Hope for Orkney’s little terns thanks to school project

Alison Nimmo

Tuesday 28 June 2016

Some of Orkney's rarest seabirds have now laid eggs, after two local primary schools worked with RSPB Scotland to protect their home at the Churchill Barriers.

In May, over a hundred children from the Hope Community School and Burray Primary School carried out a project to help the struggling little tern colony at the 4th Barrier beach, the only location in Orkney where the birds are known to breed.

The children wanted to protect the little terns on the beach to give them the best chance of raising chicks. Awareness-raising posters were put up around the beach and in local Stagecoach buses, and chick shelters made by the children were placed inside a small fenced area at the beach. Little tern decoys - life-size models of the adult birds - were positioned nearby to encourage the birds to nest in the safe area.

The local RSPB Scotland team have now spotted at least three little terns nests inside or very close to the fenced area. Alison Phillip, Conservation Officer, said, "This is great news and we'd like to say a big thank you to all the children who helped the little terns get this far. The terns struggle to breed successfully each year at the 4th barrier, so it would be brilliant if the schools' project means some are able to raise chicks this year - it would be a boost for birds that are rare not just in Orkney but across the UK."

The eggs remain very vulnerable at this stage and the children's posters encourage those enjoying the 4th Barrier beach to keep dogs under close control and stay away from the fenced area where the little terns are nesting to protect them.

Little terns lay their eggs on the beach in shallow scrapes that are hard to pick out. When people or dogs approach, the adult terns have to leave the nest and attempt to drive the perceived intruders away. This leaves the eggs or chicks in danger of being eaten by predators or exposed to the weather. Both eggs and chicks are well camoflaged so they can also be trodden on by mistake.

The project was organised by RSPB Scotland's Community Learning Officer, Lindsey Taylor, in partnership with the schools. RSPB Scotland's free outdoor learning service for schools is part-funded by Orkney Islands Council, and Stagecoach sponsored the project by providing transport for the children to and from the 4th Barrier free of charge.

Editor's notes:

1. Little terns spend the winter in Africa, flying back to Orkney beaches in April each year. They can be seen from mid-April onwards flying close to the shore line, looking for suitable places to feed and nest. They lay 1-3 eggs in a small scrape on the ground in sand or shingle. Once laid, the eggs take about three weeks to hatch. When the eggs hatch, usually in June, the small chicks stay in the area of the nest scrape for the first 24 hours. At about 1-2 days old the chicks will start to wander up and down the beach to find shelter. The chicks take three weeks to put on weight and grow flight feathers before they can fly.

2. Little terns are the UK's smallest tern species, being less than 25 cm long from the tip of their tail to their beak and weighing only 70g, the equivalent of two packets of crisps. The birds are white with grey wings, a black head and a small white forehead. They have a long yellow bill and yellow-orange legs.

3. Published long-term trends for little terns across the UK show a 22% decrease from 1986 to 2013 (The State of the UK's Birds 2014).

4. 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: Species conservation