Each summer, I head out to Winterton to see the little terns nesting. On a warm afternoon in July, I’m heading across the heath to the beach, excited about seeing these remarkable birds again. One year, I arrived too late and most of the birds had left. Another year, the terns were mostly breeding at Eccles. Once, I decided to go after the breeding season, but the beach felt so empty. Winterton is best when the electric fence is up and the terns are back from Africa!
Migration blows my mind. Birds fly vast distances, facing severe weather, habitat loss, food scarcity, collisions, predation, and for some species, hunting or persecution. I hurry through the gap in the dunes onto the sandy beach, the sea stretching for miles and barely a person in sight.
As I get closer to the colony, I’m holding my breath. I stop and look through my binoculars. This year, my timing to see little terns nesting is perfect with terns lining the shore in splendour. Adults are in summer plumage with white foreheads, black crowns and eyestripes, and black-tipped yellow bills.
Fledglings are less distinctive, blending with the shingle. I watch these young birds rush forwards, wings flapping as parents land with food. Fledglings need to build fat reserves and practise flying to get ready for their first flight to Africa. Adults are calling constantly, their chattering matching the busy business of parenting.
As the tide comes in, and when people walk past, the flock takes off across the water. With fast wing beats, they lift higher and higher, rising and falling in a wave of shimmering silver, then black as the flock changes direction. One by one, lit by the evening sun, they touch down on the shore.
I’m transfixed as the terns fly back and forth. I follow them with my binoculars as they scan the sea for fish. I watch them hover, then dive for sand eels, hurrying back to chicks camouflaged against the shingle or hiding in the marram grass. One tern on the shore is waving his silvery fish in a courtship ritual – there’s just enough time to raise a family if he can find a female soon!
The birds are calling constantly – the sound of Winterton in summer. A tern swoops low over my head, dive-bombing even though I’m nowhere near the fenced colony. I move along the shoreline to show I’m no threat. At the far end of the colony, I sit on the beach listening to the distant choir and drinking my flask of coffee. The sun is setting behind me, casting its magical light on the birds in flight and the waves running over the sand.
There are 800 to 1000 little terns in total, the volunteer RSPB warden tells me. Wow! The birds didn’t nest at Eccles this year, which may explain the large colony at Winterton. The wardens have seen less predation this year too. I ask about dogs because a few years ago, I volunteered as a warden and was frustrated by people who refused to put their dogs on leads. Since then, the RSPB has been working with dog walkers, so they are generally more mindful now. This is another positive outcome for the little terns nesting here.
It’s heartwarming to know so many little terns set off for Africa, especially in light of the climate and biodiversity crises, and seabird colonies elsewhere decimated by avian influenza. This Amber-listed bird needed the luck of reduced predation this year. But breeding success is also down to the RSPB. Their dedicated team of wardens and volunteers monitor the colony 24/7 and educate people who use the beach. I’m thankful to them for the highlight of my summer!
Image credit: Little tern in flight, on a nest and with a fish by David Brighten.
You might like to read about why little terns are so vulnerable on our beaches and how the RSPB is helping to protect little terns around the UK.