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.
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!
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.