Photo gallery: National Trust warns of triple threat to coastal breeding birds on Norfolk and Suffolk coast

An aerial view of Blakeney Point. Picture: NATIONAL TRUST An aerial view of Blakeney Point. Picture: NATIONAL TRUST

Friday, August 29, 2014
11:51 AM

Experts at Norfolk and Suffolk nature Meccas will be scrutinising changing environments to protect seabirds currently facing a three-pronged threat.

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According to a National Trust study into issues affecting breeding at its 11 UK seabird sites, extremes such as last year’s tidal surge and heavy rains of summer 2012 were the most prevalent threat.

After natural predators, it said the third most common risk was disturbance by humans, and urged nature reserve visitors to be aware of their potential impact on breeding season.

At Blakeney Point the surge altered areas where little terns, which arrived from west Africa in late March, bred.

The birds’ breeding success was affected when June high tides flooded their new nests.

Bird fact files

■REDSHANK: Redshanks’ most distinctive features are their bright orange legs. They breed in damp places like salt marshes, flood meadows and around lakes. Annual average breeding pairs in UK: 25,000.

■LAPWING: Lapwings are found on farmland throughout the UK particularly in lowland areas of northern England, the Borders and eastern Scotland. Annual average breeding pairs in UK: 140,000.

■OYSTERCATCHER: Oystercatchers are large, stocky, black and white wading birds which eat cockles. Annual average breeding pairs in UK: 110,000.

■AVOCET: Numbers of these distinctively-patterned wading birds increased dramatically in the 1940s because of conservation projects. The RSPB emblem is an avocet. Annual average breeding pairs in UK: 1,500.

■LITTLE TERN: Little terns are the smallest breed of terns in the UK. They breed on the coast and largest colonies include Blakeney Point, Great Yarmouth and Minsmere in Suffolk. Annual average breeding pairs in UK: 1,900.

■COMMON TERN: Common terns have the nickname sea-swallows because of their graceful flight and because they hover over water before plunging down for fish. Annual average breeding pairs in UK: 12,000.

■SANDWICH TERN: Sandwich terns are very white with black caps on their heads. Colonies are scattered around the UK coast including north Norfolk and Minsmere in Suffolk. Annual average breeding pairs in UK: 12,000.

■ARCTIC TERN: Arctic terns are the ultimate long distance migrants - summer visitors to the UK and winter visitors to the Antarctic. Annual average breeding pairs in UK: 53,000

Ajay Tegala, coastal ranger at Blakeney, said: “The biggest impact of the tidal surge was it changed the beach profile. It is important to protect the point for future generations. It is quite special.”

Out of the 110 little terns that bred this year, eight chicks fledged.

Last year there were 113 pairs which fledged 20 chicks and in 2012 there were 140 pairs which fledged 28 chicks.

Mr Tegala added: “We are worried about the little terns’ future because there are so many pressures on them. We don’t want to interfere too much but have to do further things to stop them declining.”

Tidal surge impacts

One of the major fears after the devastating December 5 tidal surge was its impact on Norfolk and Suffolk’s nature.

At Blakeney Point there were no little terns in the area when the surge hit, but it force the birds to move to different nesting points.

Those dips were flooded during high tides in mid June, which resulted in a poor breeding season.

The surge also reduced the number of small copper butterflies because cocoons on shingle plants were buried.

About 20 water rail birds drowned in the reeds at the inland Blakeney Freshes and there were fewer snow bunting birds visiting the coastal area in the winter because of a lack of food.

The surge did not affect the point’s common, sandwich and Arctic tern breeding success this year.

It boosted the sandwich tern breeding area because more sand was pushed over the grassy areas.

Freshwater habitats at the Norfolk Wildlife Trust-owned Cley Marshes site have recovered after the surge and it was “business as usual” for bird numbers.

Work includes monitoring breeding profiles, nests and putting in trail cameras.

More regular monitoring to detect changes in seabird colonies was recommended in the trust report.

Winterton became the largest single colony of little tern in the UK earlier this year when numbers soared to 300 breeding pairs from 100 last year.

But the impact of high tides and strong winds in July resulted in at least 260 dead birds.

RSPB warden Danny Hercock said: “As the world becomes more developed, as wild space like beaches come under pressure, and as climate change takes effect, little terns need the support of people and actions from decision making bodies to recover their numbers and have safe places on our beaches.”

Orford Ness in Suffolk was listed in the 10 highest priority UK wildlife sites for breeding seabirds in the trust report.

Visitors to the site are sometimes asked to avoid areas to prevent disturbance.

A recent EU-funded LIFE+ project, carried out in partnership with the RSPB, reported that 2014 had been a successful year, highlighted by common terns fledging for the first time in 50 years.

LIFE+ project manager David Mason said the success was down to giving birds space from walkers.

He said: “The success we have seen here this year is testament to what nature can achieve when it is encouraged to thrive.”

More fledging redshank and lapwing chicks have also been reported, three oystercatcher chicks are the first known to fledge since 2006 and avocets have had a productive year.

Kessingland was a key site for birds displaced by high tides, with a peak count of about 250 birds and 50 breeding pairs in mid-July.

Do you have a nature story? Email sophie.wyllie@archant.co.uk.

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