RSPB Residential Volunteer, Lizzie Forrester, reveals what it's like to man the night shift protecting Dorset's special little tern colony

The only little tern colony in the South West of England is located on Chesil beach, near to Weymouth and the Isle of Portland.

(Photo 1 by Lizzie Forrester: The public enjoy views of the little tern colony)

The colony is a 24 hour operation, and three of us residential volunteers are responsible for the night shifts. In the day, mostly the time is filled with looking for new nests, checking the existing ones and conducting chick feeding surveys. We also help to sand patch nests, which involves moving the eggs from the shingle and placing them on buckets of sand (before 2013, a large proportion of the eggs didn't hatch, and it was suspected that this was due to chilling when the eggs were laid on the shingle. So the team created sand patches on the beach for the little terns to lay on as sand is more insulating for the eggs, and this dramatically increased hatching success. Sand patches are now created every year). 

(Photo 2 by Lizzie Forrester: Little terns eggs)

The most important job on site is watching for predators, of which there are many - kestrels, peregrines, lots of gulls and the main protagonist of the night shifts…. the fox! We start our shift at 10.00 pm and spend the night patrolling around the colony, chasing away any foxes that try their luck, as well as the occasional badger. On clear nights the skies full of planets, satellites, shooting stars, the Milky Way and sometimes a sighting of the international space station - these night shifts certainly offer amazing views. 

(Photo 3 by Lizzie Forrester: Getting ready for the night shift at the little tern colony)

Thankfully, Weymouth has a lot to offer in terms of additional activities away from the colony site. A highlight, gaining some bird handling experience with a local ringer and being shown around RSBP reserves and sites usually out of bounds for the public. Just a 5 minute walk from Chesil beach and you can hire canoes and SUP boards. The coastal walks in the area are lovely, the 13 mile walk around Portland and coastal path to Weymouth are definitely ones to try, keep an eye out for the breeding peregrines, kestrel, auks and fulmar on the Portland cliffs. There are plenty of places to eat out in Weymouth and Dorchester is only 10 minutes by train.

(Photo 4: Views from the colony)

I'm pleased to report that the hard effort of the team and our many sleepless nights have paid off - it's been a great season, both for the little terns with 38 pairs nesting – producing 73 fledglings to date - that's the best productivity ever in the history of the project! It's also been an amazing season for us the residential volunteers, an incredible experience for us all :)

(Photo 5 by Lizzie Forrester: The sun sets on a wonderful year for Chesil's little terns)