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Doing a good turn for terns

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Little Tern Photo@ Kevin Simmonds

Little terns are winging their way back to the Northumberland coast right now and preparations for their imminent arrival are in full swing.

This elegant little seabird spends the winter months on the west coast of Africa, returning to the Northumberland coast in the summer to raise its chicks. In anticipation of their return, staff and volunteers working on the Northumberland Little Tern Project are busily preparing for their arrival. The ongoing protection of these endangered terns and other breeding shorebirds including ringed plovers and oystercatchers are all extremely susceptible to disturbance, predation and inundation by the tide.

In Northumberland, little terns are predominantly found at the ‘Long Nanny’ on Beadnell Bay and Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve (NNR) which stretches from Budle Bay to Goswick.

The Northumberland Little Tern Project is a partnership between the National Trust, Natural England, RSPB and the Northumberland Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) Partnership. Project funding provides additional resources to the sites that Natural England and the National Trust have been protecting for many years.  With this support, extra staff help protect the sites, provide new information signs and additional fencing to enclose nesting areas.

Little terns and other shorebirds nest on the beach. They have to share their bit of beach with the many human visitors who come to walk, exercise dogs and enjoy the coast.

Putting up fences is one way to protect these vulnerable breeding birds; it not only prevents human disturbance and keeps out would-be predators on established sites, it also provides new nesting opportunities for breeding terns and other shorebirds such as ringed plover to nest. As a result of fencing off a potential site in 2014, three pairs of little terns were observed prospecting the new area in 2015.

With so many more people visiting our beaches, creating new, safe, places for shorebirds such as little terns to raise their chicks is an important part of the project. If the traditional breeding sites were to fail, for whatever reason, the creation of new sites provides the displaced birds somewhere to nest.        

Last year, 44 pairs of little tern nested on the Northumberland coast successfully fledging 52 young by the end of the season. It was a good summer with terns surviving high tides and persistent predation.  However numbers were less than in 2014, when 65 pairs fledged 87 chicks. It is exciting to think what the summer of 2016 might bring.

This is the third summer of the Northumberland Little Tern Project which is funded by the EU LIFE+ Nature fund.  Our main focus this year is to continue to protect and monitor current nesting sites and provide potential new nesting areas. In the next couple of weeks, the mammoth effort of putting up fences and ropes on the beach to protect the birds and signs to provide information to visitors will begin.

During the breeding season, we have a dedicated team of staff and volunteers who protect and monitor the nesting birds and talk to visitors about them, all while enjoying the beautiful Northumberland coast. Without these hard-working folk, we wouldn’t be able to protect these breeding shorebirds.  If you are interested in joining our team of volunteers this summer, please get in touch with me. You can email me at or call me on 07768 310629.

To find out more about little terns and the recovery project have a look at the project webpage or on the AONB website.

Chantal MacLeod-Nolan

Northumberland Little Tern Project Officer

Chantal is the Project Officer who co-ordinates the work of the Northumberland Little Tern Project funded by the EU Life+ Nature Little Tern Recovery Project.

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