Congratulations to the 2nd of our Volunteer Story Competition Winners!
Terning the Tide – Essex little tern recovery project
The Little Tern is one of our rarest breeding seabirds. So when ten nests were washed away by high tides at RSPB Old Hall Marshes in 2017, steps were taken to prevent anything like that happening again.
In partnership with local fishermen from West Mersea, oyster shell was deposited to raise the height of the beach. Little tern lay their eggs on the beach, often too close to the high water mark making them extremely vulnerable to high tides.
In 2017 I started volunteering with the RSPB as a little tern monitor. It was a difficult and disappointing season with the nest losses and no birds to report leaving me slightly disillusioned.
However, during the following winter I began producing little tern decoys, life sized models used to encourage the birds to nest. Six were placed on the new raised beach area.
In June two nests were confirmed. However the summer’s highest spring tides were due within the egg’s estimated incubation period. It was decided to intervene and raise the nests. Little Tern nests have been successfully raised at other colonies but this would be a first for both staff and volunteers at the reserve.
We had to extract the eggs, fill a crate with sand and ballast and recreate the nest exactly as the birds relate to reference points aiding them to return to their nests after feeding runs. The nests would be raised 30 cm away from the highest tide mark.
Having practiced the procedure away from the nest area, the team observed the bird’s behaviour and then entered the colony making sure other nests were not disturbed. Nest No.1 was raised and we waited for the birds to return to their eggs before they cooled down.
The first bird seemed confused, repeatedly flying away and back towards the nest trying to ‘sight’ their reference points. Having settled near the nest and walking around the crate for a while the bird flew up onto their eggs and settled down. As this bird had returned relatively quickly it was decided to repeat the process and raise nest No. 2.
Now the team had two birds disturbed and looking for their nests seemingly getting in each other’s way and squabbling as they tried to locate their eggs. Had we pushed our luck too far by deciding to raise the second nest?
A tense half an hour passed, anxiously looking on. Finally, the return of both birds to their elevated nests was greeted with whooping and fist pumping as the team celebrated on the sea wall.
Camera traps revealed that both nests would have been washed away and that the nests produced two fledglings and the site five in all, a massive success after the disastrous events of the previous year.
The whole experience of producing the decoys, monitoring the birds and being intrinsically involved in the intervention to save the nests was extremely fulfilling. We had taken action and that action did make a difference. The young of an extremely endangered species had survived as a direct result of my volunteering efforts and to see the fledgling birds take flight later in the season starting their migration to their winter feeding grounds in West Africa was highly rewarding.
I’d like to think that my decoys were the reason they were there in the first place but, I’m afraid, we will never know.
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