Friday 20 October 2017

When empty nest syndrome is a rewarding feeling

Eilis O'Hanlon

Letting go is never easy for any proud parent. Especially when your babies will have to make a non-stop 3,000-mile trip south the minute they leave home and not return for another three years.

That's the dilemma for the bird wardens down on a cordoned-off section of the beach in Kilcoole, Co Wicklow, right now. They've spent the last two months watching over a rare colony of Little Tern chicks, night and day, and soon they'll all be gone.

"It's amazing to think that the little balls of fluff, which weigh just six grams after hatching, will be heading off to west Africa in a month . . . we might just suffer from empty nest syndrome," Niall Keogh from Birdwatch Ireland said.

Little Terns are Ireland's rarest breeding tern species, and Birdwatch Ireland has been protecting this particular colony since 1985, when numbers were down to just 14 pairs. This year there are 56 active nests and Mr Keogh hopes that up to 100 chicks will fledge sometime in late July or early August before heading off.

In the meantime, Mr Keogh and his colleagues have their work cut out. Not only do they inspect the colonies daily to count the chicks and ring and weigh the newborns, they're constantly on the look-out for kestrels, hooded crows, gulls, and nocturnal predators like foxes and hedgehogs, who are all quite fond of the taste of Little Tern eggs.

And if all of this sounds like hard work, well it is, but Jason McGuirk, another of the volunteers wardens, insists that they love every minute.

"One night I even saw an otter over there," he said, pointing to a bridge in the distance. "He was munching away on a mullet. It was great."

Two-legged visitors can be a problem too. The wardens warmly welcome visitors, because it gives them a chance to explain to curious locals what they're doing down there. But where people go, danger for the native wildlife inevitably follows.

Little Terns' eggs are virtually indistinguishable from stones, and five eggs have already been trampled this year by unobservant beachgoers. But the two remain keen for people to come down and see what's going on. Their enthusiasm is infectious.

They have telescopes on hand to let you see the birds up close, and if you're lucky you might even see some of the chicks.

Rare species don't all reside in distant exotic locations -- they can be right on your own doorstep. And for those who can't make it, there's always Niall Keogh's blog on www.birdwatchireland.ie

Sunday Independent

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