Doyle for repairing everything from tripods to windows!

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Juveniles (but no delinquents!)

We have already looked at other species breeding inside the Tern colony - Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover, Skylark and Mallard. We have also seen other avian life outside the colony fences. Naturally, many of these species are breeding as well, and it is not just Little Terns that are fledging at Kilcoole. A long and very genteel ringing session last Sunday (I estimate we boiled the kettle for tea and biscuits at least 10 times) threw up plenty of juvenile passerines. These species nested within the Buckthorn at the north end of the colony or in the surrounding NPWS reserve and farmland.

A Sedge Warbler has his measurements taken during Sunday's ringing session (photo: Paddy Manley)

Among others, we had juvenile Willow Warbler, Sedge Warbler, Starling and Reed Bunting. Over the course of the season, there has also been evidence of breeding Blackbird, Yellowhammer, Dunnock, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Stonechat, Linnet, Goldfinch and Robin. Inside the lagoon, we have breeding Coot and, of course, the Mute Swan pair with their cygnet. Juvenile Kingfisher have been spotted in the channel.

Juvenile Sedge Warbler (photo: Paddy Manley)

Juvenile Willow Warbler - much yellower than adults (photo Paddy Manley)

Susan in conversation with a young Willow Warbler

Only in the past few weeks did I begin to see the juvenile flocks out and about. Murmurations of between 100 and 200 juvenile Starlings rise up out of the farmland on foraging trips. A small flock of perhaps 10 juvenile Linnet forage along the railway line, while a family group of Skylark regularly feed on Hogweed seeds in the camp.

And of course there are the non-birdy breeders - I have seen fox cubs and a baby hedgehog. Kilcoole also has a resident family of otters, and plenty of rabbits. The sand dune plants also support a great number of butterflies, with Meadow Browns in particular out and about on calm days.

The juvenile Terns are still at the colony: approximately 70 are loafing on the tideline today. I had a great insight into Tern communication between adults and their young when a Peregrine Falcon flew over the colony this morning. The adults and older chicks instantly took off out to sea when the Peregrine swooped over. The younger chicks flattened themselves into crouch-defense-camoflage position among the shingle on the foreshore. They remained perfectly still and crouched while the adult flock was out to sea avoiding the preying Peregrine eyes. As the flock returned to the shore again, I began to hear their chattering calls. Evidently the chicks heard it too and knew that it was safe, because they began to stand up and stretch out their wings and legs. One chick suddenly cheeped wildly and fluttered his wings in excitement and a few seconds later, his parent landed with a sprat. However, during his excitement, all the other chicks remained perfectly placid, indicating he knew that food was arriving for him, and him alone. These observations indicate that the chicks can differentiate calls for "hide, there is danger", "everything is alright" and "where are you? I've got dinner!". They also know the individual "voice" of their parents.

Like the young passerines we caught on Sunday, soon the last of these Little Terns will be experienced enough to  become more independent of their parents and strong enough to make the great journey south.

Susan and Paddy

Sunday, 2 August 2015

As Autumn arrives, Africa beckons

Nesting at the colony has finished for the 2015 season. All our chicks have come of age - the last chicks fledged two days ago. We have been getting consistently high counts of roughly 130 fledges loafing on the foreshore for the past week, indicating high fledgling survival. The fledges still need time to learn how to be big Little Terns before they can leave the protection of the colony. They still depend heavily on their parents for food, and will need to become that little bit more independent before the journey to West Africa.

The departure for migration draws ever closer. The fledglings are practicing hard at flying and hunting. They regularly practice offshore behind the breaking waves or in the lagoon as the tide is rising. Some have graduated from hovering and diving to braving the actual plunge into the water. However, I still have to witness a successful catch!

Other avian migrants have been coming through Kilcoole. The Swallows and Sand Martins are readying themselves, and flocks of Siskin came through last week. Wheatear have also been spotted. Curlew and Black-headed Gulls are returning from their inland breeding sites to spend the winter at the coast. The flora of Kilcoole are approaching the Autumn too, with most flowering plants around the colony fruiting. The Wild Carrot, Mustard, Hogweed, Kidney Vetch and the grasses are gone to seed.

