Tag Archives: Little Tern

Little Terns and Whitethroats

This year we had a mostly very warm and sunny May and as a result many creatures, and wildflowers, appeared earlier and stayed around longer, but we are now coming to a period of transition as spring becomes summer. If you can visit the coast of Wicklow this year, when the weather is fine, do it. Down at the Breaches halfway between the functioning railway station of Kilcoole and the retired station of Newcastle you will find a fenced off area where an absolute bumper breeding season of the rare Little Tern (Sterna albifrons ) is in full swing, and will be for about another month.

Watchtower and hide used to monitor the Little Tern breeding grounds on the Kilcoole side of the Breaches.

The birds themselves are very noisy and can be seen fishing for sandeels and other small fish very close to shore. Their flocks fill the sky, but this is a very rare sight as this species has only a handful of breeding grounds in Europe.

The Little Tern is smaller than other terns and can be identified by its bright yellow bill. In the past they were known as ‘Sea Swallows’.

Being high spring there are many incredible birds to be seen, often at much closer proximity, and in better light, than at any other time of year. Here, for example, is a gaudily coloured male Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula). These beautiful birds feed on seeds and will hover over dandelion heads plucking off the seeds before retiring to a branch to munch them, as this one did:

Male Bulfinch feeding on dandelion seeds while perched in a rose bush. The female was nearby.

And there is always something new to see. This weekend I was was out for a walk, looking for butterflies, when I came across a nature photographer. As I usually do I asked if there was anything interesting about and he pointed out a Whitethroat warbler (Sylvia communis) perched on hogweed. I have seen Whitethroats many times but never once got anywhere near getting a decent photo, but thanks to this photographer I had my chance:

My first ever decent shot of a Whitethroat, and this one was almost certainly a male out to impress females and guard his territory from interloper males.

So now all I need is a photograph of a Green Tiger Beetle, Elephant Hawkmoth and Emperor Moth and I’ll be reasonably content with my lot. So a big thanks to Colin Rigney for making the above shot possible, and here is a photo of the man himself:

Birds at the Beach

Today was the fourth warm and spectacularly sunny day provided by a lovely weather system which made for one of the best May long-weekend’s I can remember. Temperatures have been skirting 20 degrees Celsius, and this has also had a remarkably calming affect on the sea. Today I found myself at the beach where Little Terns put on a fantastic display of their hunting agility for the many spectators there. These tiny seabirds were snatching fish, probably Sprat, as close as a metre from shore. Wicklow has officially the third largest breeding colony of Little Terns in the world, located at the Breaches of Kilcoole.

A Little Tern prepares to dive.
A Little Tern prepares to dive.

But terns were just the tip of the iceberg – early this morning there was a Red-throated Diver, and in the afternoon its place had been taken by Guillemots, which came much closer to shore.

A Red-throated Diver, a common sight along the Wicklow coast.
A Red-throated Diver, a common sight along the Wicklow coast.
A very beautiful 'bridled' Guillemot. There is quite a degree of pattern variation in this species.
A very beautiful ‘bridled’ Guillemot. There is quite a degree of pattern variation in this species. Note the water droplets on the head and back, which indicate just how waterproof those feathers must be.

Shortly after taking my photos, in the afternoon, I met another naturalist out taking photos. Paul Smith considers himself a ‘birder’ mainly, and as you can tell from the photo below, he carries the right equipment for ornithology.

Paul Smith keeping his eyes peeled on what proved a remarkable day for birdwatching.
Paul Smith keeping his eyes peeled on what proved a remarkable day for birdwatching. He told me he had been out birdwatching for the previous three days, and had the sunburn to prove it.

Paul was spotting birds I didn’t even notice. “Did you see the skua that just flew by?” he asked at one point, and I had definitely not seen it. He kindly sent me two of the bird photos he got while he was down at the beach today, including the skua I had missed.

An Arctic Skua, dark form, flying south just above the calm sea surface. It takes a sharp pair of eyes to spot a bird like this. (Photo by Paul M. Smith)
An Arctic Skua (dark form) flying south just above the calm sea surface. It takes a sharp pair of eyes to spot a bird like this. Skuas are ferocious predators of other birds, and known to injure people who get too close to their nests. They are remarkable predators, more like birds-of-prey than seabirds. (Photo by Paul M. Smith)

Paul also got an incredible shot of a Manx Shearwater before I arrived on the beach. These birds live at sea for most of the year, only coming ashore to breed. They are extremely clumsy on the ground, largely due to their feet being set very far back beneath their bodies, and therefore more suitable for propulsion in water than for walking on land.

Paul's remarkable shot of a Manx Shearwater skimming the waves. These birds soar mostly, and always just above the waves. A truly magnificent photo by Paul Smith.
Paul’s remarkable shot of a Manx Shearwater skimming the waves. These birds soar mostly, and always just above the waves. A truly magnificent photo by Paul Smith. Wildlife film-maker Colin Stafford-Johnson devoted almost an entire programme of his second Living the Wildlife TV series to these birds, which many people will no doubt remember.