Double first for Britain as rare chicks hatch

Kirsty Nutt

Wednesday 6 July 2016

Two tiny chicks have made history this week when they hatched from their eggs on an RSPB Scotland nature reserve.

There was excitement last month when the world's smallest species of gull was confirmed to be nesting in Scotland for the first time and Britain for only the sixth time [note 1], however, this has been eclipsed by the news that the eggs have successfully hatched, with at least two chicks being spotted.

This is the first record of little gull chicks hatching in Britain, so everyone will be on tenterhooks for the next few weeks before they are big enough to take their first flight. Not that the two youngsters will be aware of the weight of expectation on their shoulders.

It seems that their choice of nesting area at RSPB Scotland's Loch of Strathbeg nature reserve may have helped so far. The pair has set up home on the tern nesting island which along with the protection provided by being an island, is inside a fence designed to keep out ground predators. Add to this 130 pairs of feisty common tern parents that share the island and work together to drive off any intruders that they see as a threat and the young gulls should be relatively safe.

Richard Humpidge, RSPB Scotland Sites Manager, said: "We were really excited to discover that the little gulls had successfully hatched. It wasn't long ago that the island was home to just 10 pairs of common terns that struggled to raise any chicks. Four years, hundreds of hours of help from volunteers and 10 tons of shingle later, there's more than 130 pairs of terns with lots of large chicks and now we've got two tiny little gull chicks as well - a first for Britain. We are really pleased!"

Little gulls, as their Latin name Hydrocoloeus minutus suggests, are the smallest species of gull. Weighing not much more than a blackbird, they are often thought to more closely resemble terns than larger gulls. They normally breed in northern Scandinavia, the Baltics, Russia and Siberia. Breeding adults have jet black heads with a small dark bill, short red legs and dark smoky grey underwings that are unmistakable when the birds are in flight.

The nest is tucked away at the back right corner of the island in dense vegetation, but the adults are regularly seen flying around. The visitor centre at Loch of Strathbeg is still closed for renovations, but visitors can get great views of the nesting island through the viewing screen next to the car park. For more information about how to get to the reserve visit rspb.org.uk/lochofstrathbeg or call 01346 532017.

Editor's notes:

1. This was the first confirmed breeding record for Scotland. There have been two potential breeding records when juvenile birds were seen in 1991 and 1988 both in eastern Scotland. However, the origin of these birds is unconfirmed. From England and Wales, there have been five confirmed breeding attempts, most recently in 2007 (Norfolk). There seem to be no records before 1975 in England.

2. The RSPB is the UK's largest nature conservation charity, inspiring everyone to give nature a home. Together with our partners, we protect threatened birds and wildlife so our towns, coast and countryside will teem with life once again. We play a leading role in BirdLife International, a worldwide partnership of nature conservation organisations.

Tagged with: Topic: Reserves