Mixed fortunes for little terns in the UK during 2017

Success for some little tern populations, but other colonies have struggled.

Little Tern Sterna albifrons, adult feeding well grown chick on shingle beach, Norfolk, August

Little terns fly from Africa to breed in the UK. © RSPB

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One of the UK’s rarest breeding seabirds, little terns face numerous challenges to raise their chicks. In 2017, a total of 617 juvenile little terns fledged from colonies in the UK.

This is fewer than the 709 fledglings in 2016, but higher than the average for the five-year period before the current conservation project began (average of 609 fledglings per year between 2009 and 2013).

At least two colonies suffered from deliberate nest destruction, with more than 60 eggs lost, and others struggled with tidal surges and predation from other species.

“You wouldn’t think when looking at it, but every year this tiny bird, against all the odds, travels thousands of miles from Africa to raise a family here in the UK,” says Susan Rendell-Read, little tern project manager for the RSPB. “Sadly, like many of our seabirds, the little tern is in trouble. Their numbers have dropped dramatically in recent years and they are at risk of disappearing completely from our shores.”

Little terns nest on open beaches, where they often disturbed by humans and dogs. Many suitable nesting sites have been lost to development, erosion and rises in sea levels.

Eggs and chicks are preyed upon by a range of predators, including other birds such as kestrels, while the availability of suitable prey for the little terns also effects the survival rate of young birds.

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Read more wildlife news stories in BBC Wildlife Magazine