Thursday, 23 May 2019

Occupying Tern Territory

The project is now in full swing and the first Little Tern egg was discovered on the 17th May whilst we were completing the construction of the hide, it is a mere five metres from the hide so it will make for nice easy observations. As it has been seven days since the last blog post, there have been many developments in an exciting and sometimes dramatic week. The number of Little Tern nests has risen sharply to the current total of ninety, eighty of which are in the main colony and ten are located in the satellite colony south of the breaches. The best part of this news is that the vast majority of nests are holding a large clutch of three eggs. 

The first Little Tern egg of the season.

On Monday, some time observing colour ring markers in the satellite colony paid off and two Little Terns with green rings (indicative of birds hatched and ringed in Kilcoole) were recorded. The rings' codes read "IEV" and "IHZ" so we have named the birds wearing them; Evan and Hazel. These two have been displaying mating rituals together and we are sure they are about to nest, so I will keep you informed of their progress as the season goes on! Also, later on, when we have trawled through ring records I will be able to elaborate on the history of these two birds and hopefully we might get information from re-sightings made across their migratory flyway between the Irish Sea and western Africa where they spend the winter.

Kilcoole fledglings "Evan and Hazel" have returned and are pairing off.

On Tuesday around midday, a walking group from Bray paid a visit to the site on their way to Birdwatch Ireland's East Coast Nature Reserve in Newcastle. They were keen to learn about the project so we had a good chat about the history, facts and current success of the project and then answered some questions about Little Tern conservation. As the group set off on their departure, one of the walkers, quite keenly, spotted a Ringed Plover chick on the footpath. The one day old chick, had haphazardly wandered away from it's parents in the wrong direction and found itself lost. No sooner than it was discovered, it was replaced within the protective boundary of the colony fence. We watched for a short period and tracked the arrival of an adult, which made it's way to the chick. There seemed to be a brief moment of bonding between the adult bird and the chick, until, thirty seconds later another adult Ringed Plover burst onto the scene and aggressively deterred the pretender. The chick now seemed familiar with the presence of the new bird and scurried underneath it's body. As we watched on we were satisfied that parent and chick had been reunited - but I pondered for a while about the other adult bird, the would have been surrogate, perhaps she had lost a chick too!

Adventurous wanderer - a one day old Ringed Plover chick.
Wednesday began with the welcome arrival of a small flock of migrating Knot to the colony, although they were certainly unwelcome to the Little Terns on sentry duty over their valuable nests, which quickly formed a guard and ushered the visiting flock away. There's no tolerance for occupying Tern territory here!

A new burrow had appeared at the north lagoon a number of days ago and due to it's size, suspicions were building that it may be the work of a small mustelid, namely American Mink! Today those suspicions were confirmed as we watched helplessly as the Mink swam sleekly up the south lagoon, raising much alarm amongst the avian community as it passed by. It then made land and casually sauntered up the shore, disappearing into long grass on the railway sidings only 30 metres from our campsite and no less than 50 metres from the Little Tern colony.

The American Mink is a formidable creature; intelligent and tough, resilient and versatile. It is it's tantalising prowess which has led the American Mink to become one of Ireland's most distained invasive species. It's habit of 'surplus killing' when presented with a bountiful resource of prey makes the species a potent threat to vulnerable ground nesting bird populations, such as our Little Terns. There is no option but to trap it and remove it humanely from the site before it has an opportunity to do any harm!

American Mink photographed at the south lagoon on 22nd May.

Along with foxes, crows, human disturbance and unpredictable weather events, coupled with high tides, the Little Terns have more than their fair share of challenges to reproducing successfully. Scientific studies of Little Tern conservation have shown that in the modern day, at un-protected sites, breeding productivity is not likely to be more than 0.10 (i.e.1 chick reared and fledged per 10 breeding pairs). At kilcoole, the recent (3 -year) trend for breeding productivity is averaging 1.17, that's more than one chick successfully fledged by each  breeding pair. The current team will be working hard during the course of this season to maintain and hopefully increase productivity. As ever we thank the local people for sharing their beach with these fantastic Little Terns and we welcome you to come along and chat to us about the project.

I look forward to bringing news of more nests next time.

Thanks for reading.


Thursday, 16 May 2019

Returning Terns!

