Research haikus

Last month, the Zoology Department’s Dr. David Kelly launched his first book of Japanese short form poetry, Hammerscale from the Thrush’s Anvil. At the launch of the book, David invited us in the audience to try our hand at writing our own haikus.

Taking him up on his challenge, and taking inspiration from his book, a few of us in the School of Natural Sciences have penned our own poems based on our areas of study. We even have a contribution from David Kelly himself!

Trying not to sacrifice coherency at the alter of syllable number was a rather new struggle for most of us, but we managed and, I’d like to think, emerged with a greater appreciation for the poets in our midst. Read on for our science-y foray into the arts!

(Paula Tierney @_ptierney)


Yellow red fish eyes

Maybe that’s a nematode?

No, it is more fish

Paula Tierney


Carbon fixed by plants

Then sequestered in the soil

Helps to keep Earth cool

Matt Saunders


Hoverflies hover

Syrphidae flying over

Gardens of flowers

Sarah Gabel


Monochrome poets

Curved claws etching musky spoors

Into the cold night

Aoibheann Gaughran Continue reading “Research haikus”

Ecology & Science in Ireland: the inaugural meeting of the Irish Ecological Association


In the years to come, 140 ecologists working in Ireland will look back with fond memories of being part of the inaugural meeting of the Irish Ecological Association (24th-26th November). We will remember hard-hitting plenaries, compelling oral presentations, data-rich posters, influential workshops and the formation of the IEA’s first committee. The lively social events might be harder for some of us to remember…

There could not have been a more fitting way to open the conference than the plenary seminar from Professor Ian Montgomery (QUB) on Thursday night. Within the hour, he managed to given an incredibly detailed summary of the natural history of Ireland, showing how Ireland had been an island for 16,000 years and presenting evidence that human occupation dated back 13,000 years. Ian stepped us through successive mammal invasions, classifying them as true ‘natives’ and more recent ‘invasives’. His seminar was open to the public and the audience included local farmers with strong concerns about the impacts of invasive mammals on their stock.

We were welcomed the following morning with an energetic plenary from Professor Jane Memmott (U Bristol), covering her strikingly diverse career. She took us on a journey from life as a medical entomologist, to tropical ecologist living in a Costa Rican jungle tent, to invasion biologist in the land of invasives – New Zealand, to her more recent work on biodiversity in urban and farmland systems. Quantitative food webs were the central theme. Using both simple and complex food webs, based on enormous data sets, Jane clearly showed that we only see the full story about ecosystem dynamics by examining links between trophic levels. Continue reading “Ecology & Science in Ireland: the inaugural meeting of the Irish Ecological Association”

Trump and the future of “America’s best idea.”


In 1872 Yellowstone National Park was established as the first National Park not only in the USA, but in the world. President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act, and so the National Parks were born. Today 59 National Parks exist throughout the United States, covering approximately 51.9 million acres with the goal of maintaining in perpetuity both wildlife and their habitat. Since 1916 the National Park Service (NPS) has been entrusted with the care of these National Parks, and this year they celebrate their centenary.

The National Parks have been referred to as “America’s best idea”, an ideology that has spread across the globe promoting the conservation of what little natural habitat and resources remain. What began as a single National Park in 1872 has spread to over 100 nations and been built up to approximately 1,200 National Parks.

In the wake of Trump’s shock election win, researchers, scientists, conservationists and a significant proportion of the public are lamenting for our natural world.It is no secret that Donald Trump does not openly believe in climate change, refusing to accept the overwhelming scientific evidence. Not only this but he has also promised to dismantle the Paris Agreement which sought to limit the temperature rise associated with global warming to below 2°C in order to reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.

Today the NPS actively teaches about, and warns of, the dangers of climate change to both the National Parks and the natural world at large. However, it is feared that the NPS will be silenced under a Trump Administration. Under the second Bush Administration talk of climate change by the NPS was prohibited under a decree from the Secretary of the Interior. Similar circumstances are expected under a Trump Administration, with Sarah Palin expected to be made Secretary of the Interior. If this comes to fruition then Palin would oversee the extraction of natural resources on approximately 500 million acres of public land, including the iconic National Parks, such as the Grand Canyon and Yosemite. Palin’s stance on natural resources leaves little hope as she has actively campaigned for the drilling of oil within the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, the nation’s largest Wildlife Refuge, at the expense of the wildlife within it: “If a caribou needs to be sacrificed for the sake of energy … I say, ‘Mr. Caribou, maybe you need to take one for the team.’” Continue reading “Trump and the future of “America’s best idea.””

Freeing Willy: the $20 million failed experiment

In 1993 Free Willy leapt onto cinema screens around the world. The story about a young boy who saves a killer whale from a run-down theme park was an instant hit for Warner Bros. However for Keiko, the whale who played Willy, the story did not have a Hollywood ending. While Willy jumped to freedom as the credits rolled, Keiko remained in captivity. What followed was a global effort to return Keiko to the wild at all costs, even to Keiko himself.

