And just like that, they started to leave...
It has been a fast and furious season. With most of the nests hatching first time round, the chicks fledged in what seemed like record time. Barring some sand-blow covering a few nests it has been a remarkably benign season, richly deserved after recent years. Consequently, the birds are leaving promptly having grown to an age where they can fly and follow their parents. It is rare though that any are seen away from Gronant on their migration, so when Robin Sandham and Marc Hughes found a flock of 8 on Colwyn Bay beach on 22nd Jul it was a notable occurrence and they took a closer look. The excellent series of photos below were taken by Marc (@Marcbuzzard on twitter).
Of the 8 birds, 5 were juveniles and the other 3 adults. One each of the juveniles and adults were colour-ringed showing they were from Gronant. Without the colour-ringing programme we could only speculate where they came from. The adult's code was XXX which means it was caught as an adult on a nest in 2018 but we don't know how old it was as it didn't have a metal-ring applied as a chick (there's always some that manage to hide from ringers!). It was DNA analysed for sexing so we know it was a male. The other colour-ringed bird was a juvenile with the code UJE applied just a few weeks ago. It too will be DNA analysed but we haven't heard back yet.
It was fascinating to see that the youngsters still get fed by parents once they have left Gronant. They will likely migrate in family groups all the way to Africa where the youngsters will become more effective at fishing for themselves. For now, if you still haven't seen Little Terns at Gronant this year you don't have long left. The best time is the hour or two before high tide. From Thursday onwards the site will start to be taken down but wardens will still be on site to speak to for a while yet.
This week has seen numbers of fledglings surge every day. From counts in single figures last week there are now at a total of 110 fledglings as of today (9th Jul).
If you would like to join in the counts please head down to the Gronant visitor center and ask the warden a few hours before high tide. A few pairs of eyes makes the counts more accurate as the fledglings can be hard to spot from a distance along the beach. It is a fun challenge but also a very important one as this is the main measure of how successful the breeding season has been!
On a different note please take a look at the new UK Little Tern Project website, a legacy of the Life project which finished earlier this year - www.littleternproject.org.uk
The weather has improved lately and this is good timing for the chicks which now roam the beach and dunes at Gronant. Around 250 chicks have been metal-ringed this season, by far the highest ever, hopefully a sign of good things to come. A lesser number have also been colour-ringed for future resightings. At present the chicks are anything but easy to spot, sensible really. See the photo below for one hiding in the prickly Sea Holly for safety. The next couple of weeks will be crucial for those chicks to make it to fledging without being predated or affected by bad weather. There was hushed rumors today that the first chick had fledged, when it was seen to take a short flight down the beach. Great news!
There is always a flip side and that is that the Kestrel was seen to take a chick to feed on in the dunes. We are putting out food on the diversionary feeding station for the Kestrel which is working to some extent but not always and we need volunteers to come and do a predator watch in case it comes back. Please please please consider popping down for an hour or two to help out over the next couple of weeks.
Finally, the dunes are a riot of colour at the moment, largely thanks to the thousands of Pyramidal Orchids which have spring up from the sand. This makes the walk down to the colony all the more enjoyable, we've had just as many comments about the plants as the birds lately!
It's been a week of mass hatching, with almost all of the first nest attempts now turned from smooth eggs, into fluffy, helpless bundles. Miraculously, the bad weather last week didn't cause too many issues, other than a few buried nests. Now the weather has improved, just in time! Right on cue though, the Kestrel is getting seen more often. They are not stupid and will be able to detect the chicks from quite a distance. All eyes will be on the lookout for any Kestrel advances in the coming few weeks.
A rather special Little Tern sporting Yellow ZBA colour-ring has been recorded tending 3 eggs. This male bird was originally ringed as a chick by Professor David Norman of the Merseyside Ringing Group in 1993 before having a colour-ring added in 2018, also by David, when it set a new world record for longevity. It is now back for its 26th year, still making it the oldest known Little Tern in the world, ever. A nice little coincidence, it was refound on father's day of all days. We are so pleased to have this bird back. It has made looking through hours of footage from nest cameras by students and volunteers from the tern group so very worthwhile!
The update from today's (29/05) clutch count was that there are now 148 nests and 393 eggs. We are nearly at the peak and it is only eight days since the first nest was found. The average clutch size is also looking healthy at 2.67, the second highest on record! With this many nests to care for if you feel like spending a few hours down at the colony please come down and help keep watch over this ever-growing population. Now's a great time to see them with constant bird activity around the beach.
