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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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
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