In the last couple of weeks since the relaxing of travel restrictions we have been able to look for colour-ringed birds on the beach at Gronant. A bird with a combination of rings we hadn't seen before piqued our interest and we have since found out it was ringed near Lisbon, in Portugal, in Sept 2018 as a juvenile on migration. As far as we can tell, this is the first ever Portuguese-ringed Little Tern to be seen in the UK!
This fills in another piece of the puzzle as to the route Little Terns take to get to Africa for the winter. At over 1000 miles away it is an impressive flight but a fraction of the total journey these tough birds make. The North Wales Little Tern Group are really pleased to discover this first and by working with Denbighshire Council and the Merseyside Ringing Group we hope to make more discoveries in the future.
In terms of the season at Gronant, rather like the year for humans, it has been a very tricky one for the terns. Following most of the first round of nests being lost in a storm in early June, about 80 pairs relaid. Since these eggs hatched, the ringers have confirmed over 50 chicks in the colony but a lot of these are being lost to sand-blow and intense Kestrel predation. We know some have made it as there are now fledglings on the beach. Up to a dozen young ones so far. We think that the numbers will continue to rise over the next week or two. We'll let you know the final totals when we have them.
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!
The pens have now fallen silent at Gronant for the first time since April. There is an eerie silence around the site but all the remaining 'ternlets' have now fledged. There are still small numbers to be seen down on the beach at high tide but most have moved away. Indeed 74 were seen off Hilbre Island today; a classic area they move to post-breeding to continue growing and feeding up in preparation for their mammoth migration. It's hard to believe that at only a month old, many of the youngsters will be starting their journey to the African wintering grounds. Best of luck to them!
The tern group and wardens have been busy taking down the equipment on site this week, before high tides hit at the weekend. Most of it is now down but there is an event outstanding to take kit off site on Friday 10th. Any help gratefully received, and in return there will be a picnic. Please bring something towards it if you can. In the coming few weeks the wardens will write the season report which will reveal how many chicks made it to fledglings this year, so I won't spoil the surprise here! All members of the group will be entitled to receive the report if they wish, just ask at the group's email address - firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.