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Little Tern

…Big Survivor

Long live the little tern!

New Chesil Beach Study reveals 16 year 100,000km journey of rare seabird

Wildlife conservationists studying rare little terns nesting on Chesil Beach have discovered that two of the nesting colony residents are now fifteen and sixteen years old, and during their annual African migrations have notched up over 100,000km each.

The discovery was made during the fitting of new colour rings to the Chesil little terns in conjunction with the EU LIFE Little Tern Project.

Thalassa McMurdo Hamilton, Little Tern Project Officer said; “Steve Hales, a local bird ringer, carried out the colour ringing with Luke Phillips of RSPB. Steve has had a long association with metal ringing little tern chicks at Chesil in the past. As the ringing got underway we noticed some of the adults were glinting silver on their legs – they already had a metal ring on – and luckily, we managed to catch a few of these. We excitedly wrote down the ring number and Steve went home to check the BTO records to see how old they were. A few hours later Steve revealed, incredibly, that he had ringed these birds at Chesil Beach in 1999 and 2000 – making these adults 15 and 16 years old!”

Steve Hales said “Handling a bird which I had ringed as a week-old chick on the same beach sixteen years ago was very rewarding. It emphasised just what an age some of our smaller seabirds can reach. The next three years of colour ringing the little terns under the EU LIFE partnership will hopefully produce other exciting discoveries.”

The Chesil Beach Little Tern project is in its sixth year, and with the number of breeding pairs increasing, project staff were delighted to be included in the national ringing project.

Thalassa added; “I was amazed to discover that these birds are returning here where they were first reared and that they are still breeding after 16 years. They are such small birds – an adult weighs the same as a tennis ball - and deal with lots of stress during chick rearing so I couldn’t believe they were so old. They are much tougher than we think, as these birds have travelled over 100,000km in their lifetime which is astounding.”

“Being able to identify individuals at a colony has huge benefits to this species, the second rarest breeding seabird in the UK. It allows conservationists to understand the movement of little terns between different colonies, how faithful they are to their breeding colonies and, moreover, we can learn more about adult and juvenile survival. These questions remain largely unanswered and so armed with this information we will be better able to conserve this species.

“We’ve made a great start in 2015 and we will hopefully ring many more over the next few years, and gain an insight into these tough little terns, at the only colony in the southwest of England.

Marc Smith, Dorset Wildlife Trust Chesil Centre Officer said: "It is great to know that that these little terns are returning to Chesil Beach, even after such a long time. It just goes to show how important this area is for this rare little bird. The colony has been very successful over the last three years, with well over a hundred fledglings. Hopefully we will be seeing many of these return in the years to come."

Gary Thompson, Coastal Manager for The Crown Estate, said: “As manager of Chesil beach and approximately half the UK foreshore, we know that good estate management of the coastal environment is crucial to the future of our wildlife and the sustainable development of our natural assets over the long term. We are delighted to have been able to support the little tern project since its inception and today’s fantastic news of its continued success demonstrates what can be achieved through dedication and working in partnership.”

The Chesil Beach Little Tern Project is a partnership between RSPB, Natural England, Crown Estate, Portland Court Leet, Dorset Wildlife Trust and the Chesil and Fleet Nature Reserve.


3rd August 2015