You may have seen the recent news about the efforts of locals to try to prevent the little terns that nest at Lossiemouth beach being disturbed. Margaret Sharpe, one of the volunteers who helped fence the area and monitor the birds, shares entries from her diary revealing the tense ups and downs the terns faced this year. If you want to know how they got on, you’ll have to read to the end.

Doing a good tern

How little is a little tern?

Approximately the size of a starling, little terns are the UK’s smallest tern. They have distinctive yellow bills with a black tip and a black cap with a white forehead. They tend to feed just offshore, hovering above the water before diving to catch small fish.

Little terns arrive back in the UK in April after spending the winter in Africa and will leave again in August. They are famed for their acrobatic courtship displays and tend to nest on gravelly beaches.


Two little terns (and a ringed plover) on Lossiemouth beach in 2013. Photo by Margaret Sharpe.

Margaret’s Diary – tern tales in 2019

May

Little terns start appearing, fleetingly at first, on the sandy shingle beach at Lossiemouth.

As the month progressed, numbers rise to a group of 15 birds. At times they sit together quietly on the shore edge facing out to sea, but more often a male would fly in with a fish and part of the group would fly straight up at height with short high grating calls. 

By the end of May, at least two pairs have established scrapes. It was decided to set up a large enclosure to minimise disturbance whilst they nested and reared their young.

1 June

RSPB endorsed, metal fence stakes, ropes, and information signs all carried to the site and set in the mixed sand shingle to make a lengthy large enclosed area.


The area of beach used for nesting. Photo by Margaret Sharpe.

2 June 

Two pairs located at the west end of enclosure. A third pair now located at the east end.

All sitting calm, apart from a flurry at change over. The greeting calls between birds is throaty and sharp. They drop in swiftly and are gone again with as much speed.

Noted, a fourth pair on the shoreline. Male fish offering to a disinterested female. Much vertical twisting flying and calling, but very hard to really see who's chasing who.

10 June 

All three nests located, birds sitting serenely until an osprey flies over! Much calling and harassment directed at the osprey, which slowly patrols past only interested on spying a fish meal from the sea.

11 June

Fourth nest confirmed! Other three nests calm with birds sitting and changing over. Males seen coming in and feeding the sitting females.

Mid-June

There now follows three days of high tides, persistent rain, and a blast of cold northerly winds. Sand is blowing across the enclosure. The high tide has been forecast to peak at over four metres, and there is a very large swell with many white horses. The risk of nest sites getting buried under blowing sand or eggs and birds becoming chilled is a real possibility. 

More worryingly, two of the nests are potentially vulnerable to the rising tide.........despite this, the birds sit tight, facing the driving rain, sand, and advancing seaspray.

13 June  

The sea is churning again with white horses today. The north wind is bitter and relentless, with miserable persistent rain. However, there is a positive, the bad weather keeps walkers off the beach. Even though the majority of beach users respect the enclosure boundaries, the birds will still lift off their nests to defend. In this cold weather, it wouldn't take long for an egg to chill. So blissfully undisturbed, all four nests are calm and still sitting tight.

14 June

Weather starting to improve. High tides still increasing up to 4 metres.

First look of the enclosure, seaward poles are crooked, and it's evident the high-water line has breached the enclosure. There is a new line of seaweed near to where nest 2 was located.

To begin with nothing is seen. Familiar landmarks are changed with blown sand and a new tideline.

As we set up the scopes, familiar short sharp calls are heard. We strain our eyes towards where we thought nest 2 was located.

Everyone holds their breath.

There is one tiny fluffy chick at nest site 2!  The tide stopped just short of the scrape, and amazingly the enclosure has now got its first little tern hatchling.

The other three nests were also safe, and still continuing to sit tight.

18 June

Nest 2 has now three chicks hatched. Parents seen feeding all three. Not at original site, they have now moved further to the east of enclosure! 

They are tiny, fluffy and impossible to see unless they move. The largest chick seen making its own scrape in the sand. 

Other three nests all calm, birds continue to sit.

Highest tides peak today before falling, but as the weather improves old dangers return. Increasing disturbance, although not intentional, from beach users.

21 June

Potentially the most chicks ever hatched on Lossie beach in some years.....

Nest 1, one chick

Nest 2, three chicks

Nest 3, two chicks

Nest 4, we estimate 7-2 days till hatching.

Now there are chicks around, the terns mount a full assault on anything flying over or walking past. If they see you close they will drive home their defence by seeing you out of the area by a good margin.

Although they don't make contact, they are persistently urgent with noisy dives, no matter if you are big or small.

23 June

Impossible to see the chicks unless they move.

Osprey flew over, and three terns flew up immediately to defend.

One adult seen feeding two fluffy chicks. One larger chick seen hiding in the larger stones on the strandline.

