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

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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

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