Keiko, a male killer whale (Orcinus orca), was born in the North Atlantic off Iceland, sometime between 1977 and 1978. His life took a strange turn when in 1979 he was captured and sent to the Icelandic aquarium in Hafnarfjörður. He was then sold to Marineland of Canada Inc. in 1982 and moved to Ontario, joining a small group of other killer whales. Finally, Keiko was sold to the amusement park Reino Aventura in Mexico City in 1985, for $350,000. While in Mexico Keiko lived alone in an approximately 500,000-gallon chlorinated tank, except for the occasional company of Bottlenose Dolphins. Having little animal companionship, Keiko developed strong bonds with his human carers.

Keiko’s life took an even more unusual twist when he was cast in the lead role of the 1993 Warner Bros. film, Free Willy. This surprise hit reached a global audience and was a huge economic success for the studio. Keiko depicted Willy, a killer whale saved from a run-down theme park and returned to the wild. However when filming ended, Keiko remained in captivity, languishing in Mexico. The irony of the situation did not go unnoticed by the press, and activists waged a public campaign to make Keiko the first captive killer whale to be returned to the wild.

With growing public support, the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation was established in 1995 with $4 million from Warner Bros. and $2 million from the cellphone billionaire Craig McCaw. Reino Aventura agreed to donate Keiko to the foundation and in 1996 he was moved to an extensive 2-million-gallon seawater rehabilitation facility which had been constructed at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, at a cost of $7.3 million. Keiko’s health drastically improved once arriving in Oregon and he gained several thousand pounds. In Oregon, the complex task began of teaching Keiko how to be a whale again. Keiko had to be taught basic skills such as how to hold his breath for long periods, swim greater distances, and to ultimately catch and eat live fish. These skills would be critical if Keiko was to ever be returned to the wild. Progress was made and in August 1997 Keiko did indeed catch and eat his first live fish. While in Oregon Keiko became a public sensation and between 1996 and 1998 more than 2 million visitors made the pilgrimage to the see the Hollywood celebrity at the Aquarium. However Oregon was not the end point of the project.

Keiko in December 1998
Keiko in December 1998

The staff of the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation set the goal of releasing Keiko into a sea pen in the North Atlantic by 1998. Negotiations with multiple governments led to Iceland being selected as the release site. Ireland was also heavily considered and significant government support was put forward, but the lack of frequent killer whale sightings around our coasts made this option unrealistic for Keiko’s long-term release. In 1998 it was determined that Keiko was exhibiting normal killer whale behaviours and was healthy enough to be released. Up to half of Keiko’s daily intake of food now comprised of live fish and on September 9th, Keiko was lifted from his tank and transported to Klettsvik Bay in Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland, 19 years after he had been captured.

No expense was spared in Iceland. The project had nearly 20 people, boats and even a helicopter to ensure Keiko’s reintroduction had every chance of success. Keiko’s team continued to feed him while in Iceland and once fitted with a tracking device, Keiko was finally taken out to sea on ‘sea-walks’. The success of the project relied on integrating Keiko into an existing pod of wild killer whales, preferably the pod from which he had been taken. However Keiko’s early interactions with wild killer whales were not as promising as had been hoped. When in the presence of wild killer whales, Keiko remained on the periphery, at distances of 100–300m, and he was not observed feeding when among the wild killer whales. Instead he remained motionless or swam slowly. Stomach samples taken after these interactions showed no evidence of any food remains, confirming that Keiko did not feed when with wild killer whales.

Keiko being removed from his tank in Oregon

Over time progress was observed and on the 30th July 2002, a brief physical interaction was seen when Keiko dove among wild killer whales. However a tail splash from one of the wild Whales elicited a startle response from Keiko, who swam back to his tracking boat. This was the only time Keiko was seen diving among killer whales and the only physical interaction observed. The project took another hit in early 2002 when Craig McCaw lost millions in the Dotcom Crash and withdrew his support from the project. With annual operational costs of approximately $3.5 million the project was taken over by the animal protection organization, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), with a greatly reduced budget and a ‘tough love’ policy. This policy saw Keiko’s team downsized and interactions with Keiko by his care staff also significantly reduced when in the presence of wild whales. Yet hopes grew when it finally seemed as though the entire experiment had paid off.

In August 2002 Keiko left southern Iceland and began a 900-mile journey to Norway. It was hoped that Keiko had finally been accepted by wild killer whales and had chosen to leave humans. Unfortunately, when he showed up in the Halsa Community inside a Norwegian fjord he wasn’t following a pod of killer whales, he was seeking contact with humans and allowing children to ride on his back. He had been on his own for nearly 60 days, yet based on girth measurements he appeared in good health and it was presumed he had eaten during that period. Keiko became an instant hit and thousands of visitors came from across Europe to visit Keiko in Norway. His caretakers relocated to Norway and began feeding him once again. They continued to conduct ‘sea-walks’ with Keiko for the next 15 months. During his time in Norway Keiko did not interact with any wild killer whales and actively sought out and initiated human contact, frequently following boats. Keiko died on the 12th December 2003 in the Taknes fjord in Norway, alone at the estimated age of 27. The cause of death was presumed to be acute pneumonia, although no necropsy was carried out.

