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

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