Speakers: Paul Davis and Will Bevan
Reporter: Cath Robinson
We were pleased to welcome Paul Davis from the RSPB for this talk. His official title is Suffolk Little Tern Project Officer but this is extended to all beach-nesting birds so includes Ringed Plover, Oystercatcher and more recently Avocet. He manages a team of volunteers to look after Little Terns in Kessingland Suffolk with the ultimate aim of making the volunteers self-sufficient.
Initially the EU had funded a 5-year project to prospect possible sites where Little Terns might nest and so we could be in a position to protect them. Clearly that funding has gone and now there is some core RSPB funding and some individual but this is significantly less than before. The scheme is heavily dependent on volunteers, many of whom have built up years of experience in their work.
The RSPB does not own all these sites and has to ask permission from landowners to access, monitor and put protective fencing in place. When dealing with Schedule 1 birds everyone working on the project has to have a licence. So, there is a certain amount of bureaucracy to overcome.
Little terns, Schedule 1 birds, are one of the rarest breeding seabirds in the UK. The numbers are reducing for a variety of very familiar reasons: loss of key habitat, in this case sand and shingle beaches, climate change with rising sea levels and the coastal sequelae and susceptibility to predation and disturbance. They are summer migrants, the West European population over wintering in West Africa, arriving late April. The nest is a shallow scrape and they lay 2-3 eggs, occasionally 4 if there is an exceptional food source which is small fry and fish. Migration occurs soon after fledging in late July. Colonies are scattered around both east and west coasts dependent on suitable habitat and a good food source.
Ringed Plovers are Red status birds and are resident, passage migrants and winter visitors.
They have a more varied diet than Little Terns: spiders, flies, crustaceans and marine worms with their classic feeding pattern of constant stop and go. Their nests are close to the high- water mark and also inland at gravel pits.
They lay 4 pointy eggs arranged with the pointy ends in the centre. Their young are precocial and are up and scurrying immediately. They have 2-3 broods from April to July. Oystercatcher is Amber status also resident, passage migrant and winter visitor. They are a scarce resident on the east coast where they bred widely in the past. Their diet is mussels and cockles and of course worms when they are more inland.
Avocets are a Schedule 1 bird. They nest mainly on scrapes but will also nest on beaches. Kessingland had one successful pair last year on a natural lagoon area and have 2 nests so far this year.
The team sometimes use decoys: bird models put into the colony to encourage more to come. They also sometimes use “sand lenses”: on a very stony beach they may dig a hole and put a bucket of sand there which then provides a better surface for prospecting birds.
On some sites they use oyster shells from fishermen to raise the beach level to encourage nesting on higher ground: sometimes they will raise vulnerable nests to higher ground or on to fish boxes when higher tides are expected. If the nests are moved gradually and the surrounding stones are moved with them then the birds will accept this.
Many beaches in East Anglia had been preserved with “recharge”. Dredged material is re- sited onto the beaches and spread around which raises levels and provides more habitat.
This has happened at Old Hall Marshes, Tollesbury and Horsey Island in Essex. Apart from the seemingly inevitable problem of human and dog disturbance, the distressing part of the talk was about predators. Apart from egg thieves who are still active, there is a constellation of ground predators: hedgehogs (remember the Hebrides outcry?), mink, otters, badgers and foxes but really Paul emphasised the aerial predators: Kestrel, Hobby, corvids and gulls but it was clear that the first 2 were the most upsetting. Kestrels are a threat to young and will get mobbed by the adults but are able to pick the chicks off one by one by one. This is so depressing for the volunteers to watch. Hobbies are a threat to adults so are not mobbed but can easily clear a colony so the young can then get picked off by corvids and gulls. Last year both colonies at Eccles and Kessingland failed but many adults relocated to Winterton so they had the strange situation of having eggs, chicks and fledglings there all at the same time.
They have tried some techniques to deal with the kestrels including diversionary feeding: providing an alternative food source near the kestrel nest and volunteers will monitor kestrels over the winter to have an idea of where their nests might be in the spring. It is not very successful.
Will Bevan, the Norfolk project leader, completed the presentation with a description of the crucial work the volunteers did: in the fencing process, signage, monitoring fencing and mending and in general monitoring of the colony: counting nest numbers, fledgling numbers, help with ringing and assessing the level of disturbance. They had an invaluable role in public engagement and education, especially with dog walkers as clearly dogs off the lead can create much disturbance. And Will himself was a night warden last year with a tent on site and half hourly patrols!!
The team are keen to recruit more wardens: to get involved go to
East Norfolk colonies had over 200 chicks fledge in 2001!
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