68 Doing a good tern
Tessa Waugh visits a small island off the Northumberland coast that’s a haven for a wide variety of nesting seabirds, not least the rare roseate tern
Tessa Waugh visits a small island off the Northumberland coast that’s a haven for nesting seabirds, not least the rare roseate tern
Strongly migratory and graceful, terns are also aptly known as “sea swallows”
Here’s a quiz question: where is Coquet Island and what would you expect to find there? Well, if you’ve never heard of it, the little-known 15-acre island, belonging to the Duke of Northumberland, just off Amble on the Northumberland coast is a conservation hotspot and haven for a host of nesting seabirds that people get excited about. Puffins, eider ducks, Arctic terns, common terns, sandwich terns and kittiwakes all head there to breed in the summer months. However, the biggest feather in Coquet’s cap is a colony of roseate terns ( Sterna dougallii)— one of europe’s rarest seabirds.
It’s easy to understand our fascination with terns as they’re highly intriguing birds—strongly migratory and graceful, with long tail streamers, they are also aptly known as ‘sea swallows’. The Arctic tern performs the most epic migration of any bird, sometimes travelling from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back again in the space of a year, with scientists estimating that some birds cover about 44,000 miles. Indeed, when added up over a lifetime, an Arctic tern’s total journey is the equivalent of three trips to the Moon and back.
The island harbours healthy numbers of most types of tern, but the worrying decline of the roseate tern (so called due to the rose-coloured blush on their breasts) has earned it red-list status and the rspb, which manages Coquet Island, is doing everything it can to improve the birds’ fortunes, with financial backing from the eu.
summer is the time to see roseate terns in europe, where they arrive, en masse, from Ghana. Although you may spot them in small numbers elsewhere, in recent years, the main european colonies have been in Ireland
Coquet Island has great clouds of chattering birds, a strong smell of guano and little in the way of trees or shelter
at Rockabill (1,388 breeding pairs in 2015) and Lady’s Island Lake (215 breeding pairs in 2015) and Coquet Island, which registered 111 breeding pairs in 2015.
This count—which the birds are on course to reach again this year— is a great achievement on the part of the RSPB, especially when you consider that the Coquet Island colony was down to just 18 breeding pairs in the 1990s. However, it couldn’t have happened without the commitment and dedication of individuals on the ground. Although the island is heaven for seabirds that like the safety of a colony, for most people, it’s grim—great clouds of chattering birds, a strong smell of guano, embattled on all sides by a grey North Sea and little in the way of trees or shelter.
There’s only one building on the island—a huge white lighthouse, built on the remains of a 15th-century monastery—which looms over approaching vessels and, prior to 1926, housed three lighthousekeepers and their families. Fortunately, RSPB employees and volunteers have only affection for the island, which provides such a perfect habitat for so many different birds to breed, and they love being here.
Site manager Paul Morrison, or ‘Captain Coquet’ as he’s known locally, has worked here full-time since 1998 and even got married on the island. He lives in Amble and I imagine him in a house shaped like a ship’s hull, just like Admiral Boom’s in Mary Poppins, with a telescope permanently trained on the island. If you struggle to get excited by birds, a mere 10 minutes in his company will change that for good.
In 2000, Paul visited the Rockabill colony in Ireland to find out how the breeding potential at Coquet could be enhanced. ‘We cut terraces into the soil, introduced breeding boxes and observed a satisfying increase of 24–34 breeding pairs within one season,’ he recalls.
There are currently 205 boxes above the terraces, which the majority of roseates use to make their nests, and a live webcam is stationed there so anyone can observe the terns close up (www.rspb.org.uk/coquetlive). Apart from boat trips, this is the closest anyone outside the RSPB can get to these intriguing creatures, because Coquet Island is out of bounds to the public. ‘We know from observation that the terns are flighty and less able to breed effectively if they’re disturbed,’ explains Paul.
Furthermore, there is a constant threat from egg thieves. Warden Wesley Davies lives on the island full-time during the summer, only coming ashore once a week. Coquet team members camp out in the hide on the shoreline every night to ensure that unwanted visitors don’t come ashore. There have been a number of unauthorised landings over the years and, if needed, the police are always on hand to provide back-up.
Day to day, Wesley, Paul and a team of volunteers make forays into the hide on the shoreline and are fully occupied ringing birds, managing the habitat (too much vegetation can suffocate the nests) and compiling data, all the while trying to keep disturbance to a minimum. Paul admits he wasn’t keen on ringing birds when he began working at Coquet, but he now sees the value of it. ‘We’re currently identifying pairs that were born here returning to the island, which is very exciting,’ he notes. ‘Most return to the same box.’
This close and detailed study, backed up by the webcam—which records constantly, day and night—means the RSPB is learning more about the birds all the time. Most recently, roseate terns have been observed selecting the smallest fragments of shingle for their nest scrapes and throwing them into the boxes. ‘They’re very fussy,’ Paul admits. ‘We now know that the shingle we were providing was too big and we’ll provide smaller pieces next season.’
Thanks to his efforts, and the rest of the team, this particular tern’s future looks rosy. RSPB (01767 693680; www.rspb. org.uk)
Houston, we have touchdown: flocks of Sterna dougallii arrive in Europe each summer from Ghana