One Good Tern!
“Fantastic experience” “Great to be here” “Wonderful”
If you’ve ever been lucky enough to see one of these charming, if noisy, little sea birds, then you will know the joy to be found in their company. With a characteristic white stripe across the brow and brilliant yellow bill, they are a delight to watch. Returning to the UK in late April, after travelling from as far as Guinea Bissau, many will nest among the rocky shoreline of shingle at Wales’ only little tern colony: Gronant.
[Photo credit: Ian Sheppard]
This shingle at Gronant is essential to this ground nesting bird, required for camouflaging a nest successfully. A plentiful stock of sand eels is also found here. These silvery fish are frequently seen drooping from both sides of a little tern’s bill, a fishy Fu Manchu. The sand eels are not only a fantastic source of nutrients, but also key for their courting displays.
Not long after the wardens had started on site, the first of the little terns arriving at Gronant were spotted. With jubilation, there had been a brief glimpse of two one day, three the next: a drop of water trickling over a weir. By May, they had arrived in the hundreds, the flood gates opened! It was a busy start to the season, with over 3km of electric fencing going up around the site, creating a haven safe from foxes and dogs. Thanks to the help of volunteers from the North Wales Little Tern Group and hard work from staff at Denbighshire Countryside Services, it wasn’t long before we started to find nests containing precious treasures, hidden among the shingle, speckled in blue, olive, and white.
[Little tern chicks – close to one day old]
Our latest nest count in early June gave us a record sum of well over 200 nests. This is up 22.4% from the previous maximum active nest count at Gronant in 2018. With great glee, the first of the little tern chicks were spotted that same day. This is an encouraging sign for a productive season, but not a promise of success. There are several more high tides to contend with, and the tireless deterrence of predators for the wardens to tackle. The honeymoon period spent cooing over chicks was cut short almost instantly after a kestrel was seen making off with a chick in its clutches. For consolation, we reminded ourselves that they have their own young to feed. A greater problem recently has been human disturbance causing several terns to abandon their nests, and even more worryingly, damage caused by dogs not being kept under close control. With the summer holidays just around the corner, we are all taking a deep breath in for the weeks ahead.
To counter nest losses to high tides, the wardens have been moving vulnerable nests incrementally up shore. The key features of the nest are recreated as accurately as possible, with rocks and decorative shells being carefully transferred. A keen eye is kept on the parent terns to make sure they return to their nest, making sure this has been a successful relocation. As with many decisions made while working with wildlife, it is time sensitive, and there are a multitude of factors considered before moving a nest. The conditions must be just right: little to no wind, warm weather, mid to low tide, and no disturbance from predators or humans. For some clutches, this might not be enough to save them, but as a remarkably resilient species, many little terns will attempt to nest again, learning from previous mistakes and choosing to nest further up shore the second time. There is hope yet.
Funding this year came from the Welsh Government’s Landfill Disposals Tax Communities Scheme (LDTCS), administered by the Wales Council for Voluntary Action. This funding has given the project an essential opportunity to engage with local school groups, with the hope to inspire and connect. It is essential not to downplay the impact of the pandemic on young people, many of whom have had challenges accessing the outdoors, and with the Nuffield Trust reporting an 81% increase in referrals for children and young people’s mental health services compared with the same period in 20191. Many teachers explained that this was their first outing as a group in over two years, and frequently I overheard how good it was to see their students “just being kids”.
Often, walking down to the beach from meeting a group off the bus, questions and facts from the kids would boil over, too much excitement to put a lid on. “Did you know that little terns can travel over 6000 miles in a year?!”, “Did you know that little terns weigh the same as a golf ball?!”, “Did you know that foxes can jump over 6 feet?! That’s taller than you!”. They had done their research! A popular activity was nest building, the creativity and imagination deployed was stunning; I saw mazes constructed to keep weasels out, domes built to keep foxes from stealing eggs, and decoy perching sites to confuse crows. We were explorers combing the strandline, discovering whelks and shore crabs, treasure hunters playing camouflage the egg, and architects designing our own nests. But, most importantly, they got to be kids just being kids, tumbling, learning, and playing in the sand.
[Little terns with sand eels. Photo credit: Ian Sheppard]
This season will see several hundred young people visiting the beach, with groups from 7 local schools and ages ranging from 6–19. Unfortunately, some visits just weren’t possible this year, with pressures for schools to find funding for transport, or simply to get time away from exam preparations. To counter this, I brought the beach to them, visiting 3 schools to talk to them about the project. Accessibility is a must, so instead of visiting the beach, I brought a sand dune diorama to play with for 8-year-olds, and a scientific presentation for A Level biology students. It is crucial not to exclude those that can’t visit, and none of this would be possible without the funding from the LDTCS.
In conversation with many of the children, I repeatedly heard them express feeling relaxed, happy, and excited while at the beach. I would ask if they had been before and was surprised to learn that very few had. It was important to emphasise just how special their beach is, discussing the significance of the little tern colony, and all the different ways to get involved or support the terns if they chose to. I was reassured most days when I would hear them begging their teachers to come back again. One group wrote to tell me that “it opened their eyes to this important local conservation project”. Meaningful conversations fostering the idea of stewardship and generating the feeling of community and positivity around this project are so valuable at this critical age, in a critical time. Several schools have already asked to come later in the season, demonstrating the power of this special place and how it can connect people with nature, and to themselves.
[Pupils from Ysgol y Llys]
Other highlights from earlier in the season included a guided walk as part of the Prestatyn walking festival, as well as the little tern colony being the focal site visit for the North Wales rangers’ conference: NEWCOF.
If you are interested in visiting or volunteering at the site or just want to find out more, you can follow us @GronantTerns or say hello at email@example.com.
- Growing problems, in depth: the impact of covid-19 on health care for children and young people in England. www.nuffieldtrust.org.uk/resource/growing-problems-in-detail-covid-19-s-impact-on-health-care-for-children-and-young-people-in-england