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Arctic Terns defend their own

by Malcolm Ogilvie

I've been keeping an eye on an Arctic Tern colony over the last few weeks. There are some 30 pairs breeding at the top of a beach about a mile along the road. The beach, a mixture of sand and shingle, is nearly two miles long and the terns breed somewhere along its length every year. An unfenced road runs parallel to the beach and between the two is a 50-yard-wide strip of grass. It is a popular place for locals and visitors alike to pull off and park their cars. It isn't a good bathing beach, but is much used for walking, including of dogs, and picnics and knocking the odd golf ball about.

Arctic ternAlthough the presence of cars, people and dogs means that there is a certain amount of inevitable disturbance, the terns cope with it in their own special way, dive-bombing anyone, and any animal, who comes too close. They don't hesitate to hit an intruder about the head, delivering a sharp stab with their pointed bill as they pass. It is a bit mean of me I know, but if, as I drive by, I see someone walking along the grass or the beach towards the colony, I usually stop in order to enjoy the show. One moment the walker is enjoying a pleasant stroll by the sea, the next moment they suddenly start ducking and waving their arms vigorously, to be followed by, usually, a hasty retreat. On one memorable occasion, a youngster was riding his bike along the beach and was so startled as birds zoomed out of the sky towards him that he fell off. He was on a sandy area and so wasn't hurt, but he didn't bother to remount, just grabbed his bike and ran away!

Rather than let the terns cope entirely on their own, we have tried erecting noticeboards saying "Nesting birds, please keep away", although I personally think that "Danger - nesting birds" might be more persuasive. However, the whole area is grazed by sheep and cattle and the latter, in particular, regard the notices as ideal scratching posts. Also, the terns are apt to shift the precise location of their colony not only from year to year, but within the summer, too. Disturbance during the period when they are just settling in, and before egg-laying has started, may shift some or all of the birds from one part of the beach to another. That happened this year even before we had put up any notices and we have actually ended up with two groups of nests, about 200 yards apart. And they are doing fine with the adults bringing a steady supply of sand-eels to the growing chicks.

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Dr Ogilvie is a natural history writer and editor, formerly a research scientist with the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, and resident on the island of Islay since 1986. Until 1997, a member of the 'British Birds' editorial board and also one of the editorial team which produced 'Birds of the Western Palearctic'.