Tern conservation on Wallasea Island

Tern carrying fish

Tern carrying fish - Credit: Archant

Find out more about the county’s bird life from the RSPB each month. This month: tern conservation on Wallasea Island

Wallasea Island

Wallasea Island - Credit: Archant

Special hand-painted models of little terns are being used on the Essex coast on Wallasea Island to help conserve one of the area’s rarest birds this summer.

Numbers of little terns are declining in the UK as existing coastal sites that they have traditionally used are under threat or even disappearing due to erosion, sea level rise, habitat change and disturbance.

These tiny chattering birds travel from West Africa each year to nest on the beaches of the British Isles, but their numbers have been declining as they struggle to find safe beaches to nest and feed their young.

Every year, small numbers of these starling-sized birds take up residence on the Essex coastline. There are just 1,900 breeding pairs in the UK each year.

In order to increase its population, a five-year EU Life+ partnership project (The Little Tern Recovery Project) between 11 organisations was created to ensure the little tern’s long-term future. The project work is taking place over five years, between 2013 to 2018.

Last year on the Suffolk coast, some model little terns were successfully tested on Suffolk beaches, so new sites are being tried out in 2016.

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The decoy birds are made of plaster of Paris, and have been painted by volunteers to look like adult little terns. It might seem like a strange thing to do, but there is evidence to show that the model birds will attract little terns to the islands which have been created for them to nest on. As well as little terns, the mix of shingle, sand and cockleshells placed on the islands should be to the liking of other ground-nesting birds such as ringed plovers and oystercatchers.

Ten pairs of the model birds have been placed in exactly the same position that an adult couple would adopt to breed – with the male bird at a 25? angle to the female, both facing into the prevailing south-westerly wind.

As the islands are new and little terns have not bred here in recent times, two tape-lures have been set on the islands, which play the calls of little terns from loud-speakers. Technology being such a marvellous thing, these are battery operated and charged via solar panels to save the need for a very long piece of cable!

The UK coastline changes every year and there are a number of beaches in Essex which could be a suitable place for little terns to nest. The RSPB and its partners are keen to ensure that they are providing protection to the birds wherever they choose to breed this year, and are asking people to report little tern sightings to essexlittleterns@rspb.org.uk.

If you are near the coast this summer, whether it is for a walk, with a bucket and spade or even offshore on a boat, please help the RSPB by reporting any sightings that you see.