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One good tern deserves another

little terns
More than 120 little terns successfully fledged on Gronant Beach this year.

For the fourth year running, the little tern colony at Gronant Beach has had a successful breeding season - thanks to a team of volunteers who keep a round-the-clock watch.

This year a record 111 pairs nested at the site, with 123 young little terns successfully fledged on the shingle beach near Prestatyn.

The little terns are the second rarest sea bird in the UK. They are vulnerable to predation and disturbance and Gronant beach is the only place in Wales that they breed.

That's why Denbighshire's Countryside Service, with the help of match funding by the Countryside Council for Wales and technical support from the RSPB, employ three seasonal wardens who have just watched the last of the sea birds head back to western Africa for the winter.

By Karen Rippin
Working as a seasonal little tern warden at Gronant

The little tern is Britain's second rarest sea bird and is protected by law. It over-winters on the West Coast of Africa and returns to Britain in April to breed.

The little tern colony at Gronant, which is located on the Denbighshire coast between Prestatyn and Greenfield, is the last remaining breeding colony in Wales. It nests on the shingled foreshore and is vulnerable to both natural predation and human disturbance.

The colony has survived at Gronant due to constant wardening efforts during the breeding season and the project is jointly funded by the Countryside Council for Wales and Denbighshire County Council (Countryside Services).

In April 2007 I was lucky enough to obtain my first paid job in the field of conservation as a seasonal little tern warden. Although my degree is in business and finance, I have gained countryside experience through my voluntary work with the wardens at Denbighshire Countryside Services. Working alongside these skilled wardens, who were always willing to give their time and share their expertise, gave me the confidence I needed to apply for the job.

Three wardens were appointed for the duration of the project and our first task, with the help of volunteers, was to cordon off the area where the little terns nest. This was done by erecting an outer perimeter fence. Electric poultry fencing was then used to erect pens on the shingled foreshore. These pens enclose the major part of the favoured nesting habitat and help to exclude natural predators such as foxes.

The colony is wardened all daylight hours from 04:00 - 22:00 and as a little tern warden I would regularly work nine-hour shifts. The electric fences are powered by large leisure batteries which are switched off first thing in the morning and switched on again last thing at night. This helps to preserve the charge in the batteries.

The wardens are complemented by a robust group of dedicated volunteers without whose help it would not be possible to effectively warden the colony. My typical working day would include co-ordinating the volunteers' hours to make sure there were sufficient people on site to ensure minimal disturbance to the Little Terns.

This would include chasing away crows as they steal eggs and keeping kestrels and peregrine falcons at bay as they can predate on adult birds as well as chicks. The electric fences also had to be checked on a daily basis and any debris removed so that they did not earth out. Voltage readings would be recorded in the morning and at night and batteries and electric fence energisers checked to make sure they were working correctly.

There are often visitors to the site who are interested in seeing the little terns so I was in constant contact with the public and I gave talks to a variety of groups.

During a shift it would also be necessary to maintain a detailed log of events, such as crow attacks. I would also collect data which would include marking the little terns' nests, counting eggs and chicks. This data is used to prepare a report at the end of the project which records the success of the colony and helps to determine any improvements for wardening the colony the following season.




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