Hello Everyone and welcome to a new season of the Little Tern Conservation Project. As this is my first year on the project I am very excited for what lies ahead over the next three months. Having followed the project for the last couple of years I know there could be turbulent times ahead, here's hoping for more highs than lows! My name is Darren and I will be joining Chris on the day warden duties for the duration of this years project. Some of you may be familiar with Chris as he is returning for his third year to work with the Little Terns. You can find out a bit more about us in the "meet the team" section of the pages menu on the right. A little later, we will also be welcoming some fantastic volunteers who will be coming along to learn more about Little Tern conservation and help us out along the way.

After the initial meet and greets with project managers and various stakeholders, we got to work installing the ever important predator proof fence around the boundary of the main colony. During the work we were able to observe the arrival of returning terns. By the 2nd of May we were able to record a peak count of eight Little Terns. The pioneers from West Africa, leading the charge to cooler, more productive Irish waters. Numbers continued to grow steadily over the next few days, ten, twelve, eighteen, thirty-four, respectively.

By the 6th of May we were experiencing quite stiff northerly winds, which seemed to temporarily halt any further arrivals. A couple of days later the winds had swung around to south-easterlies and on Thursday 9th a high spring tide coupled with Beaufort 5 easterlies, during the night, tore down much of the seaward fencing which had just been erected. The tide had reached far up the beach, completely altering the topography of the shingle from multiple stepped ridges to a more gently sloping gradient and covering seventy-five percent of the area within the fenced boundary. Luckily it was too early for any nests to have been established but a perilous reminder of the challenges faced by breeding Little Terns. With the boundary fence re-established we were able to count about eighty Little Terns, which are beginning to partake in feeding and flight mating rituals.

The breeding season is in full swing now for many other birds too, confirmed by the finding of a Golden Plover nest with a clutch of three eggs, which she wisely chose to lay just 30 cm inside the protection of the boundary fence. Male Lapwings are performing there spectacular aerial acrobatics, in the skies landward of our position, accompanied by their techno sounding cries, to impress a potential suitor.

Dunlin are in resplendent summer plumage, marching up and down the beach and foraging on the mudflats in the tidal lagoon, whilst Shelduck have long since paired up and established territories. With occasional challenges from a subordinate male Shelduck the subsequent combat makes for edge of the seat spectating, both flying up; flapping and pecking furiously. 

Overhead, amidst the crackling calls of Little Terns; Swallows, House and Sand Martins have been busily gathering their fare. On the 8th they were joined for the first time by Swifts. Skylarks too are a welcome distraction, regularly heard in what is surely the most beautiful of all bird song but only occasionally seen fluttering at unfathomable heights. We have also been joined for the past week by a flock of Whimbrel, the coastal fields becoming a staging post on their migration to northern breeding grounds. Somewhat peculiarly, they plot their migration north in stages, stopping off along the way but returning south to Africa for winter in one direct flight. 

In addition to the regularly occurring species and breeding birds on site, in the last few days we have encountered a couple of less likely species, or rarities perhaps in an Irish context. A Pink-footed Goose was observed grazing in the company of our resident Mute Swans and a brief visit was paid to the lagoon by a Ruff.

Pink-footed Goose (Anser brachyrhynucus) 
Ruff (Calidris pugnax)

At last count Little Terns were numbering over 120 with more and more arriving everyday. We are all really excited at the prospect of discovering Little Terns with green colour rings, which were previously fitted at Kilcoole. This way we can tell which birds have bred here and successfully navigated the past year. This way we can see which ones really are the returning terns.

It's time to go and build the hide now so we can easily make these observations without disturbing the birds. I look forward to keeping you informed of the progress as the weeks go on.



