The sun set illuminating the house and tower on the south side of the River Boyne. Image by Kevin Delahunty

The sun set illuminating the house and tower on the south side of the River Boyne. Image by Kevin Delahunty

 

Little terns in flight. Image by Kevin Delahunty

Little terns in flight. Image by Kevin Delahunty

It is with great regret that we announce that the little tern project has come to a close a month early up here in Baltray, Co. Louth.  The wardens left the site on Tuesday 28th June after spending 5 weeks monitoring the area. While waiting in hope from mid-May through June, there has not been a single nesting attempt by the little terns and we have only observed a few instances of courtship and scrape building. The number of little terns stayed relatively constant,  with 6-10 being observed on a daily basis. With a loss of nests down in Kilcoole recently due to foxes, it was thought that these terns might have tried to nest again in Baltray and although we have seen an increase in numbers of up to 30 in the area, they have not shown any sign of nesting or courtship behaviours. Instead, they appear to just be feeding. Sightings peak at high tide each day when the terns are observed flying high in the sky between the mouth of the River Boyne and the surf at the high tide mark, sometimes resting on the pebble spit that divides the sandy beach in front of the shingle nesting area. With the lack of nesting birds it was decided that the wardens could be used on the other sights, one in Kilcoole and one on Rockabill, where Shane will work on the common, arctic and roseate terns.

We are hoping that the fantastic volunteers that we have met over the last 5 weeks will continue to monitor the nesting site at Baltray, and report any observations to Birdwatch Ireland and the Louth Nature Trust. At this point I would like to thank all the volunteers who came down on a regular basis, helping us to monitor the area, chase off the predators and tell us stories about the area from previous years. Thank you to David, Brendan, Tony, Geraldine, Fergal and Ray for coming out in your free time to help us. A special thank you needs to be stated for Maurice and Matt, who come out every day to help out.

So the question remains, why didn’t the little terns nest in Baltray this year? At present we still aren’t sure as there could be any number of reasons. Previously mentioned theories include continuous strong easterly winds over the migration route that potentially could have blown the terns off course. Another theory is that perhaps one of the little tern food sources along their migration route has now become a target of trawlers. This theory is currently being looked into by the Louth Nature Trust and Birdwatch Ireland. The previous two seasons at Baltray have been plagued with predators and bad weather, with some nests getting washed out but many getting predated, particularly by rooks. One other potential reason that the little terns did not nest here this year could be due to the high volume of predators in the area. There is a very healthy population of corvids in the area, particularly rooks. They roost on the opposite side of the River Boyne and waste no time in scanning the 850 meter nesting area for little tern and ringed plover eggs. The wardens and volunteers are kept extremely busy chasing rooks and hooded crows form the area.

The problem. Rooks flying over the nesting site. Image by Kevin Delahunty

The problem. Rooks flying over the nesting site. Image by Kevin Delahunty

In an attempt to reduce the numbers of these predators, live traps were set up in and around the nesting area under license from the National Parks and Wildlife Service. Unfortunately the rooks seem wise to these traps and were rarely caught during the 5 week period that the wardens were on site. The starlings in the area were constantly caught and then released unharmed. This became a bit of a nuisance as the traps had to be reset each time a starling flew in. One morning we also woke up to find one of Ireland’s most beautiful birds of prey in the trap, a short-eared owl. The owl was quickly released and observed hunting over the dunes later in the day.

Maurice releases the short-eared owl, caught when trapping corvids under NPWS license. Image by Kevin Delahunty

Maurice releases the short-eared owl, caught when trapping corvids under NPWS license. Image by Kevin Delahunty

Short eared-owl takes off to hunt over the dunes. Image by Kevin Delahunty

Short eared-owl takes off to hunt over the dunes. Image by Kevin Delahunty

The thing about this area, located just on the outskirts of Drogheda, and easily accessible from Dublin, is that although it’s not far from large towns and cities, you feel like you are in a much more isolated area, a real wild area for Ireland and a wildlife haven. Every single day we witnessed something new and exciting. On a regular basis we observed short-eared owls hunting over the dunes, kestrels hovering around us looking for a meal and sparrowhawks, flying low and accelerating towards the meadow pipits and other small birds. I even saw my first cuckoo here.

A hunting kestrel. Image by Matt Byrne

A hunting kestrel. Image by Matt Byrne

Cuckoo. Image by Matt Byrne

Cuckoo. Image by Matt Byrne

While looking out from one of the towers we had set up for watching the little terns, we saw sandwich, little and common terns, as well as gannets, dropping like missiles into the sea when feeding, as well as the fin of a harbour porpoise as it cut up through the surface. A short walk towards the mouth of the Boyne could give you the chance to see a grey seal swimming through the river as well as the different species of tern fishing. Along the water mark you will come across hundreds of cormorants, drying their wings after diving for fish, along with many other species of waders. Species seen on a regular basis include dunlin, sanderling, knot, turnstone, ringed plover and oystercatcher and more recently we have begun to see curlew feeding in the area, with 9 individuals being recorded one morning. Near to Baltray there is a relatively large nesting site for little egret and these relative new comers to Ireland can be seen foraging along the beach at low tide.

