Best breeding season for rare little terns for 25 years

A Sandwich Tern flying to feed a fish to its chick
Published : 14 Dec 2020

The news comes as a welcome boost to the seabird, which has been in serious decline nationally since the 1980s, with fewer than 2,000 pairs now left in the UK. At Blakeney National Nature Reserve rangers counted 154 pairs of little terns nesting over the summer months and 201 chicks - the most since 1994.

Little tern chick at Blakeney Point
Little tern chick on the beach at Blakeney Point
Little tern chick at Blakeney Point

Common terns had a similarly successful year, with 289 pairs fledging at least 170 chicks, the most since 1999. Rangers believe the dramatic increase may have been a result of wet weather in June which flooded common tern colonies elsewhere leading the birds to relocate to Blakeney. 

Sandwich terns were late arrivals to the site but arrived in high numbers, almost triple that of the previous year.

Countryside Manager Chris Bielby said: “Blakeney Point is part of a network of nesting sites for terns and plays a vital role in the survival of these summer migrants. Little terns have been rapidly declining in the UK for the past few decades, so it’s particularly rewarding to see so many of these tiny seabirds fledging the nest. The species is still very much at risk and we’ll need to keep up our efforts to make sure they have safe places to breed. But for now, it’s good to be able to celebrate a successful season given what a challenging year 2020 has been.”

The terns first arrived at Blakeney Point in the spring, having completed an epic migration from Africa. During most breeding seasons they are looked after by a team of rangers and volunteers who camp out in a lifeboat house to provide a 24-hour watch.

However, restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic this year meant that rangers instead had to make daily trips up the shingle ridge to protect the colonies – which involves counting fledglings, warding off predators and talking to visitors about the work they carry out. 

The weather also proved to be a challenge. High tides in June were exacerbated by strong onshore winds which flooded many of the nests.

Little terns tend to lay their eggs close to the high-water mark, meaning they’re vulnerable to being washed away, and adversely affected by high tides and extreme weather events.

Colony of Sandwich Terns at Blakeney Point
A group of Sandwich Terns on the beach at Blakeney Point
Colony of Sandwich Terns at Blakeney Point

However, the stormy conditions arrived early enough in the breeding cycle that the little terns had enough time to re-lay and fledge their chicks. 

Fortunes continued to improve for the team at Blakeney, as a lack of predators and disturbances from people contributed to a bumper year. 

A change in nesting site also proved to be an advantage, as ranger Leighton Newman explained: “Ordinarily, little terns nest in two distinct colonies at opposing ends of the site. It would’ve been near impossible to protect both colonies this year given the coronavirus restrictions. But by sheer luck the little terns all nested at the western end of Blakeney Point meaning all the terns were in the same area - making it much easier for us to protect and monitor them.” 

Rangers also used clay decoys to encourage nesting in suitable areas of the shoreline. Little terns tend to follow others when it comes to nesting, so the clay models were designed to resemble the birds themselves. 

Blakeney Point was purchased following a public appeal and then gifted to the National Trust in 1912, becoming its first coastal nature reserve. It has always been famous for its nesting terns and is an internationally important site. 

Chris Bielby continued: “We would like to say thank you to the local community and visitors who have helped to contribute to the breeding success by staying away from fence lines and following signage and advice from our team.”

View south from Blakeney Point Nature Reserve
Sand dunes at Blakeney Point
View south from Blakeney Point Nature Reserve