Little Tern – Chesil Beach, Dorset

Looking for a year tick which might allow some sketches I decided on the Little Tern colony in Dorset. A visit to the melee of shearwaters which spend the summer off Portland Bill would be an option afterwards. The Little Terns are at Ferrybridge which is at the southern end of Chesil Beach. I knew the colony was near the car park but I wasn’t sure how close you could get and so I wasn’t certain that I’d get any sketches.

Little Terns weigh less than a tennis ball and arrive in April after a long journey from West Africa. They are the second rarest breeding sea bird in the UK, after Roseate Tern, with less than 2,000 breeding pairs. This is around 15% of the total European population and so Little Tern is a high conservation priority.

As ground nesters, they are extremely vulnerable to predators, habitat loss and disturbance and before the birds arrive each year, an electric fence is erected around the colony to keep out foxes. A hide is also constructed where wardens and volunteers monitor the birds and scare off avian predators such as gulls. Kestrels also cause problems here and so the wardens supply the local Kestrels with dead mice as a distraction. Even with wardening and electric fences complete failures at Little Tern colonies are not uncommon due to predation and also flooding where most Little Tern nests are within 1.5m of the high water mark.

The Chesil colony dropped from 100 pairs in 1997 to none at all in 2009 and this led to the creation of the Chesil Little Tern project. A recovery followed and in 2018 37 pairs raised at least 25 young. In 2018 this colony also included two 19 year old colour-ringed birds.

I arrived at around 7:15am and from the car park I could see the double ring of fences around a fairly large area of shingle. This protected area was on the landward side of the high shingle bank and it ran down to the water’s edge where the Fleet starts its eight-mile journey north-west to Abbotsbury. 

As I made my way over I could see the warden’s hut just below the ridge. The first fence was a waist-high blue rope which formed a huge rectangle around the whole nesting area. About 75 yards inside this rope was the electric fence which excludes predators like Foxes. I walked up onto the ridge but couldn’t get to the warden’s hut as this was inside the blue rope.

I suddenly became aware of the constant rasping ‘kriet’ calls from the terns and the relentless activity all around me as birds defended territories and commuted over the shingle ridge out to sea. The males’ display includes a jerky and bouncy flight high over the colony often carrying a fish to impress the females, or so they hope. 

Their preference for sand and shingle beach habitats make them vulnerable to human disturbance and this has driven a long term decline in UK numbers although it’s the range contraction that has been greater suggesting that birds are retreating into a smaller number of larger colonies. The long term problem is that if they are displaced there are only a finite number of suitable places the terns can move to.

It was windy and I half wondered about slipping under the rope and creeping down to the warden’s hut to find some shelter behind it and a closer view over the colony. I noticed a distant figure approaching from the north. He looked like a warden and so I stayed where I was on the ridge, watching from a distance. The distant figure was indeed the warden and after spending a few minutes in the hut he ventured out into the colony.

Before 2013, a high proportion of the eggs weren’t hatching, and it was suspected that this was due to chilling and so the wardens now put down sand patches to insulate the eggs and this has dramatically increased hatching success. Although the majority of birds do select sand patches to nest on the warden was probably checking for any eggs laid directly onto the cold pebbles.

Within the electric fence area were 40 or more numbered markers indicating the presence of a Little Tern nest. Not all of them were occupied as plenty of adults were wheeling overhead or were still fishing out at sea. Over an hour or so I found six incubating terns near nest markers, they looked settled and were close enough to allow some sketches.

For sketching you need to see the bird well and from this range in windy conditions that wasn’t easy. I looked for terns in attractive positions which characterised their jizz. Terns get the nickname of sea swallow and given their tiny bodies and disproportionately long wings the Little Tern is perhaps the most swallow-like of them all. Once I had a double page spread of sketches I headed back to the car with the heat haze just starting to build.

Later in the day a Red-footed Falcon was found at Ferrybridge. I wonder if he had been with me earlier in the day also watching the terns.

Puffin – Dancing Ledge, Dorset – 31st May 2020

A Marsh Warbler had been seen again near Wareham and so rather than head to Portland Bill for Manx Shearwater I thought I would save time and head straight to Dancing Ledge for the Puffins before trying for the Marsh Warbler on the way home. I would probably try Portland Bill for Balearic Shearwater in July or August and so I would likely get Manxies then.

The small car park in Langston Matravers was almost full and I made the 20-minute journey down the steep track to the coast. Unlike the last time I visited, I knew exactly where to look for Puffin and I managed to find one in my binoculars almost immediately. I couldn’t then relocate it in the telescope and assumed that it had drifted closer to shore. I hopped over the fence to get nearer to the cliff edge so that I could see nearer to the beach. This improved my angle and I relocated it before enjoying some extended views in the telescope.

Marsh Warbler – River Frome, Bestwall, Dorset – 31st May 2020

I then began the long uphill climb back to the car park and then off to Wareham for the reported Marsh Warbler. It had been singing all morning and apparently showing well. I made my way down the track from the end of Coniger Lane in Wareham and reached the boardwalk just before the main river. This was the correct place although there were no other birders present when I arrived.

It was now very windy which made things difficult for a few reasons. It was difficult to hear any bird song above the howling wind and any bird movement was difficult to see as all the trees were swaying violently and constantly. After an hour I had only heard Cetti’s Warblers and Wrens. I then noticed a warbler flick across the path between two large areas of scrub. It was much more sheltered in here so I stayed a while and soon heard the characteristic song. It is constant and energetic and includes lots of mimicry. I heard Blue Tit, Chaffinch and Reed Warbler.

While I was listening to the Marsh Warbler a Caspian Tern was reported flying south-east out of Testwood Lakes just 2 miles from home. I glimpsed the Marsh Warbler again briefly but never had very good views. It then went silent and after another 15 minutes I assumed the Marsh Warbler had moved off and so I walked back to the car to head home in case the Caspian Tern was relocated.

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