Little egret foraging. Image by Matt Byrne

Little egret foraging. Image by Matt Byrne

Cormorant. Image by Matt Byrne

Cormorant. Image by Matt Byrne

Oystercatchers in flight. Image by Kevin delahunty

Oystercatchers in flight. Image by Kevin Delahunty

Sandwich tern in flight. Image by Kevin Delahunty

Sandwich tern in flight. Image by Kevin Delahunty

Moving away from the water, you begin to notice the incredible biological diversity Baltray has to offer. As you walk through the marram grass, you can hear the buzzing grow as the numerous different bumblebee species forage. It is an enjoyable sound to hear in these hard times for Ireland’s bee species. If you stop, close your eyes and listen you will begin to pick up all the different songs of the birds in the area, goldfinch, blackbird, linnet, wheatear, meadow pipit and a high abundance of skylarks all call out, lifting your spirits. Keep an eye to the ground for the flowers and you will come across some beautiful orchids such as the pyramidal orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis) and the numerous butterfly species in the area.

Wheatear. Image by Matt Byrne

Wheatear. Image by Matt Byrne

Pyramidal orchid. Image by Kevin Delahunty

Pyramidal orchid. Image by Kevin Delahunty

Common blue butterfly. Image by Matt Byrne

Common blue butterfly. Image by Matt Byrne

A variety of other invertebrates await discovery as well such as centipedes, various varieties of beetles, hoverflies and ladybirds. Keep a very close eye out and you may even spot Ireland’s only native reptile, the common lizard. (For full list of species seen and identified by the wardens over the 5 week period see Appendix A)

Centipede Cryptops hortensis. Image by Kevin Delahunty

Centipede Cryptops hortensis. Image by Kevin Delahunty

The common or viviparous lizard. Image by Matt Byrne

The common or viviparous lizard. Image by Matt Byrne

Come out at the right time of day and you are likely to see a good variety of different mammals as well. Species seen by the wardens include the brown rat, fox, Irish hare and common pipistrelle. There is just nothing like walking along the water’s edge on a bright moonlit night, seeing and feeling the bats swooping around you as the feed on the moths in the area. I have no doubt that more bat species would have been recorded if we had the use of a bat detector as well.

Curious fox cub. Image by Kevin Delahunty

Curious fox cub. Image by Kevin Delahunty

Irish Hare inside the nesting colony. Image by Matt Byrne

Irish Hare inside the nesting colony. Image by Matt Byrne

The point I am trying to make is that if you are in the mood to go and see some of the incredible wildlife that Ireland has to offer, you need go no farther than Baltray. On the right day and with a bit of luck you can see beautiful marine, terrestrial and freshwater wildlife which is just at your back door if you live in Dublin or Louth. It is a fantastic area to take children out to get them back into nature, particularly the city kids who may not yet have seen, or even know about, the majority of species found in the area.

Even though the project will officially be wrapped up for the season we will be staying in touch with the local volunteers to see if there has been anything happening in the area. With the two poor seasons previously to this, it will be very interesting to see what happens in the area next season. We feel that it is imperative to have wardens on site again next year and would also recommend a cull of the corvids before the little terns arrive. With any luck, the little terns will begin nesting on the site next year and Baltray will maintain its status as one of the top little tern breeding sites in Ireland.

Kevin Delahunty and Shane Somers – 1st July 2016

Appendix A:

Avian species recorded:

Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo         Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis

Gannet Morus bassanus                    Little Tern Sterna albifrons

Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis   Common Tern Sterna hirundo

Turnstone Arenaria interpres              Sanderling Calidris alba

Curlew Numenius arquata                   Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus

Knot Calidris canutus                          Dunlin Calidris alpina

Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula     Hooded crow Corvus cornix

Rook Corvus frugilegus                       Jackdaw Corvus monedula

Magpie Pica pica                                 Starling Sturnus vulgaris

Pied wagtail Motacilla alba                  Meadow pipit Anthus pratensis

Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe           Skylark Alauda arvensis

Linnet Linaria cannabina                     Reed Bunting Emberiza schoeniclus

Wren Troglodytes troglodytes             Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis

Feral pigeon Columba livia domestica  Woodpigeon Columba palumbus

Herring gull Larus argentatus              Common gull Larus canus

Black-headed gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus      

Greater black-backed gull Larus marinus

Lesser black-backed gull Larus fuscus      Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla

Grey Heron Ardea cinerea                  Little egret Egretta garzetta

Swallow Hirundo rustica                      House martin Delichon urbicum

Swift Apus apus                                   Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus

Kestrel Falco tinnunculus                   Short-eared owl Asio flammeus

Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus              Buzzard Buteo buteo

Shelduck Tadorna tadorna                Mallard Anas platyrhynchos

Non-Avian species recorded:

Centipede Cryptops hortensis            

22 Spot Ladybird Psyllobora vigintiduopunctata

Marmalade hoverfly Episyriphus balteatus

Cinnabar moth Tyria jacobaeae                        

Small white butterfly Pieris rapae

Large white butterfly Pieris brassicae              

Green-veined white butterfly Pieris napi

Orange tip butterfly Anthocharis cardamines    

Common blue butterfly Polyommatus icarus     

Painted Lady Vanessa cardui

Small blue butterfly Cupido minimus                  

Red admiral Vanessa atalanta

Small heath butterfly Coenonympha pamphilus

White-tailed bumblebee Bombus terrestris  

White-tailed bumblebee Bombus lucorum

Garden bumblebee Bombus hortorum        

Red-tailed bumblebee Bombus lapidarius

Common carder bee Bombus pascorum      

Gypsy cuckoo bee Bombus bohemicus

Red-tailed cuckoo bee Bombus rupestris    

Harbour porpoise Phocoena phocoena

Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus                      

Brown rat Rattus norvegicus

Irish Hare Lepus timidus                                

Common pipistrelle Pipistrellus pipistrellus

Red fox Vulpes vulpes                                   

Otter (tracks) Lutra lutra

Common Lizard Zootoca vivipara                   

Moon jellyfish Aurelia aurita