Orkney schools give little terns a little help

Alison Nimmo

Wednesday 4 May 2016

On Wednesday 4 May, children from the Hope Community School and Burray Primary School completed a project helping little terns at Churchill Barrier No.4.

Over a hundred children were involved in designing and creating awareness-raising posters and making little tern chick shelters, in a project that was devised by RSPB Scotland's Community Learning Officer in partnership with the schools and sponsored by Stagecoach.

The classes put the chick shelters in place and carried out a beach clean at Barrier No.4 on Wednesday morning.

Alex Thomson, Primary 4, Hope School, wrote, "Watch your step if you're at the Fourth Barrier Beach - Little Terns are back in Orkney and Hope and Burray Schools are joining to protect them."

"If you do go to the Fourth Barrier Beach watch out for nests. They are little scrapes in the sand with eggs that look like stones. If you see a fenced area don't go in there because the nests are in there."

Jack Cromby, Primary 5, Hope School, explained, "Little terns are 25 cm long, yet they are one of the best flying birds ever. Each year they go from Orkney to Africa and back, every time it's the same."

"Please stay away from them, don't touch the fence, keep your dog on a lead and if a tern's nest is outside of the fence call the RSPB on 850176. Also pick up litter to make the world better."

Little terns are one of Britain's rarest breeding seabirds. In Orkney, the beach at Barrier No.4 is one of the only places where the birds can be found and the only known location where the birds attempt to nest, although breeding success has been low in recent years. The children's project aims to reduce disturbance to little terns during the breeding season to give them the best chance of raising chicks.

Little terns lay their eggs in shallow scrapes on flat or gently sloping sandy beaches. When people or dogs approach, the adult terns leave the nest and attempt to drive the perceived intruders away with noisy screeching. This leaves the eggs or chicks in danger of being eaten by predators, stepped on or exposed to the weather. Both eggs and chicks are well camoflaged so they can also be trodden on by mistake.

The posters made by the children will encourage those enjoying the beach at Barrier No.4 to look out for nests and chicks and to keep dogs under close control. Little tern decoys - life-size models of the adult birds - have been placed inside a small fenced area to encourage the birds to nest here in safety, along with camouflaged shelters made by the children that will provide cover for hatched chicks.

Stagecoach sponsored the project by providing transport for the children to and from Barrier No.4 free of charge, and in addition will be displaying the children's awareness-raising posters on local Stagecoach buses during the breeding season.

Steve Walker, Managing Director for Stagecoach North Scotland said, "We are delighted to be able to offer the shuttle transport to support this project. I'm sure all of our passengers in Orkney will admire the posters the children design for display on both the interior and exterior of our buses."

The project was devised in partnership with Hope Community School and Burray Primary School by RSPB Scotland's Community Learning Officer Lindsey Taylor. RSPB Scotland offers free outdoor learning lessons to schools around Orkney, a service part-funded by Orkney Islands Council.

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.

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