Northumberland, Bird Club

Farne Islands
Picture by Jane Coltman
Farne Islands Picture by Jane Coltman

A club tern

More than 80 people turned out to North Northumberland Bird Club to hear speaker Iain Robson.

He began by referring to the title of his talk, Little Terns – Why bother?, promising to return to this at the end.

Iain has worked for the Northumberland Coast’s Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) since 1995 and he was keen to define its importance and purposes.

It was designated in 1958 and is the most northerly of 46 AONB, 56 miles long, with a maximum width of 3km. It is a unique combination of habitats, sandy beaches backed by dunes, and offshore islands, as well as historical sites, towns and villages.

The primary purpose of the AONB is to conserve and enhance the natural beauty, and preserve it for future generations, but it also takes account of the people living and working in it and those who wish to enjoy it.

Northumberland has 2.2%of the UK’s population of little terns (Sterna Albifrons), so-called because of the white on the front of its crown. It is a big-headed bird, having a bill as long as its head, and the bill is yellow with a black tip. It is long-winged, but short-tailed, and has short legs, which are difficult to ring. It is about half the size of a sandwich tern and weighs only 50g to 55g.

Birds ringed in the UK mainly winter on the West African coast in countries such as Senegal and the Gambia, but they also migrate to Spain, Portugal, France and other countries of Western Europe.

The two main little tern colonies are the Long Nanny, near Beadnell, and the Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve.

The birds prefer to nest on sandy/shingle beaches, close to shallow water, and they normally feed within a kilometre of their nest site, though in other countries, such as Kazakhstan, they nest hundreds of miles inland on islands in freshwater lakes.

Little terns arrive back on the Farne Islands in late April to rest and fatten up after their long migration, before gathering in their colonies in early May, creating small indentations in the sand/shingle.

Normally one or two grey eggs are laid, then incubated for 18 to 24 days, while food such as sprats and sand eels is brought in.

Although the availability of food is not a problem, one of the main issues with little terns is ‘coastal squeeze’ as beach levels and sandy areas are constantly changing.

Alternative places for them to nest are running out and they can’t just move to another area, where there may be conflict from dogs exercising off-lead and recreational beach users, such as kite surfers.

At Long Nanny volunteers relocate the scrapes onto fish boxes and palettes during higher tides, and the eggs and chicks can even be removed temporarily for protection and the birds know to come back. But attempts to encourage the little terns with sound recordings and decoys to a less vulnerable site are currently having limited effect.

Predators are also a major problem as kestrels, attracted by the large colony of Arctic terns at Long Nanny, also attack the little terns. Stoats also eat anything and everything and are very difficult to catch and trap.

Little terns have a healthy global population, but they are declining and are amber-listed in the UK. They are now supported by Life funding from the EU for five years (The Little Tern Recovery Project) to help increase the number of breeding pairs and raise public awareness.

In order to prevent the decline of little terns and other shore-nesting birds, such as the ringed plover, Iain would like to see some areas of our beaches fenced off to exclude dogs and recreational activities, but knows that due to other pressures this is unlikely to happen.

At the beginning of the evening Iain described his role as a “dogsbody”, but by the close of the evening the audience was warm in its appreciation, knowing that it had been listening to a talk by a committed, knowledgeable and enthusiastic expert.

Was there an answer to the initial question? The vote was an almost unanimous ‘Yes’, we should bother about the plight of little terns.

Our next indoor meeting at Bamburgh Pavilion will be on November 11, at 7.30pm, when our honorary president Graham Bell will give a talk on Birds of Prey and Owls, preceded by our short AGM.