RSPB Scotland is looking for help from crofters to protect one of Britain's rarest seabirds. The little tern, as its name implies, is the smallest member of the tern family to breed in Britain, and the Western Isles still provide a home for a significant population of the birds.
RSPB Scotland's Stuart Taylor said, "Little terns are delightful birds and I always look forward to their return in spring. Of all the tern species, little terns, are perhaps the most full of character - they have proportionately large heads and beaks which give them a rather front-heavy appearance when they are hovering over the water looking for fish. They are quite noisy and determined-looking characters. Perhaps that is why birdwatchers always have a soft spot for them."
However little terns are in trouble. "On the mainland numbers have decreased as the nice sandy beaches on which they nest are increasingly used by holiday- making humans with dogs and buckets and spades. Some colonies are only successful due to the warden schemes set up to protect them. Fences are put around the colonies to keep people out as well as predators such as foxes.
"On the Western Isles the birds nest away from the beaches, preferring the machair instead. Here they are unlikely to suffer from disturbance, but late agricultural activities can be a problem. In years when ploughing has been delayed due to weather conditions, nests and young can be destroyed during machair crop sowing. Being ground-nesting birds, the clutch of 2 or 3 eggs are well camouflaged against the sandy ground and can easily be overlooked. We are hoping that crofters will be on the lookout for them so that they have a chance of breeding successfully."
Stuart reported that in an effort to ease the situation, Lewis James, from the RSPB is visiting the Islands for a month on sabbatical. "He will be looking for little tern colonies and making crofters aware of their presence. This will enable them to avoid areas where the terns are nesting if possible."
The Western Isles holds 80 - 90 pairs of little terns, about 5% of the UK population. Most of their colonies are on the Uist machairs but some years they also breed in Lewis and Harris.
Little Terns are present from late April until July. Once they have finished breeding, they move off to moult their feathers and then start their migration south. They head down the coast of Europe to West Africa. Most are believed to stay in the Gulf of Guinea, where fish supplies are plentiful, but a small number may travel further to South Africa.