A drive has been launched to safeguard one of the North East’s rarest seabirds as the first individuals return from their wintering grounds in Africa.
Little terns, the smallest of the UK’s tern species, have been spotted at Beadnell Bay and Holy Island in Northumberland after completing a journey of thousands of miles.
The birds nest at only three locations in the region – Long Nanny near Beadnell, Lindisfarne national nature reserve and Crimdon in County Durham.
Last year the three sites held a total of around 90 nesting pairs, with numbers at Long Nanny down from 40 in 2012 to 17 in 2013.
Last year the Crimdon colony was stripped of eggs by thieves.
The birds, which nest on the beaches, are vulnerable to disturbance by beach users and natural predators.
There are also concerns that the birds will be hit by climate change, with rising sea levels, tidal surges and more extreme weather.
The big tidal surge earlier this year has lowered the beach level at Long Nanny and it remains to be seen if the returning birds accept the change.
In response to the threats, a new five-year partnership project has been established to help secure the future of the little terns.
Supported by the EU LIFE + programme, the project will seek to protect existing nest sites and create new ones, and raise public awareness of the birds’ precarious position.
A local partnership made up of Natural England, the National Trust, the RSPB and the Northumberland Coast AONB Partnership has recruited Mhairi Maclauchlan as a regional co-ordinator for the project in Northumberland.
Over the course of the nesting season she will work with local communities and beachgoers along the Northumberland coast and encourage them to give the birds space so they can breed undisturbed.
Long Nanny, a National Trust site, is protected by an electric fence to deter predators and has a 24-hour warden watch.
The Lindisfarne and Crimdon sites are also cordoned off and are watched by wardens.
Mhairi said: “As climate change threatens our coastline, little terns are forced into fewer and fewer colonies and have to share space on some of our most popular beaches leading to major problems with disturbance.
“Local communities and beachgoers have a vital role to play in helping little terns.
“These tiny seabirds just need space to breed undisturbed so we are urging visitors to these beaches to avoid entering certain areas while the little terns are breeding”.
“These dainty little seabirds, no heavier than a tennis ball, have just started returning to our shores after travelling thousands of miles from their wintering sites off the south and west coasts of Africa. We need to make sure that they have the best chance of finding a suitable home when they arrive.”
Ian Robson, access and natural environment officer with the Northumberland Coast AONB, said that beach visitors, walkers and bird watchers were being asked to report where little terns are seen.
“If the birds are prospecting new areas then perhaps we can fence off sites,” he said. “We are also looking at potential new sites to give the birds other places to go.
“The beaches are there for people to use but we also need to make space for wildlife.”