Little terns experience best breeding season for 25 years at Norfolk nature reserve

A lack of disturbance and few predators are thought to have contributed to the success of this year’s little tern breeding season at Blakeney Point on the Norfolk coast.

Seabirds above waves

Blakeney Point in Norfolk is an important nesting site for little terns and, this year, thanks to a lack of disturbance, reduced predator numbers and a bit of luck, the rare seabird has had its most successful breeding season since 1994.

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Over 200 chicks fledged their nests on the shingle spit at Blakeney Point, which is cared for by the National Trust. Having been in decline across the UK since the 1980s, with fewer than 2,000 pairs now left, the news is a welcome boost for the species.

National Trust Rangers counted 154 pairs of little terns nesting over the summer and 201 chicks.

It has also been a strong year for sandwich and common terns, with the National Trust recording the most common tern fledglings since 1999.

Little tern chick
Rangers counted 201 little tern chicks/Credit: National Trust Images, Leighton Newman

“Blakeney Point is part of a network of nesting sites for terns and plays a vital role in the survival of these summer migrants,” said National Trust Countryside Manager Chris Bielby.

“Little terns have been rapidly declining in the UK for the past few decades, so it’s particularly rewarding to see so many of these tiny seabirds fledging the nest.”

“The species is still very much at risk and we’ll need to keep up our efforts to make sure they have safe places to breed. But for now, it’s good to be able to celebrate a successful season given what a challenging year 2020 has been.”

Bird in flight
It has been the most successful breeding season for little terns since 1994/Credit: National Trust Images, Ian Ward

The terns first arrive at Blakeney Point in spring, having migrated thousands of miles from Africa. During the breeding season, a team of rangers and volunteers usually camp out in a lifeboat to monitor the birds. But this year the coronavirus pandemic meant rangers had to adapt. Daily trips up the shingle ridge included counting fledglings, warding off predators and educating visitors on the work they are doing to protect the birds.

A lack of predators and disturbance from people improved the survival rates of the chicks, as did the favourable weather conditions – the summer storms, which can flood the nests, arrived early enough in the breeding cycle for the little terns re-lay and fledge their chicks.

Seabirds on beach
Sandwich terns were late arrivals to the site but arrived in high numbers, almost triple that of the previous year/Credit: National Trust Images, Ian Ward

A change in little terns nesting sites provided further fortune, as ranger Leighton Newman explained: “Ordinarily, little terns nest in two distinct colonies at opposing ends of the site. It would’ve been near impossible to protect both colonies this year given the coronavirus restrictions. But by sheer luck the little terns all nested at the western end of Blakeney Point meaning all the terns were in the same area – making it much easier for us to protect and monitor them.”

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Chris Bielby added: “We would like to say thank you to the local community and visitors who have helped to contribute to the breeding success by staying away from fence lines and following signage and advice from our team.”