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Nuffield Science Bursary

Last modified: 08 October 2012

Arctic tern hovering for fish

Two sixth form students from Glenlola Collegiate, Bangor and Royal Belfast Academical Institute have spent the summer helping RSPB carry out research as part of a Nuffield Science Bursary project.  The project looked at common and arctic terns, which breed on a small artificial island at RSPB’s Belfast Harbour Reserve and aimed to find out whether the number of chicks hatched was sufficient to support a successful colony.  They presented their research at a celebratory event last week at Queen’s University Belfast.

From the clear and comfortable observation room at the reserve, the students watched the colony daily at high and low tide using a telescope. They were concerned that although the terns were bringing plenty of oil-rich, high-calorie fish to their nests, the egg clutch sizes were small and frequently only one chick in each clutch hatched.  This could indicate problems with food availability outside the specific geographical area, suggesting that adults may be returning in poor condition from their wintering grounds in west Africa or during courtship and incubation earlier in the season. 

“We began to look at where these two tern species are feeding” said Hannah Geary, Glenlola Collegiate. “This information, along with data from other similar scientific research, could be useful to our Environment Minister and his committee as they implement the Marine Bill to include the creation of a network of suitable places to designate as “Highly Protected Areas” or marine nature reserves. This project has taught me how to begin to assess the health of the marine environment for myself and as a global citizen, to appreciate that we have a responsibility to take a broader perspective and work with people all over the world if we are really to succeed in protecting our whole marine ecosystem. “

The information that the students gathered from the tern colony has been entered into a RSPB national database which provides records for all breeding bird species and helps to inform future conservation action for priority bird species.

“Each year all of our reserves across the country monitor breeding birds specific to that site, collating data on the ‘Annual Reserves Monitoring’ database.”  said Chris Sturgeon, Warden, Belfast Lough reserve. “This lets the RSPB see how different species, particularly those of conservation concern, are doing on a national scale and how our management is progressing and how it could be improved. It is fantastic, as part of our NIEA supported education programme, to have such competent and enthusiastic young people help us with this vital research and to pass on these monitoring skills to them.”

“This project has developed my skills, enabled me to design a methodology to be used by other students and produce my first scientific paper,” summed up Samuel Millar, Royal Belfast Academical Institute. “The identification and monitoring skills I have learnt will also be of use in future employment as I continue to pursue my love of nature (especially butterflies and moths!) whether as part of, or alongside, my career.”

Although the terns have now migrated, there are a whole host of fabulous species that you can see across RSPB reserves.  Check our website for more information and for details on opening times www.rspb.org.uk/northernireland .

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