It's now just over two months since the tern nesting raft at the West Hayling Local Nature Reserve (or 'the Oysterbeds' as they're known locally) was launched.  Since then, as our migratory terns arrived back from western Africa, we have gradually been preparing it for them and watching the results.  In late April, the tarpaulin covering the raft was partially removed and both Common & Little Tern decoys were placed in order to highlight the spot to them.  I'm happy to say that the very first common tern to land on the raft arrived within 10 minutes of this taking place!  In early May, we removed the tarpaulin from the entire raft, exposing the fine shingle underneath and watched as courting commenced.

Above: Common Terns courting and digging scrapes for their eggs.

The early indications were good with up to 40 Common Terns at a time roosting, courting and defending territories upon the raft by mid May.  With numbers continuing to hold and some birds now sitting permanently, I carried out an early morning visit on May 18th to fix one of the anchor ropes and confirmed that we did indeed have terns incubating eggs.  As brilliant as this was, to paraphrase an old saying, 'don't count your chicks before they hatch'.  As it happened the next 3 weeks had a few challenges in store.  

Above: A common tern scrape & clutch of eggs located right next to a decoy tern.

Above: Incubating eggs & maintaining the nest, a common tern in 'action'.

This spring has been enduringly windy.  Day after day we've seen winds gusting over 30mph and 'white horses' (choppy water) even in the usually calm Solent Harbours.  Apart from the concerns of how this would effect foraging terns, the extra concern was how much wind the raft would be able to stand up to..  Thankfully, during the surge on May 27th which wiped out many of the nesting gulls (see Dawn's blog here), the raft literally rose above with the tide and kept its precious cargo safe.  The big test however was reserved for June 5th/6th as a minor wind and rain storm howled though the Solent gusting up to 50mph.  I admit struggling to sleep that night as every whistle of wind through the house put my mind squarely on the nesting terns and how the raft would be fairing.  Early the next morning, I arrived half expecting the colony to be smashed on the lagoon walls... what I found however were perfectly content Terns sat on their eggs carrying on with their business.  The structure held amazingly well and we now have full confidence in the approach for future years.

  Last week, just after their hatching date, I visiting the raft in person to place chick shelters down at each nest.  These had been handmade from discarded plywood pallets and offer the newly hatching chicks a place to run to when they're threatened by gulls or birds of prey (as well as giving them some sun shade).  The newly hatched chicks made immediate use of them and can now regularly be seen waiting inside for their parents to come back with fish from the harbour.

Above: A young chick, less than a day old with its future sibling.

Above: Two very recently hatched chicks only a matter of minutes/hours old.  The downy feathers on both chicks are still drying out after hatching.

Visitors to the Oysterbeds can now see the chicks being fed with a basic pair of binoculars, a telescope or camera.  The adult birds are doing a great job of foraging food despite the wind.  Between 8am & 9am yesterday morning, a total of 33 fish (mostly clupeidae) were bought in and fed to the waiting chicks.  Hopefully, this will continue as the chicks grow and begin to stretch their wings.

I'd like to take this opportunity to thank the Hampshire Ornithological Society for the donation which allowed us to start this raft. Without that donation, this would still just be on the drawing board.  We had originally planned something smaller but thanks to further funding from the EU Life program, we were able to expand that initial idea and scale up the success we've had so far.  Many thanks to both organisations.  Also, I'd like to thank the staff & volunteers at the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, my colleagues over at RSPB Pagham Harbour and the Langstone Harbour Board Environment Officer for helping us construct and launch this behemoth! #OneTeamForNature

Over the coming weeks, if its good fortune holds, the raft will reach its peak activity with many chicks jumping up and down demanding to be fed, parents rapidly flying back and forth with food, and fledgling birds taking to the air for the first time.  Fingers crossed.  I look forward to sharing the photos with you.

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