Monday 19 March 2018

Team doing a good tern on the beach in Kilcoole

Reporter David Medcalf wandered along the seaside walk between Kilcoole and Newcastle, where he found Chris Johnson maintaining a vigil over Ireland's largest colony of little terns for Birdwatch

A little tern flying in Kilcoole
A little tern flying in Kilcoole
A mock-up of what a little tern’s nest looks like

Chris Johnson laughs at the notion that he is one of Ireland's busiest baby-sitters - but the suggestion is not all that far-fetched. Thanks to his efforts, and the efforts of his colleagues, hundreds of youngsters have been successfully minded this summer. The crew from Birdwatch Ireland have been keeping an eye on the nesting colony of the little terns on the strand south of Kilcoole. Indeed they have been going closer than merely bird watching as they have been up close and personal with their flock.

'My hand is covered in tern poo,' Chris warns as he declines to greet visitors with a handshake. He along with colleagues Irene Sullivan, Andrew Butler and the rest will not be worried by such matters of personal hygiene for too much longer. The breeding season on the beach between Kilcoole and Newcastle will soon be complete with the exodus of the terns to Africa.

Many of the birds are returning to familiar hunting grounds on the coasts along the Atlantic seaboard of Africa. For maybe 300 recently fledged chicks, on the other hand, the long haul to East Africa is their first major challenge in life - powered by a diet of wholesome Wicklow sand eels, rich in body-building.

The summer of 2017 has proven to be one of the best since the babysitting first began in 1986. It was three decades ago that Birdwatch first moved to protect the country's biggest colonies of little terns. The largely white sea-birds with their long and pointed wings are wonderful to see in flight.

However, they are vulnerable on the ground as they tend to select stony flat beaches in which to raise their families. Foxes love nothing better than a supper of eggs or small birds, while rodents, rooks and hooded crows also pose a threat.

For several years, hungry hedgehogs were an issue but they were finally persuaded to forage elsewhere after being physically removed and released elsewhere.

Just as destructive as any wildlife are the humans and their pets who come to enjoy the sea breezes. One lolloping labrador could destroy scores of nests without ever realising the damage being done.

So, since May, the breeding ground has been roped off with an electrified fence while walkers have been directed around the site, along with their dogs. And the Birdwatch wardens have maintained a round-the-clock vigil from the vantage point of their specially built hide.

This is not the only place in Ireland where there are little terns, but Andrew reports that these agile African visitors are increasingly rare elsewhere. Some smaller colonies are found in Wexford and the West but the one at Baltray north of Dublin has lapsed, making Kilcoole all the more important as an ornithological venue.

Andrew reckons that the birds like the stony beach here but they also appreciate other aspects of the site. The sea normally provides most of the little fish which stoke the bellies of voraciously hungry chicks.

But when the weather is poor, their parents have the luxury of an alternative hunting ground close to hand, in the form of shallow inland lakes on the far side of the Dublin to Rosslare railway line.

'The young terns are just eating machines,' reports the warden, with sympathy for the parents of these greedy youngsters. 'They gobble and grow. They sit there with big open mouths.' They need to be plied with plenty of eels, sprats and shrimps, all in plentiful supply on this part of the coast. The nests are called scrapes, simple depressions in the shingle, deep enough to shelter their residents under the winds. The scrapes are often finished with what the watching wardens call 'adornments' - a colourful stone maybe or a piece of seaweed or perhaps some colourful piece of plastic which has taken their fancy.

Despite such embellishments the nests are very hard to see, perfectly camouflaged amidst the jumble of shingle stones.

Chris and Irene have been peering at those stones for more than two months now and they still find it almost impossible to spot a sandy coloured chick with the naked eye against the background of the beach.

The wardens, who live in caravans nearby, arrived at the beginning of May to set up the electrified fence as the first of the birds breezed in from Africa. At that stage early arrivals were already 'hanging around the foreshore' as Andrew Johnson puts it.

Then the hormones kicked in and the courtship rituals began, with the males strutting about the females. Once a female accepted a fish from her suitor, the deal was sealed, to trigger two months of nest making and family rearing together.

The activity is closely monitored by the watching wardens who count and re-count the population in the colony. With most nests having two eggs, it is reckoned that the number of chicks this year exceeded the 200 mark, perhaps close to 300.

'The biggest count we got was 250 adult birds but you don't always see them all. We have had a very good year, close to record numbers.'

The 2016 season was cursed by foxes but, this year, night warden Andrew Butler has kept such intruders to a minimum. He became concerned on a few nights recently that the terns were alarmed in the darkness but the disturbance was caused by nothing more sinister than a few playful rabbits. Even the weather had proven kind, with no major storms to flood the nests and kill through hypothermia.

'It is always hit and miss,' remarks Chris - and this time it has been a hit. The chicks are gorgeous fluffy balls when they first emerge from the speckled eggs. The wardens have handled many of the young birds, measuring them and fitting them with rings. The Kilcoole ring is black and white, so it is a matter for remark when a yellow and black ring is spotted on the beach, denoting a stray from a colony on the Isle of Man.

The work has its perils: 'They dive bomb us and poo all over us but they have to put up with us because we are protecting them.

Gulls will actually hit you but the terns are wise enough not to touch you. We try to interfere with them as little as possible. We are keeping them safe from harm, even if they do not appreciate it.'

All observations, carefully recorded, contribute to building up a bigger picture, though it remains a lopsided picture of the terns' summer holidays, with little or nothing known of their existence for the remainder of the year: 'They only come here for ten weeks and then they are gone back to Morocco, Senegal and other countries in West Africa,' confirms Chris.

Likely they appreciate Ireland in summer time for its lengthy hours of daylight, which allow the adults more time to hunt for food.

Ireland is not the only destination. There are plenty of little terns in Spain and France, while Britain is also a favoured port of call for the summer migrants. European law dictates that Ireland should protect its flock in the interests of bio-diversity and the job has been done with diligence at Kilcoole for 31 years.

Chris Johnson, whose previous stint of work was with the finches of northern Australia, has enjoyed his stay on the breezy Wicklow shore. He finds that thhe birdlife here is wonderful - not just terns - along with a full complement of insects and lizards.

His colleague Irene Sullivan had the privilege of observing and filming a huge basking shark at close quarters while on patrol one day recently. The wardens have enjoyed entertaining groups of children on summer camps, letting them use their telescopes and binoculars. The Birdwatch team is also assisted in passing the hours by members of the general public who use the footpath.

'The locals and the regulars know us by now. Most of them are happy to learn how the colony is progressing - we get the thumbs-up. Just a small minority think their dog should have the liberty to go wherever it wants but it is a very small percentage. Most of the people are very supportive.'

Promoting an interest in wildlife and ecology is part of the brief, with signs erected along the pathway to let everyone know how the season is going.

For further information and inspiration, try the Birwatch Ireland web-site and make your way to Irene Sullivan's tern colony blog.

Bray People