While our lives over the last 6 months have been drastically altered, the terns at Hodbarrow have continued theirs as normal, arriving at our UK shores in April right at the start of a global pandemic. Our human lives are of no concern to a 40cm seabird that has just flown 5,000 km from their wintering grounds in West Africa!
Unfortunately, no one was there to greet them at Hodbarrow this year until the 11th May. By this point 30 Little terns, 700 Sandwich terns and 40 Common terns had already rekindled their pair bonds, chosen the optimum spot of bare ground to scrape out their nest, and started laying eggs. Sandwich terns usually lay 1-2 eggs and on 11th of May there were 483 nests. Add 36 Common tern, 3 Little tern and 492 Black-headed gull nests who all typically lay 3….. That’s a lot of eggs already!
The number of AONs (apparently occupied nests, as counted from the hide) continued to rise and reached a seasons peak of 638 Sandwich, 44 Common and 11 Little terns plus 587 Black-headed gulls. Thankfully the couple of hundred local Herring, Lesser and Great Black-backed gulls did not seem to cotton on to this protein-packed bonanza and predation of eggs and chicks was relatively low this season.
As the season progressed eggs became little balls of fluff and those balls of fluff became noisier and more demanding. Parents worked relentlessly providing an endless supply of sand eels/sprats, jostling with neighbours for space and, in the case of Common terns and Black-headed gulls who play the role of 'protector' in this mixed species colony, chasing off potential predators. By mid June the island was alive with over 450 hungry mouths to feed.
Sandwich tern and chick looking out for parent returning with fish
As June came to an end, fluff turned in to feather and there was plenty of free time for the chicks to exercise developing flight muscles, each moving through their own unique sequence of stretches, flaps, hops and skips. Occasionally this would result in a brief lift off, much to the apparent surprise of the chick! Their parents, now working together as the chicks become big enough to be left alone, would fly back and forth up the Duddon estuary and further afield to find sustenance to fuel this rapid growth. By the first week of July the first fledglings had been seen, reaching a seasons peak of 171 Sandwich tern,18 Common tern and 207 Black-headed gull fledglings.
Sandwich tern chick exercising it's wings
These fledglings had made it through a particularly bad patch of weather that saw persistent strong winds and heavy rain over several days. Unfortunately, the Little terns were a little behind the rest and, despite their best efforts, could not get their tiny, week-old chicks through this. The 12 chicks and 3 nests that were present at this time all failed. Britain’s second rarest breeding seabird has a lot to contend with and weather is the one factor that cannot be controlled, much to the frustration of the wardens all around the country that work so hard to protect them. Despite their small size, however, they are tough seabirds and I am sure they will bounce back next year!
Little tern with eggs
Aside from the terns, the lagoon island at Hodbarrow also provides breeding habitat for Oystercatcher, Lapwing, Ringed plover, Tufted duck, Red-breasted merganser and Eider. Eiders have been doing particularly well here over the last few years and at least 31 nested on the island, resulting in creches of up to 20 ducklings at a time where adult females will share supervisory responsibilities.
Eider with ducklings
Despite the difficulties presented due to Covid19 and the unpredictable (and sometimes unrelenting!) weather, it has generally been a productive year at Hodbarrow. Sandwich terns fitted with unique coded colour-rings have already been sighted in North Wales over the last couple of weeks. This is the first step in their long journey south back to their wintering grounds in West Africa where they will rest and refuel in relative warmth. Hopefully next year we will be there to greet them when they return next spring!
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