…and here in Scotland, this is it because chicks are starting to hatch.

Terns, also known as ‘sea swallows’, arrive in the UK to breed each April after spending the winter along the coasts of western Europe and Africa. They have one of the longest migrations of all birds and can clock up an average of 21,000 miles in one year.

They prefer shingle and sandy beaches by the coast for their breeding sites but, over the years, these locations have become problematic due to flooding, predation and disturbance. This can make terns very vulnerable when they attempt to breed.

These pressures, on top of the wider food supply problems many of our seabirds face, have had a negative impact on tern populations with numbers decreasing throughout the UK in recent years.

RSPB Scotland staff and volunteers in North Scotland have been helping common terns along the Cromarty and Inner Moray Firths by providing alternative nest sites. They have positioned floating rafts, with a crushed scallop shell (shingle) floor, just off the coast. There are three rafts at Avoch, on the Black Isle, and another at Foulis. We are pleased to report that this year’s nesting season on the rafts has ‘terned’ out to be a good one so far.

Our fantastic volunteer Brian, who has been involved with the tern rafts in North Scotland since they were first built over 20 years ago, counted 231 nests with eggs on the Avoch rafts in May. At the end of June, he confirmed that 182 chicks have hatched from nests on the raft so far. This is extremely good news considering how wet and miserable the weather has been in the North of Scotland recently. With the weather warming and drying up, there are bound to be more chicks hatching over the next few weeks.  

The first raft was originally set up in the 1990s when a pair of common terns tried nesting on a floating equipment barge at a fish farm in Avoch. We worked with the fish farm staff to make the barge a suitable habitat for the terns to nest on. It was then set aside to provide a secure home for the terns and their chicks. We have been maintaining rafts dedicated to common terns in North Scotland ever since, with thanks to Aqualife Services Ltd, and Foulis Estate who own the seabeds where the rafts are located.

 Close up of a tern chick
Tern chick on rafts at Avoch

These rafts can be occupied by common terns from April right through to September and over the last ten years, the rafts have been five times more successful in producing chicks than natural sites.

A new tern raft was built on the Firth of Forth, near Port Edgar, in 2017 and it has been a continued success. In its first year, an impressive 13 chicks fledged. This year, over 160 adults on over 100 nests have been recorded. At least 50 chicks have been counted so far and a large number of eggs are still to hatch. 

The raft, which was funded by the Roseate Tern LIFE Recovery project, replaced an old pontoon, the site of a common tern colony, that was badly damaged in the winter storms of 2014/15. The raft was built with the aim of creating a new colony of common terns at the site, but the long-term aim is to bring roseate terns back to the area. Roseate terns are the UK’s rarest seabirds and they haven’t nested in the Firth of Forth since 2009. They usually prefer to join existing colonies of other birds so the success of the common terms on this raft is very exciting.  

 Terns on raft
Common terns on raft near Port Edgar   

There are still many species of terns that choose to nest on our coast and beaches, and they are at risk from disturbance by people. If birds that are already nesting are disturbed, they may abandon their nests, neglecting their eggs and chicks. This can result in eggs failing to hatch, chicks dying from the cold and starvation, or nests becoming vulnerable to predators. One of the bird’s main defence strategies is camouflage and unfortunately, this can result in people and dogs unintentionally trampling on nests when walking nearby.

RSPB Scotland staff have put up temporary signs at tern colonies throughout Scotland, which will remain in place during the breeding season, to raise awareness and help improve the breeding success of all species of terns. Please avoid nesting areas during the breeding season and keep dogs under close control. These small acts can make a huge difference to these wonderful wee seabirds.


Find out more about terns here.