This year has been off the charts in terms of nesting attempts and successful hatches! The Little Terns have done fantastically well in Kilcoole, while Common Terns and Roseates also had a very successful year in Rockabil. Years like this are very encouraging and a real morale-booster for active conservation in Ireland. We will soon be able to say for sure how many Little Terns successfully fledged in Kilcoole and headed off for southern climes. Unless a tornado comes through the colony, we may be have another record year!

Monday, 27 July 2015

Candid camera

I had some fun playing with a trail-cam in the colony today. This kind of camera uses motion sensors so that whenever there is movement within range, it is triggered to take a photo. I set this one up near the main roost to capture some of the daily activity of the Little Terns, While the resulting pictures are by no means National Geographic standards, they still offer a lovely glimpse into the life of the fledglings, so I thought even the blurry ones were still worth sharing...

Fledgling in flight

Parents bringing in food

Practicing flight

Dinner time!

Wing stretching

The race for food!!

Resting and relaxing

Watching over young

Fledgling chilling out

In flight

Searching for young
Thanks to Brian for the lend of the camera!

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Lift off!

Most of the chicks at Kilcoole are well on their way to fledging. The youngest chicks roaming the shingle are 10 days old now, and all their elder cousins are at least a week their senior. Some fledges have a prominent black-to-dark brown crown and waterproof feathers - showing that well on their way to being big and strong enough to migrate! Many chicks are still in that between-phase (and I think these are the prettiest!) where they have lovely speckled plumage, downy white underparts and a soft brown crown beginning to show through. Gone are the days of the fluffies and tinies - every chick is a chunky chick now!

Little Tern fleglings at Kilcoole © Niall Keogh

The beginnings of a dark crown forming © Niall Keogh

We catch these fledges daily now to take measurements of their wings and body weight. This helps us build a picture of how well they are growing and feeding. We learned of our first fully fledged chick on July 4th, when the warden, after applying a new colour-ring, released the chick and it promptly flew away! Since then, numerous fledges have been observed in the air. The eldest (with the dark crowns) fly with confidence and join the adult flocks. Younger ones remain on the shingle when the adults fly, and still practice small flutters - often crash landing!

The young have also been observed learning to hunt fish just offshore behind the breaking waves. They practice hovering and dropping into a dive towards the surface of the water. They haven't yet progressed to plunging in after a fish, but I have watched them shyly skim their feet with a splash.

When they are not learning how to be a big Little Tern, the fledglings flock together with the adults along the tideline, looking very grown-up indeed. That is, however, until the parents arrive with a freshly caught sprat, and suddenly they are most  chick-like again - wings waving, running and stumbling, cheeping as loud as they can to get to the meal before their siblings!

Our highest fledgling count this week has been 139 individuals. We expect that they will begin to move around the east coast a lot more as the gathering for migration looms ever closer. It will be interesting to see where our colour-rings show up!

Susan and Paddy

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Kilcoole Birdlife

The beach at Kilcoole is not only home to the Little Terns: we have many species on the shore, in the lagoon, in the surrounding farmland and offshore. Several of these species are breeding, while others are only passing through, and others are returning after their own breeding season.

Of course, the main focus of this project is on the Little Terns. Little Terns are one of Ireland's rarest breeding birds, following a massive decline in successful breeders in the latter half of the 20th century. The conservation project in Kilcoole began in 1985 with the aim of halting this decline by protecting the breeding birds. It has been extremely successful, and in 2014 enjoyed the highest number if fledged chicks on record. This year may yet reach another record high. 

Captain Splash, the Little Tern (Photo: Brian Power)

The structure of the colony allows other species to breed within the protected area. Each year, several Ringed Plover and a number of Oystercatcher and Skylark, nest and hatch their chicks alongside the Terns. This year, an Oystercatcher with a colour-ring "PJ" was among those nesting at Kilcoole. This Oystercatcher was ringed as part of the Dublin Bay Birds Project, which monitors the activities of wader populations in Dublin Bay. Having spent the earlier part of this year working on the DBBP team, I was delighted to see an old friend come with me to Kilcoole. PJ went on to hatch a brood of three chicks, and we hope to get a second generation ring on there!

