Away with the terns

Away with the terns


Posted 17th May 2018


Don't miss your chance to visit a tern colony - however, make sure you don't get too close to the notoriously feisty birds

During the summer months, there will be several species of tern that return to nest on shingle beaches, gravel spits and low-lying islands around the coast. They are also becoming increasingly typical sights on gravel pits and reservoir islands. Our terns all look superficially similar, like a small elegant gull, with a swallow-like forked tail, slender wings and a black cap to set off its silvery grey plumage.

Of the five species to nest here, the one you are most likely to see, particularly if you don't live by the sea, will be the Common tern. However, while it is the most widespread of the terns, it's not the most common, despite its name. Instead, that title goes to the closely related Arctic tern, which nests in busy colonies on northern coasts and islands.

The tern colony is a noisy, hectic sight. Birds come and go, with adults bringing fish back for their chicks or their sitting mate, while young birds call for their parents, and angry adults chase off intruders of varying shapes and sizes. Their dagger-like bills are quick to turn on anyone who invades their summer breeding colonies so avoid getting too close - alternatively, take a slightly taller friend with you!

How to do it

One of the easiest ways to identify the tern species will be to look at their bills. Carrot red with a black tip makes it a common tern; blood red is an Arctic tern; black with a yellow tip (and a shaggy black crest) is a Sandwich tern, while the tiny little tern has a yellow bill tipped with black, and a white forehead.

Special spots

One of the largest nesting populations of Sandwich terns can be found at Cemlyn Bay. Situated on the north coast of Anglesey, around three miles west of Cemaes, it has a large lagoon, separated from the sea by a spectacular, naturally-created shingle ridge. The ridge, known as Esgair Gemlyn, has been formed by the process of longshore drift, with its profile changing with the action of tide and weather.

During the summer, the lagoon provides the backdrop for Cemlyn's most famous wildlife spectacles - clustered on islands in the brackish water is a large, internationally important seabird colony, which includes breeding common and Arctic terns, and one of the UK's largest nesting populations of Sandwich terns. From the vantage point of the tern viewing area on the ridge, visitors can experience the elegant birds up close, as they chase and dive in displays of courtship displays; incubating eggs; preening and bathing in the lagoon, or calling to their hungry chicks as they come winging in with their freshly-caught fish. The best time to visit will be between May and July, when wardens are on site to provide more information.

Cumbria, South Walney

Derbyshire, Willington Gravel Pits

Dorset, Brownsea Island

Lincolnshire, Gibraltar Point,

Lincolnshire, Far Ings

Norfolk, Cley Marshes

Norfolk, Hickling Broad

Norfolk, Holme Dunes

Rutland, Rutland Water

Sussex, Rye Harbour

Text and information courtesy of The Wildlife Trusts / image courtesy of Gillian Day





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