With the anticipated, imminent arrival of roseate terns back to their Larne Lough breeding territory and Northern Ireland still under lockdown it was a race against time to ensure the right habitat was waiting for these site faithful breeders. In a guest blog RSPB NI Tern Conservation Officer Monika Wojcieszek explains how we did it ...

RSPB staff members in boat travelling to Blue Circle Island.
RSPB NI Tern Officer Monika travelling to Blue Circle Island with warden Chris Sturgeon.

In spring and summer, RSPB Larne Lough Islands reserve comes alive with over 7,000 nesting seabirds. Amongst them is the rarest breeding seabird in Western Europe - the roseate tern. Once present in every UK country, roseates nearly became extinct in the 19th century and since the 1960s they’ve experienced one of the most dramatic population crashes of any of our seabirds. Recently, Blue Circle Island on Larne Lough has been home to the only pair of roseate terns breeding in Northern Ireland.

 Roseate tern chick during 2019 monitoring visit.

Last year, the roseates arrived at the island from west Africa in mid-May and took up residency in one of the specially deployed tern boxes. The pair had two eggs by late May and two fluffy chicks hatched around 3 weeks later, with at least one chick making it to fledging. After feeding on small fish throughout summer, roseates eventually left the shores of the Irish Sea to make a perilous journey along the coast of western Europe and onwards to Africa to reach their wintering grounds.

Blue Circle Island with birds overhead
View of Blue Circle Island on Larne Lough

Five years ago, to help these rare birds, RSPB in partnership with BirdWatch Ireland and North Wales Wildlife Trust initiated the EU-funded Roseate Tern LIFE Recovery Project, that aims to safeguard the last three remaining colonies of roseate terns in the UK and Ireland, while providing suitable conditions for expansion to sites within their former range, such as Larne Lough.

Monika undertaking vegetation clearance during early May visit.

Each spring, RSPB NI staff and volunteers prepare the site by controlling the vegetation growth, erecting fences to protect the colony from terrestrial predators and providing shelters for chicks. Also, with funding from the LIFE Project, the RSPB and Tarmac, a major restoration of Blue Circle took place in 2018 and 2020. The damaged sea defences were repaired, and eroded areas were filled with gravel.

Roseate tern adult.

The COVID – 19 global pandemic brought many challenges to nature conservation. While the Blue Circle Island restoration work was successfully completed in March ahead of lockdown, any further fieldwork was immediately ceased to adhere to government restrictions. Unable to visit the island and carry out necessary preparation work before birds breeding season, I was left with the hope that the colony would manage to succeed and roseates once again return to Blue Circle.

However, in early May, in an exceptional bid to protect this only breeding pair of roseate terns in Northern Ireland, RSPB NI obtained a licence from the Northern Ireland Environmental Agency that permitted two emergency habitat management visits to Blue Circle island. Already delayed by COVID restrictions, these brief visits had to be completed before arrival of the roseates in mid-May. Luckily, a combination of mild weather and favourable high tide allowed for the visits to go ahead.

 Mooring the boat at the edge of Blue Circle Island.

Helped by my partner and therefore not needing to maintain social distancing, we anxiously set off to the island for first time this breeding season. To our relief, many species had already nested on the island. Hundreds of black-headed gulls and Sandwich terns, together with oystercatchers, common gulls and black guillemots greeted us with a loud noise and the familiar smell of the bird colony.

Roseate tern boxes in grass
Roseate tern boxes line the shore line grass verge.

As roseate terns are very faithful to their nesting sites, it was crucial to provide free access to their favourite box, otherwise the birds could abandon Blue Circle altogether. Also, it was important to protect the birds from mammalian predators. Racing against the time, we managed to clear the vegetation at the entrance to the nest boxes and established a small temporary otter proof fence around the bank where the roseates prefer to nest. We also deployed sonic deterrents to discourage any predators approaching the area.

Monika undertaking vegetation clearance during early May visit.

After work was completed, we returned to the shore, to be greeted by the PSNI. They had received a call from a concerned individual, thinking that someone was trying to steal bird eggs from Blue Circle. It is reassuring to know that local people are concerned about the welfare of the bird colony.

In April 2020, Tarmac donated Blue Circle Island to RSPB NI, further securing the future of this important seabird colony. While RSPB is facing unprecedented challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, we are still striving to protect the most endangered species and help nature even in these uncertain times. I've been given permission to undertake short visits to Blue Circle Island to monitor the bird colony and safeguard Northern Ireland’s remaining roseates and hope to bring back news of their return and that breeding is underway. I'll keep you posted with an update on the RSPB NI blog.

If you are interested in some wildlife watching from the comfort of your home or mobile device there's a live stream from the largest UK roseate tern colony at Coquet Island. Enjoy!