PJ - or Patricia Jane- the Oystercatcher (photo: Niall Keogh)
Ringed Plover brooding her chicks among the Tern nests (photo: Chris Dobson)

Skylark nest in marram grass tufts inside the Tern colony (photo: Chris Dobson)

Outside of the colony and into the lagoon, we have many regular avian visitors. The brackish water and exposed mud in the lagoon support breeding Shelduck, Mallard (how could I forget my duckling fiasco?) and Mute Swan. There are plenty of waders, including Turnstone, Curlew arriving back from breeding, Whimbrel, Bar-tailed and Black-tailed Godwit, Redshank and Greenshank. We have already gotten up close and personal with the Dunlin in the lagoon back in an early ringing session at the beginning of the project.

Mute Swan with cygnet (photo: Chris Dobson)
This week also saw the arrival of an interesting visitor -  a White-cheeked Pintail was swimming in the lagoon on Thursday. This pretty Caribbean species most probably wandered out of a garden pond somewhere and ended up in Kilcoole. Although it is completely out of place, it is still a lovely sight.

AWhite-cheeked Pintail wanders into the lagoon (photo: Niall Keogh)

 Also found here are plenty of gulls, such as Greater Black-back, Lesser Black-back and Herring Gull and the past week saw the arrival of Black-headed Gulls in large numbers to the lagoon. We have had a couple of more unusual gull sightings as well - Yellow-legged Gull and Little Gull. Finally, there are the Little Egrets and Grey Herons that have become part of the camp furniture.

Little Egret (photo: Trail Camera)
Grey Heron (photo: Brian Power)
The Sea Buckthorn at the north end of the colony is a nice spot for passerines. The regulars include Reed Bunting, Goldfinch, Linnet, Blue and Great Tits, Blackbird, Meadow Pipit and Wheatear. 
Wheatear on the colony fence (photo: Niall Keogh)
Offshore, a powerful telescope will turn up Manx Shearwater, Storm Petrel, Gannet, Common Scoter, Puffin, Guillemot and Black Guillemot among others. Out on the farmland, there are Yellowhammer and Kingfisher, Sightings have been reported for both of these colourful birds this year, but I myself have yet to spot them! I will be keeping my eyes pealed with every trip!

Susan and Paddy

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Spring tides and storms

The Terns and I spent Monday sheltering from the wind and driving rain. The sea was angry and, combined with Spring highs, crashed its way up the beach and into the colony.

Many of the chicks sought refuge in "chick shelters" that the wardens have positioned in strategic locations around the colony. These are roofing tiles placed on the ground that a chick can duck under in a hurry! While they were used as rain shelters on Monday, on warmer days the chicks will enjoy the cool shade the shelter provides, and they are also ideal boltholes when a bird of prey passes overhead!

Chick shelter (with no chick!)
Not quite what we had in mind.... © Niall Keogh (picture taken under NPWS licence) 

Unfortunately, we suffered heavy losses during the high tide and stormy winds. It has brought us rather abruptly close to the last nest hatching. Over the weekend, tides of 4.2m+ swept away 17 nests, and two chicks perished in the cold and the waves.

So where do we stand now?

Throughout the season, there have been 171 nesting attempts within the colony (plus 9 more attempts in 2 satellite colonies) with a total of 402 eggs laid. This implies huge productivity for the Little Terns and it is very encouraging to see how well they are getting on in Kilcoole for the past 2 years. So far, 149 of these nests have hatched, producing 286 chicks. On the other hand, 46 of the nests were lost (96 eggs overall). Almost 75% of egg losses were due to the tidal surge in June and the spring tide in July, with the remainder due to a combination of egg infertility, abandonment, loss of the parents and depredation, all of which are to be expected at any breeding colony. Despite rather heavy egg loss, the successfully hatched chicks have survived well, with only 9 losses, and 275 happy chicks currently gambolling about the shingle. If all these little chicks reach fledgling age, Kilcoole will have another record year to celebrate!

There are still 8 active nests on the beach with a total of 20 eggs between them. Now that the high tides are over, these eggs are much safer and, with any luck, we'll have a few more chicks to add before nesting is over.

Susan and Paddy 

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Colour-ringing at Kilcoole

With just over 275 chicks on the beach, the Kilcoole Little Tern colony is booming! The wardens are run off their feet monitoring the newly hatched fluffy chicks (the “tinys”), which weigh a mere 6 grams when they hatch, and keeping an eye on the older chicks (the “chunkys”), which rapidly increase their body weight to over 30 grams after only two weeks. 