We are hoping numbers rise this year thanks to productive breeding over the last few seasons and high numbers of fledglings being produced. Last year's pair total was 171, so things are looking promising for an even higher total this year. Fingers and toes crossed.
The tern group attended the RSPB Conwy Bioblitz last weekend which went down well. Thanks to everyone who came and chatted about Little Terns, we even had a few new people join the group, welcome to you all! The group will also be attending the Nant Clwyd-y-dre Nature Day at Ruthin on Saturday June 8th so if you are in the area please do pop in! There will be a multitude of conservation organisations there including Cofnod, BTO, Denbighshire Countryside Services and the Clwydian AONB team. The grounds of Nant Clwyd-y-dre are beautiful and deserving of a wander around in their own right.
With the site now fully installed and the wardens starting, it is exciting to see so many Little Terns back in the area. In the glorious weather over the weekend 138 adults were counted roosting on the beach, flying over the mirror-like seas and around the breeding pens. Courtship has been observed with some scraping following. Look out for the courtship flights in which the pair fly closely in tandem in an impressive arc through the sky. Occasionally they forget people are watching and fly right past, transfixed on each other!
With the onset of wardening, this is a great time to get involved, at the start of the season. Any members of the group and public are invited to assist the wardens with their duties. Any help is gratefully received and will continue to support this, the last (and therefore most important!) colony in Wales.
It was a busy week for those that helped put up the fencing and we are pleased to say it has all gone up in time. A big thanks to everyone who helped, it literally couldn't be done without your support. This really was a joint effort between Denbighshire Countryside Services, the North Wales Little Tern Group, the RSPB, Bangor University students and more. With this marvelous effort, more pens were put up than ever, covering as much suitable habitat as possible. We really have given the terns the best chance.
Whilst most of the major work has been done there is a little fine-tuning still underway to make the pens and structures shipshape for the season ahead, so if you would like to help out come down to the site from 10am onwards on Weds (8th) or Thurs (9th) this week.
Little Terns have been regularly seen with up to 40 present over high tide. They are not always around at the moment as there are no nests but given some time they can still be seen over the sea or around the shoreline.
In case you missed it, here's the link to the episode that includes showing the NWLTG at work back in 2018 with Derek the Weatherman - Click here
The 2019 season is just around the corner now and the seasonal posts for wardens have been published. We are also very pleased to see that there will be an engagement officer working on the project to help people enjoy the birds more and to aid the wardens. If you, or anyone you know, would be interested in working to help conserve this rare and charming species then please visit the Denbighshire County Council jobs page to find out more at the link below.
The count-down timer on the home page now reveals only 37 days till the Little Terns are likely to start nesting. Time we got a move on with setting up the site!
On the 15th and 16th the perimeter line will be going up at Gronant. Please come down to the beach for 10am if you can help out. Although post-knocking is a physical job there are a range of less physical roles to get involved with including nails on posts to stop Crows perching, signs and putting on the rope. Everyone is welcome.
Then on the week of the 29th April we will be putting up the pens, visitor center and hide. Again, from 10am each day we will be down on the beach. If you can come along it will be a great boost to the process of installing the protective fencing as part of a fun bunch of volunteers.
The North Wales Little Tern Group is very pleased to announce that long-time supporter of Little Tern conservation and TV presenter @IoloWilliams2 has become patron for the group. Many thanks Iolo! See the full statement below.
We never get to see Little Terns during the winter period in the UK, as they've all gone on their holibobs to seek a perpetual summer. They undergo a moult on migration and wintering grounds which sees them look quite different for much of this time. A recent trip to Thailand provided an opportunity to study the birds in this alternate plumage, at a site called Pak Thale. Now the main reason people visit this site, a set of salt-pans fronting on to the Bay of Bangkok, is to see the very rare and unique Spoon-billed Sandpiper (imagine a Dunlin with a kitchen utensil for a beak!) but I got slightly distracted by the presence of a whopping 1200 Little Terns roosting on the bunds. Thankfully a few flew closer and allowed photographs to be taken.
The main differences were in the beak, legs and head-pattern. The beak was completely black (mostly yellow in summer), the legs were dull orange (bright orange in summer) and the black on the head was restricted to a mask which stretched from the eyes to the back of the head with the rest of the cap white (all black in summer). These features combined make the birds look quite different to what we are used to seeing at Gronant and indeed initially it took me a moment to realise these were in fact Little Terns, the light-bulb eventually went off in my head due to them being tiny!