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Little Terns and other Birds breeding in Wells Harbour
Tue 22 Nov 2011


Wells Harbour Commissioners (WHC), commissioned bird expert James McCallum to carry out a monitoring survey on bird behaviour and breeding around the Harbour Channel in 2009-2010. That survey was required as part of the Marine Management Organisation capital dredge licence conditions for the channel works. Although it was not required for 2011 under the maintenance licence conditions, WHC decided to commission a new bird survey at their own expense, to provide comparison data. Here we report on what James found.

From May to August this summer, James carried out a detailed survey of some of the shore birds breeding on the shingle banks between the Lifeboat House and the East Hills, and on the Outer Harbour bank. James's close observation revealed some dramatic ups and downs in the fortunes of the birds trying to rear their young in the Harbour.

Each summer harbour users and visitors may see terns fishing in the creeks and the channel of Wells Harbour. Unlike gulls which are with us the year round, four species of terns come regularly to Wells but only in the summer months. Slighter and with a more buoyant flight than the gulls, terns feed on fish and small invertebrates which they catch by diving into the water. The largest is the Sandwich Tern, which sometimes gather in large numbers near the Bar, to fish for sandeels but breed mainly at Scolt Head and Blakeney Point rather than around the Harbour itself.

Part of the reason for the survey was to check for any disturbance caused by the channel dredger, and although terns were not seen feeding in its immediate vicinity, perhaps because the water is cloudy with sediment during dredging, it is good to report that terns are actively using the Channel and the Outer Harbour for feeding.

The smallest of the terns found at Wells are the Little Terns. They have a black and yellow beak, a shrill cry and almost white wings. Weighing only about 50 grammes these birds migrate as far as West Africa in the winter - one ringed Norfolk bird was recorded in Senegal - and with just 1900 pairs in the whole of the UK, they are a closely protected species.

By the end of the summer James confirmed that two young Little Terns had successfully taken wing, after being raised on the southern of the two shingle ridges lying on Bob Halls sands. This was good news as last year no Little Terns were raised at Wells. Although Little Terns arrived in spring and 31 birds including four established pairs were seen on 5-6 May, some courting and mating, it wasn't until 25-6 May that any had eggs. James wrote in his notes:

"Feeding behaviour - seems to be an established pattern i.e. At high tide and during falling tide lots of active fishing just inside the Bar, predominantly favouring the eastern side of the Channel. Low tide many birds resting on tidal sands. Smaller numbers seen fishing around The Lifeboat House and as far south as Wells Quay.
By this time the breeding ridges held one pair of incubating Little Terns, four pairs of Common Terns (larger and with red beaks with a black tip), six pairs of Oystercatchers, one or two pairs of Ringed Plovers and Black Headed and Common Gulls (despite their name, not so common). A pair of Arctic Terns were also displaying; these birds are like a Common Tern but have an all-red beak, nest on this coast in small numbers and migrate all the way to Antarctica!"

By the end of May the Little Tern nest had gone, maybe due to predators or high tides, although two pairs were engaged in courtship feeding near the Lifeboat House and Outer Harbour. 8-9 June saw 61 Common Terns in the Harbour and 40 incubating pairs. Oystercatchers nesting on the bank of the Outer Harbour were brooding three chicks by the end of June and at least two pairs of Little Terns had eggs on the ridges. By July the number of nesting Common Terns was over 46 pairs and on 17-18 July James counted seven nesting pairs of Little Terns including two small chicks.

Sadly by 3 August disaster seemed to have struck as three days of tides reaching 3.8 metres covered most of the shingle ridges. James records:

"It appeared that all the nests and young of the Little Terns had been washed out. The absence of incubating birds showed that the nests with eggs had been washed away. The abundance of flotsam on top of the ridge seemed to suggest that the ridge had been completely covered by the tide. Two adult Little Terns were mobbing as I approached so I hoped that young were still present, however, it is normal for terns to have a strong bond with a nest site even after the loss of young. Courtship feeding was observed by one pair of Little Terns and this reinforced the idea that all pairs had failed. After a period of two hours constant observation no adults were seen bringing in fish and no young could be seen with a telescope. I concluded that all young and eggs had been lost and this signified the end of the survey.
On the next visit, however, Little Terns were seen feeding two downy chicks on the top of the southern ridge! How on earth they managed to avoid detection is a mystery but it was a welcome observation.

Most feeding activity by adult birds was concentrated around the Bar and in the breakers. A look at the high tide line on the southern nesting ridge, after the breeding season had finished, revealed an area of sand and shingle 5x4 metres that had remained untouched by the marsh tides."

The Wells Harbour Commissioners extended the survey and James was able to confirm that two Little Terns were successfully raised along with dozens of Common Terns, and like last year, a pair of Ringed Plovers nested successfully on the Outer Harbour bank. These too are declining birds and are known locally as "Stone Runners". One of the main reasons for their reducing numbers is known to be trampling and disturbance of their nests. Their eggs and young of all these birds are almost invisible on shingle, and so visitors and users of the Harbour can give these birds their best chance of survival by keeping dogs on leads, and not walking on the shingle ridges, the open areas of the East Hills, or the Outer Harbour bank, from April through to the end of August.

James McCallum is a wildlife artist living and working in North Norfolk. For information on his paintings and books, visit
    Click here for James' s website