The newly hatched chicks are fitted with a British Trust of Ornithology metal ring with an individual ID number when they are one day old - just before they leave the nest and set out to explore their exciting new world beyond the shell that is the shingle beach! In the coming days and weeks these chicks are caught again by observant wardens to take measurements of their wing length and their weight. This data is then added to an existing database collected over the years at Kilcoole that is used to calculate growth rates of Little Tern chicks. Such data is valuable to our ecological knowledge of the Little Tern as an Irish breeding bird.

Little Terns are fitted with a metal ring on the right leg
Chicks only weigh a couple of grams in their first days out of the egg

Once the chick reaches roughly 10 days old (definitely a chunky chick now!), its legs have lost their baby-fat and grown long enough for colour-ringing. These older chicks are fitted with a plastic green colour-ring with an individual 3-letter inscription. Unlike the smaller metal rings, these can be read at a distance with a telescope, therefore it is possible to receive reports on colour-ringed Terns from other parts of Ireland, the UK and on their migration to West Africa. The green colour and the letter “I” at the beginning of the inscription indicates this is a bird from Ireland, whilst the position of the colour-ring on the left leg indicates it is from Kilcoole. This colour ringing scheme was only initiated into the Little Tern project last year, and as terns do not breed until they are two years old, there are no adults with Irish colour rings returning to the colony this summer. Next year will be an exciting year, because those chicks colour-ringed in 2014 will hopefully will return here to breed!

A 10-day old chick gets his colour-ring "IPN"

So far we have ringed a total of 230 chicks with metal rings and 30 with colour rings. Many more chicks will come of age for colour-ringing in the next week. On top of this, there are still 26 pairs of Little Terns sitting on nests in the colony, which means we may potentially reach over 300 successfully hatched chicks for the 2015 season!

Susan and Paddy

Friday, 26 June 2015

Another record year?

Numbers are booming at the Little Tern colony in June. The nest count, which continues to rise daily, has reached a whopping total of 164 nest attempts! Of these nest attempts, 57 nests have hatched and there are 139 little ternlets running around the beach. There are still 81 active nests left to go - that's 81 birds sitting on 195 eggs!

Last summer in Kilcoole was a record smashing season. 219 Little Terns fledged - a number literally off the chart since the project began in 1985! With well over 100 eggs hatched and almost 200 more left to go, the 2015 season is also showing exceptionally high productivity.

However, one must never count one's Terns before they hatch. We will be working even harder to keep the colony protected through July, so with some kind weather, west winds and uneventful spring tides, perhaps Kilcoole might be able to break its own records again this year!

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

A Quacking Good Time

The list of chicks that attempt to give me heart failure at this colony continues to lengthen - from Little Tern chicks who wander worryingly far from their parents on a cold, windy evening, to Oystercatcher chicks traversing the train tracks (see "A Tale of Two Oystercatcher"), to Ringed Plover chicks gambolling on the pedestrian footpath. But a new species was about to give them a run for their money...

We have a single Mallard duck breeding in the Little Tern colony, along with Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover and Skylark. The wardens observed her flying in and out daily and heard her honking in agitation when the Terns were alarmed. Initially, she had a clutch of 10 eggs, though one was predated before it could hatch. Eventually, 9 adorable little dark brown and yellow ducklings were produced.

When the brood was just a matter of days old, I was walking the pedestrian path when I saw mother and ducklings snaking across the track, crouched low to the ground until they made it into the long Marram grass. I followed their progress, moving as a single shuffling snake through the grass alongside the railway fence. To my utter dismay, mother duck ducked under the fence and led the 9 ducklings onto the track. This happens every year when Mallard and Shelduck nesting on the beach make the decision to move their young family to the lagoon on the other side of the track, where foraging opportunities are better. The ducklings, however, find it impossible to jump the lip of the train track and instead huddle as near to where their mother crossed, while she quacks encouragement from the other side.
Ducklings can't follow their mother 
Seeing myself the hero, and expecting this to be an easy rescue, I gathered the ducklings and carried them to the other side in one swift step. Of the 9 ducklings, 7 of them jumped out of my arms on the other side and dived into the Bramble and back into snake-formation with mother duck at the head. Unfortunately, 2 ducklings ejected early, almost floating out of my grasp and darted back the way they had come.

