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