How a few hours of your time can help save our little terns

PUBLISHED: 07:41 26 March 2018 | UPDATED: 07:41 26 March 2018

Could you give up a little bit of time to help Norfolk's little terns bring up the next generation?

Could you give up a little bit of time to help Norfolk's little terns bring up the next generation?


The RSPB needs local volunteers to protect the next generation of Norfolk’s little terms, says the charity’s regional director James Robinson. Could you help?

Last summer, I joined a team of RSPB volunteers and staff on the beach at Winterton for the night, protecting eggs and chicks of one of our rarest seabirds, the little tern.

The night was wet and wild and we kept ‘beachcombing’ foxes away from the colony into the wee small hours. These foxes were seeking an easy meal. A shore of speckled eggs and beach-hatched little tern chicks. Predators like foxes, spook the adult birds, who fly up from their nests and head to sea, leaving their chicks and eggs exposed – an unguarded food supply.

Even a passing Reeve’s muntjac deer taking an evening stroll can have a similar effect. Whilst not a predator, its presence alone is enough to flush adult birds off their nests, allowing other opportunists like hedgehogs to waddle in and snuffle up a tasty egg.

Little terns aren’t just up against it at night, they face the same challenges (and others) during the day too. Avian predators like kestrels and hobbies make the most of this convenient food supply, even a snake was seen predating little terns!

The places where little terns nest creates its own problems. Nests comprise of unlined scrapes in shingle and sand – the perfect camouflage for sandy, spotty chicks and eggs. Perfectly camouflaged, but not perfectly weather-proof. Situated not far above the tide mark, nest scrapes are left susceptible to strong winds, high tides and flooding.

However, the camouflage in itself brings with it its own trials and tribulations. Concealed chicks hiding in the shadows of shallow sand are susceptible to disturbance from those of us enjoying beach, sea and sun on glorious summer days. Through the eyes of an adult little tern, we are easily mistaken as a big predator.

This combination of factors has caused chronic declines in little terns over the past 30 years. In the east of England we are blessed to act of as a little tern stronghold with some of the UK’s largest and most productive colonies calling our region their summer home, though even these are declining.

Last year, as many as 320 little tern chicks fledged from the Norfolk coast, the largest number of fledglings in any county in the UK, a number we would not have achieved without the wonderful work of our little tern teams.

Between April and September, teams set up camp along the most important beaches on our coasts and work to protect little terns and educate beach users about the bird’s presence. They face a tough job, working to protect the birds day and night with 24/7 surveillance. They can work long hours, often in difficult conditions and remote locations. I know, I’ve done it. What I know most of all though, is that we couldn’t do it without the support of wonderful volunteers.

Volunteers are vital to our work. We simply couldn’t save nature without them. Volunteers make conservation happen. I like to think there are many rewards to volunteering too; I speak from experience when I say that being on Winterton beach at daybreak after a night’s wardening with loads of tern fledglings buzzing around is very special, as is meeting many passionate like-minded people.

Whether you are able to give just a few hours, a few days, or can commit to helping protect little terns for a summer season, your efforts can make a world of difference.

If you’d like to help protect this wonderful seabird, please get in touch: email or call 01603 715191, or to look at other volunteering opportunities visit

James Robinson is RSPB Eastern England regional director

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