I heard the distant sound of the commuter train at Newcastle Station and dutifully removed myself to the pedestrian footpath. Several minutes later, the train thundered by. It passed just in time for me to catch a last glimpse of the mother duck and the ducklings vanishing into the thick long grass of the cattle field on the other side of the lagoon. She had left 2 ducklings behind!!

I found them by following their high pitched cheeping in the grass. A pair of lost little ducklings. I wrapped them up warm and we headed out on a driveabout through the channels and pans of the salt marsh to catch up with the rest of the family.

The two that got left behind :-(
Alas, an hour an a half later, despite encountering several Mallards, there were no brooding females to take the ducklings in. We made the decision to have them adopted by one of the wardens and raised with the view of releasing them once they are big enough. But before journeying to their new home, the ducklings had to survive a night in the camp, with few provisions, no electricity and, most importantly, no heat source...

Using our telescope box and the fluffiest fleece we had between us, we designed them a little habitat for the night. Various bottle caps and dishes were used to provide them with what little duckling-digestible food we had to offer: cooked carrot, milk, green grass and what few lagoon critters I could catch. As luck would have it, this night was a cool one after a string of balmy warm weather. I filled two plastic water bottles with water straight out of the kettle to keep the box warm. Although the water was near boiling, both ducklings cuddled up to the bottles throughout the night. Thanks to the diligence of night warden Cole, the bottles were refilled with hot water several times in the night. You can only imagine my delight to open the box at half 5 this morning to find the pair blinking up at me.
A makeshift brooding box with the best we could think up!
The ducklings arrived at Jerry's house this morning and I hope to hear that they are doing well.

Days like this make me glad that the Little Terns do quite the opposite - instead of heading for the lagoon, these chicks head for the tide line when they are old enough. Some of our chicks are well over a week old and move about quite independently on the foreshore. Their parents still hunt and bring them food, of course, but they are growing much bigger and more robust by the day. New nests continue to hatch every day, so we have no shortage of vulnerable little fluffsters along with the big boys.

Two days ago, the colony crossed the one-hundred point mark - the evening nest round totaled at 115 chicks! There are many many more nests to go, so with some grace from the weather and our own hard work to keep the predators at bay, this season may turn into another boom-year!

Susan and Paddy

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Unexpected visitors

There were two unusual visitors at the colony over the past few days.

The first was a Manx Shearwater. Generally only seen far offshore through our telescopes, this bird was caught during an overnight mist-netting session by Declan Manley. After taking and recording its body measurements, the Shearwater was released back into the night with a shiny new ring on its leg.

Manx Shearwater mist-netted near Kilcoole last week
The second visitor was even more unexpected. Our warden Jerry was keeping an eye on things from the bird-hide when he heard a scratching on the roof above his head. Thinking it might be a small flock of the juvenile Starlings that landed on top, he leaned out the window only to find himself face to face with a Grey Squirrel. Moments later, the startled squirrel was racing away down the train tracks with an angry mob of Terns on its tail.

A squirrel is indeed an unusual sight in the colony, since there isn’t a tree for miles. He is unlikely to be of any threat to the Terns, but their intensely defensive behaviour probably scared him off for good. However, it is great to see the colony protecting their eggs and chicks so fiercely. We have over 70 chicks on the beach today and it is good to know they are so well guarded!

Susan and Paddy

Friday, 19 June 2015

Kilcoole Nursery

What a wonderful week we have been having down at the colony. After the exciting news last Friday that our first nest hatched two chicks, the fluffy-count has shot up. Today we have 54 little ternlets on the beach, and I daresay that number will be up again after this evening’s nest rounds. There are 117 active nests still out there with 240 potential hatches!

We have had all sorts of chicks. The first two that hatched are a week old now. They have moved away from Nest No.1 permanently and always appear in the same seaweed pile every morning. They’re huge, and gambol about after their parents with their tiny fuzzy wings outstretched for balance.

Younger chicks, such as those of Nest No.8, haven’t quite mastered the art of scampering during their first 24 hours on this earth. Master Nest No.8 gave me a right laugh this morning when he tried to climb out the sides of the nest scrape. On finally summiting the lip of the nest, he lost his balance, tipped over backwards and rolled all the way back down, finding himself with his little red legs and fuzzy white belly in the air before he was swept back under a protective grey wing.