Saturday, 21 July 2018

The Second Batch

The last week or two have been a bit quieter than the start of July The first batch of chicks has come and gone. The vast majority of them have successfully fledged, and it's immensely gratifying to see row upon row of fresh-faced juvenile little terns sitting along the foreshore amongst their adult counterparts. They are feeding up and preparing to leave for Africa, Some have already left and as a result we're seeing the number of terns present in the colony start to dwindle. But we're not done yet!
    The 50 or so nests we lost to a tidal surge on the 12th of June were re-layed, and have been hatching for just over a week now. As it stands we're down to about 4 remaining nests with eggs, the rest have hatched and the chicks can be seen bumbling about on the foreshore. Two to three weeks time and these birds too will be headed off for West African coasts with their parents.
    After what has been a fantastic heatwave we've started to see our first showers of rain during the last week. Yesterday I sat in the hide and watched as the terns weathered the worst of the rain on the shore. Parent birds will incubate their still-downy chicks as these feathers are not yet waterproof and a soaking could result in a chick dying of exposure. The adult terns did a wonderful job of sheltering their chicks from the rain but the sight was hilarious...
Three small chicks can just about fit underneath an adult Little Tern. Three week-old chicks? Not so much. I watched in amusement as three chicks attempted to muscle their way under their mother. At one stage they all squeezed under, but lifted her off her feet, at which point she let out a disgruntled squawk and moved off to dig a scrape for them to shelter in.
    One particularly special chick was discovered on a nest check last week, the chick was highly leucistic, or partially albino in plain terms. Compared to its sibling it was chalk and cheese. Surprisingly it was even more camouflaged than the regularly coloured chicks in its company, this of course due to the presence of white stones nearby. We'll be keeping a keen eye out for this guy in the future.
    The main blanket on our enthusiasm at the minute is the kestrel, who still occasionally visits the colony. The odd time it's successful and makes off with a tern chick. We've ramped up our kestrel chasing/scaring tactics though, and it's not taken a chick in over a week now. Long may it last!
    In general bird news; wader passage is increasing, highlights being 2 Ruff and large flocks of Black-tailed Godwit. Mediterranean Gulls are still regularly streaming by the colony. One Pochard was seen south of the colony, but the undoubted highlight was a flyover Short-Eared Owl one evening, which was vociferously mobbed by the terns and oystercatchers.
Make sure to check in over the next few weeks as the project begins to wind down, there should be a few more blog posts on the way too. 

One of the new recruits! Little Tern Chick
Not just terns! I found a skylark nest in the colony too. Here is the sole chick being
moved to safety after straying onto the public path. It successfully fledged a few days later

Steve applying a colour ring to a tern chick

Chris and Steve Colour-Ringing

Tern-ling showing off some new bling
The very-rare and beautiful white chick


Monday, 2 July 2018

Tern Chicks Galore and Flooded Shore

Since the last post it's been all go at Kilcoole. Not long after the last update we lost nearly 50 nests to a high spring tide. This was a major set back, wiping out many three-egg clutches. What could have been a disaster has proven not to be so, as good weather has allowed the terns to re-lay en masse.
    The wardens have been extremely busy lately conducting nest checks and monitoring/ringing chicks. Last week 59 chicks were given unique alpha-numeric plastic rings. These green 'colour-rings' were first placed on chicks here back in 2014. They are unique in allowing wardens to identify individual birds by reading the combination on the ring through a telescope.
    The heat-wave that has swept the country over the past few weeks has hit Kilcoole too, and while never getting too hot due to the cooling sea-breeze it has been hot enough to become a risk for the chicks; the air temperature could be 17 degrees but the temperature at chick height on the shingle would be far hotter. In an attempt to aid chicks struggling with heat exposure we have once again started placing chick-shelters on the beach. These consist of roof tiles, and chicks can use these to shelter from wind, rain, sun and predators.
    Speaking of predators we've been having serious problems with a local pair of kestrels lately. These brazen birds of prey have taken ten chicks already and show no signs of slowing down. It's a difficult situation for us, knowing that this is a part of nature and that the kestrels are feeding young of their own. Our current and only method of defence is trying to deter the birds, via shouting and banging pans together. This is having limited success. Will update on proceedings here soon. 
    There is some good news though. We had our first little tern chick fledge yesterday, and there's now another three or four fledged with it. In addition to this i'm pleased to report that the Oystercatcher nest between the train tracks has successfully hatched, and these two fluffy chicks can be seen hanging around the lagoon with their diligent father.
    The last week also had us saying farewell to Sally, our relief warden. Sally spent two months here and was a huge asset to the team. She's now off pursuing seabirds on the R.V Celtic Explorer, and we wish her well(and lots of whales and rare seabirds).

Thanks for reading, keep an eye on the blog for updates soon.

