I can remember when I was just a whipper-snapper, my Mam would have her book of garden birds and we would spend time staring out into the back garden pointing out the several different species that resided in our humble hedges and trees. I guess I just grew out of the whole thing, but over the last few years I have befriended more bird-inclined folks. For this I have Seán Kelly to thank; from our first introduction some ten years ago when he was a skate-fiend to now, when he’s an international discoverer of new bird species, namely, the Wakatobi Flowerpecker.
Through Seán I met Niall Keogh. Niall was the warden of a conservation project on the beaches of Kilcoole. He spent the summer living in a caravan overseeing the conservation of little terns, a sea-faring bird, which summers along the east coast of our emerald isle. I had little knowledge of the bird and the conservation project although it has been in existence for the last thirty years. I visited the site twice over the summer and found their work both interesting and selfless.
I recently visited the new warden, Andrew Power, who I also met through Seán, to find out more about the project and ask him about his side project, with his friends Peter Cutler and Féaron Cassidy – Crow Crag Productions.
The conservation site is located along the shingle beach (about a ten-minute walk south of the Kilcoole train station) on the picturesque east coast of Wicklow. Walking along you first see the fenced-off area and signs, you will also notice the terns flying over head, hovering and diving into the sea for small fish. Along with the beautiful little terns the area is ripe with wildlife and the plethora of flora and fauna in the area attract many families, dog-walkers and keen bird watchers.
Myself and, the father of HeadStuff, Alan Bennett, headed straight for the fenced-off area where we could see Warden Andrew and one of the volunteers busily checking and recording the conservation area. At the edge of the area there are signs and a chalkboard for pedestrians to read a little about what the project is about, the amount of breeding pairs, nests, eggs and chicks that are currently being watched over by Andrew and his team.
Along with Andrew there are two other wardens; Darren O’Connell is a fellow day warden and Cole Macey who is the night warden. Many volunteers join the trio of tern-warriors to help keep the project running smoothly. The three wardens live just a stones-throw (but please don’t throw stones) away from the beach and conservation area. The caravans are brought down each summer and they are indicative of their time there – surrounded by nature.
Apart from the little terns; ringed plovers, oystercatchers, ospreys, butterflies, damselflies, lizards, barrel jellyfish, colorful day-flying moths and a family of otters are all regular sights in the area (and that’s just to name a few).
As the name suggests, little terns are little; weighing roughly the same as just two packets of crisps. They are the smallest of the terns breeding in Ireland. A small slender seabird with narrow, pointed wings, long forked tail and a long, pointed bill. They are graceful and delicate in flight and yet look noble with their dark cap and white forehead. Seeing these small birds hover and plummet into the sea below is a mesmerising sight.
So why do we have this conservation project? Andrew brings us into the “forbidden zone”, because we are special, to see the little terns’ nesting site. To describe them as nests is slightly misleading for birding laymen like most of us. I envision a cluster of twigs and moss when thinking of a nest, but the little tern basically scrapes a “nest” in the shingle beach to lay their eggs. The eggs are very similar to the stones on the beach and can be very hard to spot. Without the fenced off area many of these eggs would be trampled on by beach users and unbeknownst to the native trekkers, they could easily wipe out a few nests underfoot.
The area is also very popular with dog walkers and if the area was not cornered off the loss of eggs would be substantial.
Predation is one of the main concerns for the wardens here. Rooks and hooded crows along with foxes, hedgehogs and rats can cause serious problems to the tern population here on the beach. Andrew told us stories where clever crows would wait for wardens to move from one end to the other before moving in to take the eggs out of sight. One rook, which the wardens named Rupert, was a particular pain in one season – responsible for at least 16 nests being lost.
Cole the night warden uses lamps as well as the electric fences and flexi-fences to deter the intrusion of foxes and even those adorable hedgehogs.
The Kilcoole conservation project has had its most successful year to date with 111 little tern pairs and a staggering 213 chicks. Andrew had the following to say regarding the momentous year; “2014 has been a great year; the wardens are not the only ones who enjoyed the good weather as it really has benefited the little terns. We have not only been lucky with the weather but with the number of predators and the timing of the high tides. Practically everything has gone right this season. We have smashed the record this year but it has been on the cards for some time as little terns have slowly come back from the brink. We would not have the numbers we have today without the dedication of wardens and support of the people of Kilcoole over the last 30 years. A similar project in Baltray in Co. Louth has no doubt contributed to the high numbers of little terns this year. So, all in all, 2014 has been a great year for little terns in Ireland and hopefully it keeps getting better.”
You can keep up to date with all the happenings in the camp through their blog which is full of information and beautiful pictures.
Crow Crag Productions
The other fantastic project Andrew is involved with is a wildlife and heritage film production team, Crow Crag Productions, who have put out some beautiful pieces since 2012. Working with National Heritage Week, Birdwatch Ireland, Attenborough Nature Reserve & Centre, Nottingham and different Walking Festivals in Ireland, Andrew, Peter and Féaron have produced some spectacular visions of the wonderful power and beauty in nature.
Crow Crag (named after the cottage in Withnail and I – a personal favourite of the team) are extremely passionate about nature and strongly believes in the accurate and scientific portrayal of it. It is through the medium of film that they aim to “make this something beautiful, accessible and informative”. I believe they are doing a great job of it and I am sure you will all agree. Below are a few of their pieces including a piece they produced for the Little Tern Conservation Project last year. All videos and more information can be found at their website.
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