We also had a most unusual sight when we reached Nest No.7 on last night’s nest rounds. Two of the three chicks are the usual sandy-and-speckled-black cuties, but the third is a snowy white albino tern with red eyes. Although the parents were happily brooding all three this morning, the albino is noticeably tinier and more helpless than his brothers. Only time will tell whether he is healthy enough to pull through his first days.

a snow white albino chick in the nest with his brothers © Paddy Manley (taken under NPWS licence)

© Paddy Manley (taken under NPWS licence)

For all the other ternlets on the beach, their first days have been kind to them. The weather is dry and so warm that many chicks are lying out in the sun next to their parents instead of cozied up under them. We have put out old roofing slates as “chick-shelters” to provide cool shade on intensely sunny days as well as a refuge in wind and wet. While one parent broods, the other hunts and brings food back to the nest. He lands beside his brooding mate, enthusiastically brandishing a sandeel in his bill. He holds it with great hope next to one wing, waiting for a young one to poke a head out. Nothing. He hurries to the other wing and waves the sandeel around in delighted anticipation. Finally, one chick catches on to the situation and the brooding parent jumps up suddenly as all three chicks struggle out from under her and come greedily running. The first one to the finish line wolfs down the eel, and straight away the parent is soaring back out to sea for more.

More tales from the colony to come.

Susan and Paddy

Big thanks to Seamus (again) for mending our gear (again).

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

A Tale of Two Oystercatcher

Little Tern chicks are not the only new faces about the colony. Only a couple of days ago, the first of the colony’s two Oystercatcher nests hatched. There were two dark brown and fluffy chicks huddled among the rocks, giants compared to the tiny tern chicks, yet still no bigger than my fist. Evening was closing in fast, so after a quick photo, I left their dubious parents to come back to brood.
Although tiny, Oystercatcher hatchlings are far bigger than Little Tern chicks

The following morning, I combed through the vegetation with my telescope to see how the new arrivals were getting on. The two were still close to the nest, crouched low into the stones while the parents scrutinized me from afar. I expected that I would find them in the same area of beach for at least the next few days, while they were still so helpless and fluffy.

But how they proved me wrong!

I was in the middle of dinner when I got a call to say both chicks were on a mission of lemming-like proportions, heading away from the nest. Their destination was the lagoon, which offers a safe haven with plenty of food, so their parents were calling overhead to encourage them to these greener pastures. However, the beach and lagoon are separated by the ultimate dangers: the railway track and the pedestrian footpath. Joggers! Dogs!! Commuter-rail!!!

The young chicks' destination...with a dangerous interlude!

The wardens jumped into action. When I caught up with their flight, they had survived the perils of the footpath, but were struggling to get through the railway fence and onto the track. We rescued them both inside a hat and hatched a plan to convey them across the tracks to the lagoon side, while making sure their parents knew to follow.

The reckless attempt is intercepted

The Oystercatcher parents were quite alarmed to see their young traveling over the fence in an upturned hat, but they got the jist of what was happening, because once we had turned the chicks out from their makeshift habitat, the parents were quick to circle in. After a few minutes of baited breath, I watched the family reunite from a hiding place in the boulders.

Today, the chicks are happy out in the lagoon, still in roughly the same spot they were released. We wardens will be better prepared for such exploits when the second Oystercatcher nest hatches, and hopefully these two chicks will be joined by four more in a couple of weeks.


Susan and Paddy

Friday, 12 June 2015

New life at Kilcoole

This week was a busy one at Kilcoole. Early in the week there was a large influx of adult terns into the colony, with max counts of over 250 individuals. This lead to great excitement amongst the wardens over this fresh potential for a large number of new nests. The large number of adults is also an advantage for the terns because they are better able to mob avian predators.

A substantial number of terns started to lay eggs and build scraps to the south of the protective predator fence. On Wednesday morning wardens were busy at work extending the fence future south as far as the breaches outlet to incorporate these new nests which would otherwise have been exposed to a number of mammalian predators.

