Little Terns and other Birds breeding in Wells Harbour
Tue 22 Nov 2011
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:
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:
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 www.jamesmccallum.co.uk