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Rare seabird overcomes difficult breeding conditions in Suffolk to produce record number of chicks

Last modified: 14 October 2015

Little tern fishing

116 pairs of little terns nested at Benacre Beach on the Suffolk coast this summer

Image: Graham Catley

Little terns on Benacre beach on the Suffolk coast battled against the odds this summer to have their best breeding season for fifteen years, thanks to the dedication of local volunteers and team work.

The tiny rare seabird, which weighs no more than a tennis ball, faced terrible weather and lack of suitable food at the start of the season, yet despite this 116 pairs nested at Benacre and fledged around 180 chicks.

However, tough conditions early on in the season caused a number of little tern colonies to abandon. At Kessingland – usually a Suffolk stronghold for little terns, 60 nests were deserted.

Little terns travel over 11,000 miles each year, flying from their winter homes in West Africa to spend summer in a select few locations in the UK. The east coast is one of the last remaining strongholds for the little tern – with 30 per cent of the national population returning to the area each year to breed.

Thanks to recent funding from EU LIFE+, the RSPB and partners have been able to step up their efforts to protect coastal colonies in the east by investing in local volunteers and new wardens.

Jesse Timberlake, RSPB Little Tern Warden for Suffolk said: “It has been a season of highs and lows here in Suffolk for the little tern. With the sadness of seeing our Kessingland colony abandon early in June, and the excitement we felt watching over 200 of these amazing birds fishing, feeding and caring for their young at the Benacre site. Not only was this colony the largest in the county, but this was the highest number of fledglings produced in Suffolk for over fifteen years. 

“A large part of this success was down to the working partnership between the many stakeholder organisations, the public, and most importantly the tireless effort of our volunteer team.

“Although there is still much to learn in the coming years, I think we can look back on this season with a sense of pride, and look towards 2016 with a feeling of optimism.”

Staff working for the LIFE funded Little Tern Project monitoring their breeding behaviour reported a complex season overall, with ups and downs recorded across England and Wales. The overall picture showed poor breeding numbers, due to the combination of bad weather and feeding conditions at the start of the season, as well as a decrease in the number of birds arriving in the first place.

Susan Rendell-Read, LIFE Project Manager commenting on the national picture said:  “Although breeding numbers are down from last year and the five-year trend before that, a difficult season could have been a lot worse if it wasn’t for the hard work of the many rangers, wardens and volunteers on our national beaches protecting little terns”.

Working together, managing the needs of little terns alongside recreational coastal pursuits, project staff will continue to move forward with the recovery of the UK little tern population. 

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