Many of you will remember Mark who has worked with us here in the Solent as a seasonal Ranger for the last two winters. Recently he has started a new job working for the RSPB over at the Pagham Harbour and Medmerry reserves as a Conservation and Visitor Engagement Officer.
His role is similar to what we do as Bird Aware Rangers; helping to protect the overwintering birds that visit the Solent each year, but during the summer he focuses on other migratory species including terns.
Here he explains more about these fascinating summer visitors:
Where do birds make their nests?
Most people will say in a tree, but many species actually make nests on the ground! One such bird is the tern, which nests on the shore and offshore islands.
Terns are easily confused with gulls; they are of a similar colour and can both be seen fishing over the water. There are however a few key differences:
Wings: Terns have long-pointed wings while gulls have broad wings.
Bills: Terns have sharp bills while gulls have hooked beaks.
Body: Terns are smaller.
Predatory practice: Terns tend to dive into the water to catch their fish, whereas gulls pick up their prey while floating on the surface.
Spring sees the arrival of our terns who have been overwintering in Western Africa. The Solent hosts three species of our most elegant breeding seabirds: the sandwich tern, common tern and little tern. There are an estimated 10,500 breeding common tern pairs in the UK, 12,500 Sandwich tern pairs and less than 2000 little tern pairs. This makes the little tern the second rarest nesting sea bird in the UK behind the Roseate tern.
When terns nest on beaches or offshore islands they make a small indentation in the shingle and sand, they don’t make a nest as such. The eggs and chicks are very well camouflaged on the sand and shingle which means they are hard for predators to spot, so the adult birds only use a very small amount of nesting material or quite often none at all. This choice of nesting location makes them particularly vulnerable to eroding nesting habitat (rising sea levels, summer storms) and human disturbance, so they need all the help they can get from us.
Various methods have been used by the RSPB for helping to protect our terns including tern rafts, electrified fox fences, adding shingle on the islands, shelters for the chicks, signage, and the presence of rangers to help visitors enjoy the coast by informing them about our coastal birds.
The nesting season can coincide with the nicer weather and more people visiting the coast, which can lead to unintentional disturbance or damaged nests.
Why does disturbance matter?
Disturbance can lead to parent birds leaving their nests more frequently and for longer periods of time. This means eggs can be left cooling longer which can reduce the growth of the embryo or kill it. Chicks also may not be fed regularly enough which drastically reduces their chances of survival. On hot days the chicks can suffer dehydration and on cooler days they can become cold. The longer the chicks are left alone the greater chance they can be a victim of natural predators such as large gulls.
How can you help?
- When visiting the coast, look out for the birds, keep your distance and enjoy them.
- Follow instructions on signs about keeping to the path, avoiding sensitive areas and not landing on offshore islands.
- Look around before walking or before laying down your beach towel.
Across the Solent coast, common and little terns (who are protected by law) will be nesting on the shingle and sandy beach areas together with other birds such as ringed plover and oystercatcher. There are also skylark and lapwing who will nest in nearby habitats. At Pagham, Mark and the rest of the team will be concentrating on education and the effects of disturbance and avoidance, so these birds will have the best chance of increasing their populations. To achieve this they will also be working with volunteers and liaising with a countrywide beach nesting bird project.
The RSPB is currently recruiting for volunteers in the area. For more information please take a look here: Beach nesting bird volunteer warden – Pagham Harbour and Medmerry (rspb.org.uk).