By weeks end, the number of nests was up to 84, and included just over 200 eggs! Wardens continue to find new nests daily and this number is estimated to continue to grow well into next week.
Thursday afternoon saw the first cracks beginning to appear in the first nest that was discovered 21 days ago. Much to the warden’s delight, early Friday morning, there were two fluffy tern chicks freshly hatched in the nest. This nest was a very early layer and it is expected that no more eggs will hatch for another 3 or 4 days, and with a large bulk of the first batch of eggs hatching on the 19th and 20th of June.
The first two little Fluffies of the 2015 season
Little Tern chicks asleep in the nest

Two nests of Ringed Plover also hatched on Friday morning, with 4 chicks each. Unlike the terns these Ringed Plover chicks run off the nest on their very long legs to hide in the shingle mere hours after hatching! As a species, Ringed Plovers are very promiscuous, and chicks learn to feed and take care of themselves very quickly. All that was seen of these little chicks was the broken bits of shell which they had escaped from earlier in the morning. The Little Terns, however, require a lot of parental care and rely on their parents for food right up until fledging. We will be seeing a lot of this around the colony soon as all our eggs begin to hatch!

Ringed Plover up and ready to run before his brother even hatches!

Susan and Paddy

Monday, 8 June 2015

Sunny Side Up in Kilcoole

The Terns are doing a fierce job making nests and laying eggs. This week has been a brilliant one for new nest discoveries! Tonight, we have a tally of 75 active Tern nests and 189 eggs on the beach, which we are, of course, delighted about. The expected arrival date for the first little ternlet is coming ever closer – I hope to meet my first chick of the 2015 season within two weeks.

A Little Tern carefully checks how her eggs are doing © Chris Dobson (taken under NPWS licence)
Our remaining Ringed Plovers are very close to hatching. Several nests have slowly cracking eggs. Likewise, our first Oystercatcher eggs are cracking (ever so slowly), keeping us in great suspense! I regularly come across three of the four Ringed Plover chicks that hatched this week as they have stayed in the vicinity of their nesting area in front of the hide. The parents spend all day long searching for them among the stones, whistling and darting back and forth towards the chick’s calls. They find one, only to loose the other two and set off again. They try to sit and brood another, just to hear the call of the third and jump straight back up to find it, while the first scarpers into the grass again!

The good weather and sunshine looks set to continue for the time being. Hopefully the high pressure will keep the tide at bay and prevent a repeat of last week’s wash out. If the sunshine stays in Kilcoole, we may have another great rise in nest numbers by next week.

Susan and Paddy

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Ringed Ringed Plovers

We had a lovely evening when one of our Ringed Plover nests hatched four adorably fluffy little chicks. These four chicks were ringed with metal rings so that we can monitor their progress in the colony and perhaps see where they head off to as adults.

Ringed Plover hatchlings © Susan Doyle (picture taken under NPWS licence)

Fluffy Ringed Plover chick on the move! © Chris Dobson (picture taken under NPWS licence)

Tough Plover parenting © Chris Dobson (picture taken under NPWS licence)

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

For you know I'd even try to turn the tide

Alas, after such a positive start to the season, our fortunes did not last.

The Terns and I survived the unruly wind and rain all day Monday (see how the wind took half of our Warden Flag - raised 24/7, because we are here 24/7!). The weather eased and calmed by sunset, but there were indicators that something was coming – Manx Shearwater were visible from the shore and a large pod of Common Dolphin passed very close, both telling of storms far out to sea. 

The wind took half our flag off!
 That night, the tide came in… and kept coming in further… and further … and further. The unusually high tide surge, probably pushed by a sea storm, obliterated our seaward fence and claimed many nests in the colony.When I rolled into bed on Monday night, we had a colony-count of 51 active nests and 136 eggs. On rolling back out Tuesday morning, we had 41 active nests and 108 eggs. Altogether, 10 nests were lost. It was a sad old morning surveying the damage from the bird-hide: many Little Terns were sitting on top of the fencing and seaweed that had buried their eggs.

Seaward fence torn down by the tide

On a happier note, 7 new nests were found after the tidal sweep. Thus, the Tern facts and figures are currently at: 48 active nests (out of a total of 62 nesting attempts) and 119 eggs. Not a bad way to be indeed! It is so early in the season that many Terns who lost their nests are likely to re-lay, and sure enough, many Terns were observed digging scrapes and sampling nest spots today.

Susan and Paddy