Following little terns

Little terns are the second rarest seabird in the UK and Ireland and possibly the best indicator of Climate Change that there is. David Woodfall is a photographer who has been following the fortunes of this very special bird since 1978. His new exhibition documents the challenges they face and what is being done to help them.

Two little tern, one with sand eel at the nest amongst black oats growing on shell rich sands Machir, Islay.

Two little tern, one with sand eel at the nest amongst black oats growing on shell rich sands.

Little terns feed in shallow seawater on sand eels, and are unable to dive much more than a foot underwater. As the sea warms up, sand eels swim deeper seeking cooler water, and little terns can no longer reach their major food source. The changing climate will therefore determine the future distribution of these elegant birds. Known as sea swallows, they generally nest on beaches, sand spits and pebble beaches, but in the Outer Hebrides they nest on machair, often laying two to three camouflaged eggs amongst the strips of cultivated oats or potatoes in this flower-rich habitat.

Sequence of strips of cultivated machair with early shoots of black oats pushing through the sand, an important habitat for breeding little terns and Arctic terns.

Sequence of strips of cultivated machair with early shoots of black oats pushing through the sand, an important habitat for breeding little terns and Arctic terns.

My association with this bird began in 1978 in Northumberland when I was coastal warden for the National Trust, living overlooking the colony. By 1979 only one breeding pair remained and the project was discontinued. Fortunately two Phd students from Durham University came to the rescue the following summer to continue the study. To encourage community involvement I made a film about the colony with Eric Bird and as a result we had over 100 community volunteers assisting paid staff each year.

The colony began to grow and the National Trust started funding the project once more. We started to get a few Arctic terns nesting with the little terns and then one night over a thousand pairs of Arctic terns decamped from the nearby Farne Islands to nest on the sand spit on the Nanny. Now over 2,000 pairs of Arctic terns regularly nest there with up to 50 pairs of little terns. This is an example of what informed positive conservation work can achieve. This site is now the largest mainland breeding colony of nesting terns in Britain and Ireland.

Elsewhere their fortunes have varied, and the combination of rising sea levels, blown sand, and greater concentration of numbers attracting predators such as hedgehogs, kestrels, weasels and foxes, plus human disturbance, have all affected the national populations with the overall pattern being steady decline. Even the increase in manned protection schemes, with the RSPB funding a national protection scheme through a Life project, while some populations are stable, and others increasing, the overall pattern is of a national decline.

My exhibition looks at four colonies, the Long Nanny in Northumberland, Gronant in Denbighshire, Berneray in Noth Uist, and Kilcoole, just south of Dublin. In each of the sites their adaptation is slightly different: in Northumberland they nest in a sand spit; in Gronant on a sandy beach; in Berneray on machair; and in Kilcoole on a storm pebble beach. In order to get close to the terns during the breeding season I obtained a license from each of the four UK and Irish Government conservation organisations and over a period of time worked a bird hide to within 18 feet of their nests.

Little terns feeding a sand eel to their newly hatched chick.

Little terns feeding a sand eel to their newly hatched chick.

I was able to document the little terns’ lives at close quarters from before laying their eggs to three weeks later with tiny chicks being fed sand eels every 30 minutes or so. I followed the colour ringing (being carried out by scientists associated with the Merseyside Ringing group) and other conservation work at the four sites.

In Berneray I documented crofters managing the machair, both collecting crops and with cattle, with crofters playing an integral part in the management of this coastal habitat. I also covered the trapping and relocation of hedgehogs to the mainland, by SNH staff on the Uists. Hedgehogs are a huge threat to little terns as they eat their eggs. The Scottish Government works closely with the crofters through an agri-environmental scheme where the crofters are compensated for their co-operation in ensuring the breeding success of little terns and waders on the machair. In this way crofters are able to sustainably manage the machair, allowing the birds to nest and raise their young amongst the crops and cattle.

Once little terns finish their breeding cycles they return to West Africa where they spend the winter returning in late April every year to begin their breeding cycle over again. Whilst their future as a breeding species in Britain and Ireland is uncertain, we have learnt a great deal about the breeding biology, ways to help protect their breeding success, and ways in which the community can be involved to help protect these resilient little birds. In the Outer Hebrides SNH, the RSPB, crofting associations and crofters work together to ensure that these rare birds remain part of North West Scotland’s fabric of coastal ecosystems.

If you would like to become involved as a volunteer in the Uists with these birds, please contact Jamie Boyle. There are many opportunities for both individuals and the community to help with this work and you will have the pleasure of getting to know the precious lives of little terns and other wildlife of the machair.

David’s exhibition Little terns in Britain and Ireland runs from 3 March – 28 April at in Taigh Chearsburgh Loch Maddy, North Uist.

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