One last note: Walkers on the beach familiar with this blog will already be aware that we ask that dogs be kept on leads at all times, and many people do just that. However there are those who disregard this plea, and as a result of this a three week old chick is now dead. We ask you to spread the word that dogs really do need to be kept on leads in this area. Thanks

Adult tern with young chick
Chunky Chick

Tiny Chick

Chicks are experts at hiding. Can you see it?

Chick shelter in use


Ringed Plover- What a difference three weeks makes!

Tuesday, 12 June 2018


As you can guess from the title...we've got chicks!
22 days since our first egg was discovered and the first few clutches are starting to hatch here at Kilcoole. This morning while doing nest checks I found our first Little Tern chick, small, frail and still wet from the egg, but ready to take on the world! The team this year have decided to name this wee ternlet 'Laurence' after the excellent and enthusiastic classes we had visit from St Laurence's NS in Greystones. It's amazing looking at this tiny hatchling and imagining the monstrous migration that it will begin in only a matter of weeks... For now though, it's content under the warm wing of an incubating parent. This first chick was actually in the southern 'satellite' colony. We've got cracks appearing in a further 15 or so eggs, so this first chick won't be alone for long.

So far things are looking good for the terns. We're on over 140 active nests, and suspect this number might grow slightly. Although marginally below last years total this is still excellent going and we're hopeful for the coming weeks.

Weather is now our single biggest concern. The flattened profile of the beach(due to winter storms) means water can travel quite far up the beach with even a moderately high tide and some onshore breezes. This is exacerbated by the fact that we're nearing spring tides. Today we had to contend with a boisterous sea sloshing over the high water mark. Unfortunately four tern pairs had scrapes below said high-water line, and so a decision was made to lift their eggs from the nests and incubate them artificially. When the tide receded the eggs were quickly replaced, and the parent birds settled back down on the eggs as if nothing had happened! By doing this we managed to save three nests from certain destruction, a fourth was lost to the sea.

In other news our first nest of Oystercatcher has finally hatched. As a result the parent oystercatchers can be seen viciously dive-bombing the wardens when we enter the colony to complete nest checks. Their ferocity is understandable when you see the three balls-of-fluff they are safe-guarding. The parents can be seen tenderly feeding the young small pieces of dead crab/worms. I'm expecting they'll soon bring the chicks across the beach and train tracks into the lagoon behind, where the feeding is better.

In bird news the Garganey has been re-sighted on and off from the colony. We've had a few Mediterranean Gull fly past the colony, and we were delighted to have a Roseate Tern for a day. This tern was probably a non-breeder, and by rights should be up at Rockabill around now.

Thanks for reading, and don't forget to pop down to visit the colony. We're a short 20 minute walk south of Kilcoole train station. The next few weeks would be an excellent time to visit as chicks will be hatching and visible. Friendly wardens are always on site to show visitors the terns and other beach inhabitants!

Cathal and the Kilcoole Team

'Laurence' the ternlet- left at first hatching, right after drying out a bit

The last two ringed plover nests to hatch


Oystercatcher chick- 'I'm a rock and you can't see me'

Male Little Tern with a fish for his incubating partner

Roseate Tern- Ireland's second rarest breeding tern


One of two broods of cygnets locally

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Early June Update

In the last nearly two weeks since we found our first active nest we've gone all the way up to over 100 active nests, with no signs of slowing down. So far, it's been mostly plain sailing, we've had a small set-back with 7 nests lost to oystercatcher, but fortunately this has stopped...for now...
    I'm pleased to report also that the sparrowhawk I mentioned in my last blogpost has not proven to be as much of a menace as was feared. Since losing the adult tern at the start of the season we've had no more losses, despite the bird still being seen occasionally. 
    At present the main duties of the wardens consist of daily incubation checks which involve scoping out every nest to check that the adult is still present and that all is going well. We're also doing a hefty amount of nest-finding. First chicks are expected in about two-weeks time. Then the pandemonium begins!
  The local Ringed Plover nests are just starting to hatch now. Of a total of 9 nests 6 have hatched so far, with several chicks ringed already. These small fluffy 'heads with legs' are the polar opposite of the tern chicks, they're incredibly precocious and within a few hours of hatching can be seen sprinting up and down the beach, feeding and preening themselves and only occasionally returning to their parents for warmth. The terns on the other hand are altricial , meaning they need considerable care and attention during their formative months, constantly being fed by doting and diligent parents. 
    In addition to the terns and plovers we also have several Oystercatcher nesting on the beach, some of which can be seen from the public path near the railway bridge. As tern wardens we have a bit of a love/hate relationship with the oystercatchers, while they've recently caused some trouble for us by depredating several nests they also provide an immense helping hand by acting as the colony 'guard-dogs'. Should a crow or raptor(or warden) come too close to the colony they will immediately start alarm calling and vociferously dive-bombing the intruder. This not only alerts the wardens to a potential unseen threat, but often proves sufficient to drive away that threat, be that crows or the dreaded sparrowhawk. 
    Oystercatcher generally nest on the beach amongst shingle and sand. Generally...
I was walking down to the hide one morning when I noticed an oystercatcher fly up, seemingly from the train tracks. On investigation I noticed that there was a nest smack bang in the middle of the tracks! There are now two eggs lying in the middle of the tracks on the main Dublin-Rosslare line. The adult bird will incubate the eggs until just before a train comes, at which stage it hops out of the way and returns as soon as the train has passed! We'll certainly be keeping an eye on the progress of this nest and will report back soon.

