One of the largest colonies in the UK is at Winterton-on-Sea and at nearby Eccles-on-Sea on the East Norfolk coast where RSPB wardens and volunteers provide 24/7 surveillance and monitoring of the breeding birds from May to August each year. This photo essay captures the life of the colony at Eccles over the summer months in 2015 and illustrates the various conservation measures utilised by the RSPB to help little terns during the breeding season.
As well as colony-protection schemes that are run by conservation groups, local communities and beach-goers also have a vital role to play in helping little terns. These sensitive birds just need space to breed undisturbed so a few changes to our behaviour could make all the difference.
How you can help little terns
When you visit the beach this summer, watch where you walk!
Beach-nesting birds use camouflage to keep their eggs and chicks safe so keep an eye out for little terns and their eggs or chicks in the dry sand.
If you see signs that a little tern colony is present please keep well back from the fenced areas and well clear of the birds at all times.
Please keep dogs on leads and under close control as you walk past the colony.
Be aware of the birds’ activity - if you are swooped upon by a tern move away from the colony, watching where you tread as you may be near a nest or chick.
Don't leave or bury trash or food scraps on beaches - this may attract predators which may prey upon little tern eggs and chicks.
If you find a dead little tern contact the RSPB or your local conservation group.
A lack of guaranteed funding for little tern conservation has been a long-standing problem for many parts of the UK where colonies are found. This has meant that protection of the little tern colonies has been dependent to a greater or lesser extent on the hard work and dedication of local volunteer wardens for the duration of the breeding season.
If you live in Norfolk and want to get involved as a volunteer in the 2017 breeding season contact the RSPB by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
To see if there’s a little tern warden programme near where you live or in other parts of the UK visit www.rspb.org.uk/volunteering
Become a Little Tern Warden
The eggs of little terns are a target for egg thieves. The entire Durham colony was destroyed by an egg collector in 1999 and no breeding birds returned in 2000. Wanton acts of vandalism also occur - at the North Denes colony, near Great Yarmouth in Norfolk, vandals broke down a perimeter fence and uprooted electric fencing, leaving the eggs to be eaten by gulls and other predators.
Little tern colonies are very susceptible to 'coastal squeeze' - a process that is particular to coastal habitats that are trapped between a fixed landward boundary (such as a sea wall) and rising sea levels and/or increased storminess. Little terns are thus forced into fewer and fewer colonies and ones which are less suitable or safe from other threats including human disturbance.
Little tern nests are often situated not far above the high tide mark. When onshore winds combine with high tides, especially spring tides, low-lying colonies can be flooded. In most years, some eggs or chicks are lost as a consequence of flooding. Wind-blown sand may cover the eggs or very young chicks entirely and the adults’ inability to fish during prolonged bad weather can lead to chick (and adult) starvation.
Climate change has increased the number of summer storm surges that can flood low-lying nests and wash away helpless young chicks. More frequent storm events in the winter months are also reducing habitat availability.
A large number of predators prey on the little tern and entire colonies can be lost overnight at the egg or chick stage through predation. At night predators might include foxes and hedgehogs; during the day avian predators can be very destructive repeatedly taking both eggs and chicks and these include kestrel, carrion crow and the larger gull species.
Little tern colonies are extremely vulnerable to human disturbance and the growth of coastal access and tourism is a very real threat. Their preferred habitat is easily accessible mainland beaches that are frequented by locals and holidaymakers for all kinds of recreational purposes. This includes dog walkers as well as well-intentioned but sometimes over-zealous photographers and birdwatchers. Little terns, like all tern species, are quick to leave the nest when disturbed, thereby leaving the eggs or chicks vulnerable to the elements and to predators. If this occurs too often the terns will eventually abandon the colony.
The little tern has a relatively limited foraging range (the smallest of all the terns) and so the success of a colony can be very dependent on having a suitable food supply in close proximity to the breeding site. The growth of offshore developments, notably wind farms, may have an indirect effect on terns due to the impacts of pile driving on one of their fish prey resources which are known to be sensitive to underwater noise. Commercial fisheries and their use of trawling gear may reduce prey availability through altering the seabed habitat and the capture of non-target species such as clupeids.
The little tern is one of our rarest breeding sea birds and recent studies have shown that numbers of little terns in the UK and Europe are in dramatic decline. In the UK there were 2,500 breeding pairs in the 1980s, this reduced to less than 2,000 pairs in 2000 and now current estimates are at about 1,500 pairs or less, occurring in about 60 breeding colonies of various sizes.
The little tern has a naturally low breeding success rate but this is further compounded by a range of other factors - both natural and man-made.
to little terns
The RSPB has been involved in little tern conservation for 50 years, taking the lead in responding to the decline of the species and loss of colonies in the 1970s by establishing protection and warden schemes at sites around the UK. More recently, it has become the lead co-ordinator of The Little Tern Recovery Project - a UK-based project, match funded by EU LIFE+, aimed at improving the conservation status of the little tern in the UK through targeted action at the most important colonies.
This is the first nationally co-ordinated programme of action for the species, working with 29 colonies (about 65% of the total population) in 15 Special Protection Areas (SPAs) over a period of five years (covering the 2014 - 2018 breeding seasons). The RSPB is working with various county councils, the National Trust, various Wildlife Trusts and Natural England.
The aim of the Little Tern Recovery Project is to lay down the foundations for the long-term recovery of the little tern in the UK by increasing numbers of breeding pairs and productivity, identifying long-term plans for conservation and increasing public awareness and support.
By securing robust breeding populations at key sites throughout the country it is hoped to increase the breeding population of little terns across the project sites from the baseline figure of 1,241 breeding pairs (2013). It is hoped to achieve a mean breeding productivity across targeted sites of at least 0.75 chicks per pair per year and sites for sustainable colonies will be identified where current colonies are threatened.
EU LIFE+ Recovery Project
For further information visit: www.littleternproject.org.uk
Due to its declining population, the little tern benefits from several key pieces of international conservation legislation.
In the UK, the little tern is protected under Schedule 1 (Part 1) of the UK Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 which makes it an offence to 'intentionally or recklessly disturb them while at, on or near a nest' - this includes photographing them at or near the nest during the breeding season without a licence.
It is also Amber listed as a Species of Conservation Concern in Britain because it breeds in internationally significant numbers here (ie. more than 20% of the population of north-west Europe) and because greater than 50% of the population is concentrated into ten areas.
It is also listed on Appendix I of the EU Birds Directive and is included in Appendix II of the Bern Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats.
Most little tern colonies are protected either within nature reserves or through intensive wardening schemes. Where possible some of the threats facing little terns are mitigated by a range of protective measures which include:
Fencing-off sensitive nesting areas - with an outer rope fence and in many cases with an inner electric fence. This is useful in excluding natural predators (ie. foxes) and reducing human interference.
Erecting warning signs up and down the beach at the access points and the approaches to the colony. These play a significant part, along with the fencing, in preventing human disturbance to the little terns.
Wardening at as many sites as possible to reinforce the measures taken with the fencing and signage but also to educate and inform the public about the presence of the colony.
24-hour wardening on some beaches is provided to protect colonies, especially in areas that are popular for recreation.
Placing chick shelters throughout the colony provides useful cover from inclement weather and also from avian predators.
Moving nests higher up the beach to avoid one-off flood events.
Diversionary feeding of kestrels has been trialled at some colonies although its effectiveness is inconclusive.
These measures are all proving to be effective methods of increasing the breeding success of the little tern.