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Tern flying

May is a busy time of year for birds, for many it means babies are here or shortly on their way. Today’s blog will be about a group of birds who will not only be preparing for weeks of incubation, followed by hungry screaming beaks, but have also only just arrived to our shores, after an incredible migration from Africa. They also happen to be my favourite of our summer arrivals… It’s the terns!

Why do I love them? Well, they are so graceful and have so much character, they are also incredibly acrobatic when you watch them closely in the air. If you have never watched them diving into the sea, then you really should, even if that means watching an online video because you can’t get to the coast at the moment (see the one at the bottom of this page). These ‘skinny-gulls’* fly thousands of miles each year to make it here for breeding season. Throughout the summer they are busy foraging for food in the shallow waters and frantically trying to prepare the next generation for migration to Africa, a journey chicks will take in the first few months of their lives.

I studied marine biology at university. Had you asked me when I started my degree whether I would like to work with coastal birds I would have (politely) said no. I was intrigued by fish, especially sharks, a very different marine predator. But by complete chance (and an amazing primary school teacher), in my 2nd year summer I was given an opportunity to intern with the National Trust up in Norfolk on a spit called Blakeney Point where breeding birds were everywhere.

My internship up on the Norfolk coast was my first real introduction to birdwatching; in those few weeks I learnt about breeding bird conservation, expanded my knowledge of coastal species and eventually ended up helping that ex-teacher and a local researcher on a project about little terns. The next summer, the terns were back and so was I, this time collecting data for my final year independent research project. In summer 2016 I travelled back and forth between Norfolk and Hampshire to monitor two colonies of little terns, watching them for hours every day to establish where they were foraging for fish and other prey. Totally transformed, I had evolved from a birdwatching novice to an ornithologist in one year! I was amazed how many more species I could recognise than the summer before and how much I was learning about their lives and, unfortunately, their struggles.

Terns and many other breeding birds at the beach nest on the ground, their eggs are well camouflaged and their chicks are too. Can you spot the chick in the image at the start of this blog page? One of the challenges they face is the range of predators that will eat both eggs and chicks, this is where blending in with your environment is useful. Tern chicks are predated by gulls, kestrels and foxes to name a few. Fortunately, terns chicks have incredible parents who will group together and mob predators to deter them from coming close to the colonies. Terns may be brave, taking on predators much bigger than themselves, but even they are unlikely to deter humans from their walk along the beach. Disturbance by humans leads to adult birds abandoning nests and chicks, making them vulnerable to predators and to the elements. So please, if you are heading out to the beach this summer, remember to pay close attention to signs and avoid roped off areas, your small actions could save the lives of these tiny innocent birds.

Since my tern study only 4 years ago, birdwatching has become a huge part of my life and as you can see, it’s even part of my job now! Since starting work for Bird Aware I have further expanded my ID skills and general ornithology knowledge. I can’t believe that I never realised how awesome birds are, especially migrants, they really are a natural miracle.

This time of year, as well as spotting the birds who are arriving to the UK like the terns, it’s also easier to notice all the ‘usual suspects’ with the garden songbirds singing louder than ever and chicks popping up all over the place. Birdwatching has been shown to help your mental health, relieving stress and anxiety but it’s also a brilliant excuse to get outside (even just in your garden or on a balcony), get active and connect with nature. My message from this blog, and from my personal experience is: enjoy everything, not just the things that you think you enjoy, expand your knowledge and try something new, you never know when an animal species or a new hobby might capture your imagination and change your life.

Ranger Lizzie

*I always refer to terns as skinny gulls to people who haven’t seen one before because for a new birder, it’s hard to notice the difference between one white bird and another. Compared to gulls, terns have thin wings and appear more lanky and fragile. As well as looking out for them on the coast, listen out for their calls – listen to my favourite chirp here

RSPB Little Tern

RSPB – Little Tern (opens in a new window)