In other bird news we've seen marsh harrier and red kite near the colony in recent days. There was another garganey seen near the colony on the first of June, but unfortunately none of the wardens got to see that. A small pod of Bottlenose Dolphin passed the colony during the week too, just another addition to the impressive list of mammals seen here at the colony.

I'll be back soon with more news!


One of the more bizzare nest locations here at Kilcoole...

Right in the middle of the tracks!

Ringed Plover chicks awaiting ringing

Some excellent artwork by colony volunteer Daire

The sunsets are to die for!

Monday, 21 May 2018

Egg-celent News!

It's been a busy week at the colony! Since I last wrote we've completed the colony fencing and we've had several great and enthusiastic 3rd/4th classes down from St Laurence's NS Greystones. It was very heartening to see such engagement and enthusiasm from the students, the future guardians of Irish nature!
Bird-wise we've had some interesting visitors around lately. Mediterranean and Iceland Gulls were welcome scarcities, as was a very rare spring record of a fantastic Little Stint. Non-avian highlights included Harbour Porpoise and several Viviparous Lizards.

When I last posted I mentioned that we were expecting our first eggs by the 20th of May. We weren't far off! Today, the 21st of May, we struck gold!

Our morning and afternoon were occupied with a visiting film crew, who are working on a documentary exploring the Kilcoole Little tern Project, more on that at a later stage. In the late afternoon all three day wardens focused on trying to locate the first tern nest. The shingle was scanned up and down until a suspicious looking bird caught the eye. Sitting hunched down, fluffed out, tail-tips slightly raised. All typical of an incubating bird...could it be? We quickly nipped over to where it was sitting and confirmed our suspicions...AN EGG! The relevant details were recorded, marker stones were placed to allow easier location from the hide/path, and we bade a hasty retreat to allow the bird to get back to incubating. Over the next week we can expect more eggs to be added to this nest until it reaches 3 eggs. After that the clutch is incubated for three weeks before, all going well, a fresh batch of chicks spill out onto the shingle!
Later on in the day another nest was found, this also containing a single egg. The egg flood-gates are opening, so to speak, and in the coming days we expect to find many more nests. Tern numbers are variable but staying strong at around 120-200

As a result of these developments the wardens have commenced full monitoring, and there will now be a warden present on the beach at all hours of the day and night. This is mainly to prevent disturbance from predators/rambunctious dogs. Wardens will be on hand to answer any questions and show you the incubating terns, as well as providing a visual deterrent to would-be predators.
Unfortunately, despite best efforts, there will always be predation. This evening while trying to get a roost count from the hide I observed a sparrowhawk ambush and kill an unsuspecting little tern, taking it away over the buckthorn. It was equal-parts frustrating and awe-inspiring. With birds as fast as sparrowhawks or peregrines not much can be done to thwart an attack in progress. Fortunately we've got a few tricks up our sleeves, and in the attempt to deter the sparrowhawk from making such a bold attack again an old friend will be may-ken his return to the dunes. More on that soon....


The unfurling of the red flag- symbolising the completion of colony set-up 

Come check out our blackboards!

K1! Can you spot it?

A tiny visitor to the lagoon- A little stint