Nest 4, no sign of birds alarming, chicks, or eggs. Rather worryingly, a set of large footprints and a smaller set of dog prints within the enclosure run right past where Nest 4 should be. Is it possible they have hatched and moved?

25 June

Worst fears realised for nest 4…..  It has gone without trace.

Dog walker with three dogs seen shortcutting through the end of enclosure at nest 4 location. Impossible to conclude as to the fate of nest 4 and its eggs, but this disturbance would not have helped. 

One adult seen feeding one large fluffy chick. It actually wandered out of the enclosure onto the sand beach, only to scuttle back and hide when a jogger came past. 

Another adult seen feeding one small fluffy chick. It appeared when called from under some dried seaweed.

We estimate at least every 20-30 mins the terns have a walker come past.

A ringed plover egg is found washed up in the strandline further along from the terns. Unfortunately, that nest was not as lucky.

28 June

Motorbike tracks up the middle of the unroped seaward side of enclosure!

Six adult little terns seen on the shoreline. One adult feeding something out of sight, the chick could not be seen.

No bird activity in the west end, everything has moved up to the other end.

30 June

More signage warning beach users of nesting birds and chicks put up along the seaward side. Not sure how long they will withstand being washed by the tide.

No chicks are seen anywhere, although four adults are still defending, so we are hopeful they are still there, we just don't know how many are continuing to survive.


The fenced area and signage from 2018. This year’s signage had more information about little terns.

2 July

Six adults defending on arrival at the enclosure.

One large chick being fed. It has a hint of proper feathers coming through.

9 July

Four adults defending on arrival at the enclosure. One adult feeding a chick out of view.

East end corner stakes are down and one of our signs has been moved. The tide may have brought them down and a well-meaning person has stuck the sign back up, but right in the middle!

No bird activity in the west end, four ringed plovers and one leggy chick at the other end.

12 July

No defending birds on arrival. Very quiet, nothing appears to be in the enclosure.

For the first time since the enclosure was put up, we tentatively walk along the rope edge. Previously we have watched from either end or skulked about in the dunes under cover.

We have walked the full length, and there are no terns to be seen or heard.

As we position ourselves in the dunes for a wait and see, one is spotted flying offshore.

As we watch, it becomes clearer that there are four adults, accompanied by two stubby bodied juveniles rapidly beating their wings to keep up! Two have managed to fledge.


The two fledged little terns on the beach at Lossiemouth. Photo by Margaret Sharpe

16 July

At a distance from the enclosure, four adults fish a little way offshore.

Two juveniles are copy fishing too, although they both fail to catch anything for all their effort.

After a time, they settle on the beach together. A parent comes in and feeds the smaller chick. It shuts its eyes and sits down on the wet sand, exhausted.

A walker comes past, and they are both in the air again. 

They are both flying well, for youngsters at approximately 20 days old.


Two juvenile little terns at Lossie beach. Photo by Margaret Sharpe

23 July

Very early morning at sunrise. Two adult little terns seen flying offshore.

Two juvenile little terns, one almost adult like, one a little smaller. Both are flying offshore independently and are seen fishing the way terns do.

The metal stakes, ropes, and signs are all gathered in and stowed away until next year.

I am only a small part of this effort, none of this would have been possible without our local RSPB officer, and the group of volunteers (....and their family and spouses on occasions!)


Adult little tern at Lossiemouth in 2013. Photo by Margaret Sharpe.

More about the little terns at Lossiemouth

Despite Margaret’s modesty, the volunteers have made a massive different to the fortunes of the little terns at Lossiemouth. Before the temporary fence and signage were erected, little terns were very rarely successful at this location due to unintentional disturbance from walkers, dogs and bikes.

Now, thanks to the users of the beach avoiding (mostly) the small fenced-off area and keeping their dogs under control, another two little tern chicks have successfully survived to take their first flight. A pair of ringed plover nesting in the fenced area also successfully raised two chicks this year.

This comes after three pairs of little terns successfully raised three chicks last year. It was the first time since 2015 that little terns successfully raised chicks on the beach at Lossiemouth. So that’s three chicks last year and this year four pairs raised two chicks. Whereas in the ten years between 2007 and 2017 only two chicks were raised, one in 2013 and one in 2015.

This low success rate in the past is because terns are very sensitive to being disturbed.

Little terns nest on gravelly beaches in small colonies. However, because they lay eggs on the sand in amongst the shingle, their nests are vulnerable to high tides and predation, which usually occurs following human disturbance.

In 2015, only 200 pairs bred in Scotland and only 25 pairs in the east of Scotland, so it is vital that this small colony at Lossiemouth continues to be protected and we continue to raise awareness about the things people can do to help here and elsewhere.

How are people helping little terns elsewhere in Scotland? Find out on our Orkney blog

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