What it’s like to warden at night on Chesil Beach.
Blue lights flashing out across the water. An oyster catcher cries out in it’s piping call as the police car cruises along, serein’s off. The water is calm reflecting the quite world above it, only a slight breeze passes letting you know its not just a picture . All seems in limbo under stars scattered skies. Sitting in the small wooden shelter sunken into the pebble beach, I watch as the darkest part of the night ebbs away, Oxford blue colours wash out into the night darkness. It’s around 1:20am and I am waiting. Lights from the causeway picking out the features on the shore, casting mocking shadows over the colony of little terns that volunteers and staff have been tasked with protecting from many foes; kestrels, crows, gulls and the night-time phantom, the fox.
The little tern is one of the smallest members of the tern family, weighting not much more than a Mars bar. Their black caps and eye mask with a long yellow bill, their size difference and distinct chattering call picks them out in the cacophony of sight and sound during the day, where their larger cousins the common terns and Sandwich terns pass over the site . Many other bird are scattered across site, which provides habitats from mudflats to shingle to grass flatland. Birds include oystercatchers, Ringed plover,skylarks, peregrine, curlew, Herring gulls, GBB and LBB gulls, Mediterranean gulls, godwits, Artic skuas and herons. The little tern contents with them all, it’s white arrow shaped wings mastering the blustery winds that kick off from the Atlantic. They dip dive into shallow water to catch fish and crustacean with a high accuracy rate of around 1 out of 3 successful dives.
These plucky birds are the smallest tern to nest in the UK. Theses terns ( Sternula albifrons albifrons) spend the winter in the warmer climates of West Africa during winter, were temperature average 26oC over winter, it is sometimes a wonder they leave for the British summer. The birds will make this journey throughout their lives, with two birds on Chesil found to be 15 and 16 years of age, birds that had been ringed as chicks on the very same beach. They braves the opened beaches that other birds would not dare nest, reducing competition. However they are at risk from exposure and from high tides, predator attacks and disturbance- you sometimes question their choice of nesting site.
The chicks look like small bundles of fluff, black beady eyes from amongst a downy coast of grey and dark spots. Young terns are highly mobile, often making short excursions from the nest. This, combined with their perfect camouflage- looking similar to the Chesil beach pebbles- can make it somewhat difficult to spot them, especially as many are now moving towards the water’s edge during the day time. Adult little terns can often be seen returning with small fish such as sprat and sand eels, feeding the quickly growing chicks. During the hours of darkness the parents remain with them to brood. . The fledglings can be distinguished from the adults by their greyer appearance, rounded wings and incomplete black head cap. They will stay with the colony for a short period learning how to fly and fish with their parents. However, once they have mastered these skills, they swiftly depart: they fly 4000km to West Africa, where they will stay for around 2 years, before returning to breed themselves.
In the 19th century the little tern was quite a common bird, however 20th century dramatic declines occurred in most populations, many of which many today are still in decline. Threats come from, changes in land managements seeing the loss of suitable inland habitat like the Rhine or Elbe, and development of industry and reclamation of coastline has hit coastal populations. The birds are also susceptible to disturbance, ironic then that they chose coastlines where many humans would like to picnic and holiday. New worries surrounding climate change are moving the location of major food sources and increased extreme weather event all threaten these delicate populations.
It is not all doom and gloom though. The use of Sand bucket, a technique pioneered by John Dabbs at the Cheslie beach site, has increased breed success by preventing the eggs from cooling off. Since the protection measures where put in place in 2009, including fencing and 24 hour wardening the colony has increased year on year, though this year looks to have matched last year instead.
I hear the rustle of pebbles moving somewhere out to the left, scrambling to stand up I flick on my head torch, scanning the tufted sedges for the tell tale eye reflection that betrays animals from the night. A small, slightly translucent disc like reflection is caught moving in a series of small and erratic arcs- it is one of the beaches many resident hares. It is a strange thing to first see a hare on a beach, when calendars and T.V. Shows these mammals native to fields. However here they seems as at home amongst salt and pebbles as any open grassland. Young hares, called leverits move around, chasing one another around the beach in something akin to watching dog play in a park. Caught in the light hares will sometimes employ the tactic of laying down, ears flat along their backs in the hopes that you don’t see them. I turn off the head torch again, to minimise disturbance. A heron call across the fleet, an eerie ancient call you imagine an Archaeopteryx to make .
Five minutes pass and I scan the scrub again catching reflective eyes, but these are not the small disc’s of a hare, or even the pin prick discs of the birds. I mobilises and alert fellow wardens to presence. These eyes are big and bright and stand a little way off the ground, they are like looking at motorbike headlights. They are the eyes of a fox. The fox stares back for a few seconds, he is wary of the human presence and waits a few second to assess the suitability of continuing. He turns and the reflection is lost. Scanning the area with the light looking in the location it was last seen, another warden joins me and the pair of lights range in the darkness. The fox must be kept at bay, for one night it took 12 nests. The reflection is caught again, it has moved lower down the beach, but further away. I keep in pursuit, passed a fishing hut, down away from the colony. The eyes flash one more time, now some way away up the beach, heading away. Relief.
We stay out another 90 minutes, scanning out over the grasses and sedges and over the ridge of the beach regularly. With no more sightings, we feel safe enough to return to the hide that brings us the rest bite of coffee and sandwiches. A faint light returning the sky, though it will be many hours before the sun rises.
Predators have certainly kept us busy this year. Regular visits from the kestrel have kept us on our feet, with these stunning areal predators flying across the site at up to40mph! Sometimes visiting the site up to 17 times a day. The kestrel had the last word in the project, with the last chick on the beach, known as ‘Barry’, taken by the kestrel on the 22th July. The kestrel however is ,like the little tern, a schedule 1 species with numbers across the country dwindling. It is a testament to the richness of wildlife along this coastline.
Vigilance, dedication and the use of diversionary feeding have all helped to get 35 chicks to a fledgling stage, a fantastic number with respect to the difficulties that have been faced and a great boost to the estimated global population of c.190,000-410,000 individuals (Wetlands International 2006) found in most locations across Eurasia, Africa and Australasia, A good map can be found here showing the classification of the of 6 subspecies. (http://maps.iucnredlist.org/map.html?id=22694656).
A ringing project that took place on Chesile this year, part on a nation wide project for Little terns, showed that two birds were 15 and 16 years old, and had been ringed in the same beach by the same man. More can be read here. Protective measures such as fencing-off nesting areas, warning signs and wardening have all been effective in reducing the decline of this beautiful bird and it is wonderful to know that they have been coming back year after year to this site. We wish all the fledglings and adults, not much bigger than a black bird, a safe migration back to West Africa and hope to see then again next year
Blue light drift pass on the road across the water into an increasingly noisy morning. The dawn has come and all is well.