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!