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
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 has been a busy week down at Gronant and not for the reasons you might imagine. The birds have been looking after themselves a lot more, with the chicks growing up quickly and with little interest from Kestrels now the feeding station is working so well. Instead we were inundated with the media following a press release circulated about the new visitor centre and hide. A crew from BBC Wales came down to film a piece for their 6.30pm 'today' news programme. A clip of the interview is posted below.
There will also be a radio interview on the season coming out on the BBC Wales country focus programme some time in August. An article was also published today (30/07) in the Daily Telegraph about the season. Great that the colony is getting the media attention it deserves and for all the right reasons too!
Tern-wise the chicks are growing up fast and in the next week we'll see how many have made it to fledging. Of slight concern has been the regular presence of a Weasel which was cheeky enough to peek its head in to the visitor centre the other day and stared eye-to-eye with a surprised warden!
If you would like to come and help us take down the site, there is an event on 10th August at Gronant beach from 10am and your help would be very welcome.
A month after devastating tides down at Gronant wiped out 2/3 of all nests, it was with bated breath to see what this month would bring and kept a close eye on the daily forecasts hoping that the settled weather would continue. This time it seems, the terns have been lucky and the tides have barely reached the protective fencing. There will be a little work to clear debris in some areas but nothing significant. Phew! Just in case the tides were bad the wardens prepared nests in the usual way, by moving them slowly up the beach or by carefully placing the nest on a plant pot or bucket (as shown below).
In the last few days there has been a mass-hatching of eggs with the majority of re-laid nests successfully reaching this stage (including the two nests being beamed in to the visitor center). The photo below shows an egg with a pipping youngster inside pecking its way out. You may notice the little white speck on the end of the bill of the chick. This is known as the 'egg-tooth' and it is a temporary calcium deposit which helps the chick break through the egg. Isn't nature clever!
More of a concern is the continued predation from Kestrels. Despite the best efforts of everyone on site the Kestrels are persistent and occasionally succeed in taking chicks and fledglings. Many of the successful tern families have moved away now as there is nothing keeping them at the site and remaining here is endangering themselves and their offspring. For the remaining birds, we need help from volunteers to station themselves around the site and scare off the Kestrel when it approaches. It doesn't always work, but every successful occasion for us is one more chick to make it to fledging. Any help gratefully received!
Thanks to everyone who came down for the official opening ceremony of the Visitor Center and Hide at Gronant on a sunny and hot Sunday afternoon. We are grateful to Tony Thomas, lead for the environment in the council, for presenting a speech and cutting the ribbon. A group shot of the event is displayed below. It was a bit hot but refreshing drinks were flowing.
For something a little different, the following is a write-up by Maddalena, an Italian student doing a placement down at the tern colony a few weeks ago:
"I started my experience as a volunteer in the tern colony yesterday (19\06) and I was fascinated by all the work that’s put in the welfare of the birds. Being a foreigner I had never heard of the Little Terns before but I quickly recognised the beauty and importance of these shy sea birds and why they need our help to keep their nests safe and undisturbed. As a new and inexperienced volunteer my first day was spent mostly observing, listening and learning from the wardens that were fixing the damage done by the storm, but also helping actively by cleaning debris and carrying equipment, always careful not to step on the little chicks! A lot of work is put in to prevent predator attacks, checking the electric fences and making stone barriers to keep out the foxes and looking out for air predators such as the kestrel, but its noticeable these little birds are not defenceless, scaring away seagulls and dropping near your head to try to distance you from their nests. I really enjoyed my time there and the wardens have been nice and willing to tell me all about the colony and included me in their work whenever possible, even showing me one of the little chicks, but most importantly encouraging me to go look for a more naturalistic-oriented path for my future. I highly recommend trying the experience of volunteering in the colony, not only for its beauty but most importantly for what it can teach everyone."
In the next week most of the re-laid nests will hatch, but there will be high tides over the weekend. With the fairly benign weather there shouldn't be a repeat of a month ago but there may be debris to clear from fencing. Kestrels are around and taking some chicks but we are doing everything we can to reduce their damage to the colony. An update on that will be forthcoming once we know how successful the attempts at distracting them from tern chicks have been.
We are pleased to announce, after lots of planning and testing, that live-streaming is operational at the Visitor Center in the Gronant Dunes. Images are being beamed in from a couple of nests and the birds are currently on eggs. In about 10 days they are due to hatch and there will be great opportunities to see a tern's-eye view of the chicks being fed. Below is a snapshot of an adult sitting tight on its eggs. It takes luck (or great patience!) to see a changeover or food-pass, but is exciting when it happens. One adult on each nest is also colour-ringed so it is possible to see which adult is tending the nest at any one time. To see it for yourself please visit the site.
Numbers of birds have peaked lately at 420 adults, an increase on the roughly 350 which had been spending the summer here. We think this is likely due to an influx of failed breeders from other sites around the Irish Sea. It is getting late for these to start nesting now. They would still be around in Mid-August if they started now. Saying that, there are still displaying birds down on the beach. Of pairs that did re-lay we are over 80 active nests. The calm weather looks set to last, but whilst weather isn't a threat right now, a pair of Kestrels certainly are. They are being seen increasingly frequently. Consequently, any volunteer help down at Gronant will be very helpful in the coming weeks.
Last week, our long-standing ringer, Professor David Norman, and his team visited Gronant to ring some adult birds. Efforts have been stepped up this season to ring more adults and hopefully catch a few that were ringed as chicks to find out their age whilst adding colour-rings to all caught birds so we can re-sight them in the field without the need to catch them again. The first we caught in the session transpired to be something a bit little special! See below:
In other news, we are happy to announce plenty of birds are re-laying after losing their nests in the storm on June 14th. We are up to 50 new nests in the last few days with more coming every day. This will really extend our season and give longer to enjoy and study the birds. If these nests can hatch and go on to fledge they still have the possibility of a good breeding season, but things really need to go their way this time as there's no time for a third attempt. Onwards and upwards.