Keiko’s reintegration into the wild was a complete failure according to numerous scientists and professionals, such as Dr Naomi Rose of the HSUS. Although he had numerous experiences with wild killer whales and was physically free to leave, Keiko continually returned to his caretakers for both food and company, never integrating with other whales. In retrospect it has been agreed that Keiko was not a suitable candidate for release due to his long history in captivity, social isolation, young age at capture and strong bonds with humans. However, Keiko’s story hit an unusual chord with the public and the public’s drive to see Keiko returned to the wild was something of which animal rights groups unashamedly took advantage, according to Dr Rose.

Costing more than $20 million dollars, Keiko’s release has shown us that release of long-term captive killer whales is incredibly challenging, if not impossible. Although we might find it appealing as humans to release such animals, in reality this may severely impact the well-being of the animals concerned. The HSUS and other groups involved in Keiko’s release wanted Keiko released at any cost and Jeffrey Foster, a trainer who cared for Keiko in Oregon and Iceland, believes that “the cause got in the way of doing the right thing [for Keiko]”. Mark Simmons, the director of animal husbandry for the Keiko Project, has even gone on to speculate that Keiko’s release from captivity amounted to animal abuse. Mr. Simmons has noted that Keiko’s health was drastically impacted when he was reintroduced and had it not been for continued medical interventions, Keiko would have died shortly after release.

In reality Keiko was a confused animal who depended on people, and the fact that his return to the wild was not a Hollywood success has raised huge concerns over the ethics of trying to return other captive Whales and dolphins to the wild. There has been a recent surge in opinions asking for the release of all captive killer whales, however if Keiko has thought us anything, it is that this is potentially self-serving and could be dangerous to the individual animals concerned. Today approximately 56 killer whales live in human care, the majority of whom were born in captivity. If Keiko, an animal born in the wild and with every resource available to him, could not be returned to the wild successfully, then what can we expect of animals born in captivity? And who can we expect to pay for it, considering that the sheer cost of maintaining Keiko in a sea pen proved unsustainable.

Keiko lived for five years in Iceland and Norway, but he never came close to being a wild whale again. Removing Keiko from Mexico was undoubtedly the right thing to do, however the best thing for Keiko in the long-term may not have been his release. The fact that maintaining Keiko in Iceland was financially unsustainable, and that Keiko never reintegrated into the wild, suggests that the best thing for Keiko may have been to live out his life in Oregon. Residing at the Oregon Coast Aquarium would have provided long-term financial stability to the project, ensuring the best possible quality of life for Keiko and perhaps even extending his life. This would also have allowed Keiko to remain in the company of the humans he relied on so much, rather than being forced into a life that he maybe never truly understood.

Author: Andy Mooney @andymooney13

Before training your dragon, print a 3D tail for him


3D printing (or additive manufacturing, AM) describes any of the various processes used to make a three-dimensional object. In 3D printing, additive processes are used, in which successive layers of material are laid down under computer control. While its limitless potential in manufacturing, the construction industry, transportation and human health has been widely recognized, 3D printing also plays a significant role in animal protection and conservation.

Several cases of using 3D printing for animal assistance have been reported during the past few years. Although artificial limbs have been used to help poor dogs and other animals who lost their legs, 3D printing makes the design and manufacture of the limbs far easier. And, thanks to the well developed 3D-scanning technology, the printed limbs are more efficient and comfortable for animals. Just see how happy this dog is.

Birds also benefit from 3D printing. This bald eagle and Costa Rican toucan both received printed beaks which will hopefully improve their chances of survival. And a tortoise has even been given a new shell thanks to 3D printing technology.

3D printing can be also applied to animal conservation in the wild. For example, the Wildlife Conservation UAV Challenge uses 3D printed drones to save endangered animals from poachers. 3D printing has also been used to build animal habitats including hives for bees, artificial reefs for fish, and nests for birds.

For the sake of scientific education, 3D printed models of skulls, organs and muscles can be used for demonstrations and detailed observations. In research, the technology can play an important role in studies of animal behavior and physical ecology. For example, 3D printed birds and fish can be used to explore how animals adapt to hydraulic resistance.

The wide-ranging potential for using 3D printing in animal protection and conservation seems limitless!

Author: Qiang Yang (Marvin), @MarvinQiangYang

Image Source




Predators: feathered friend or foe?


On Wednesday January 14th the Pat Kenny show on Newstalk radio station hosted Professor Luke O’Neill (a prominent Trinity College Dublin Immunologist), in a segment exploring the causes of the huge declines seen in European bird populations Comments from both Professor O’Neill and Mr. Kenny implicating raptors and corvids in these bird declines provoked a storm on social media. Every Irish environmental NGO has strongly condemned these implications. Professor O’Neill was not in possession of the full facts and has apologised*. Predatory birds are not responsible for severe declines in many bird populations [1] and here at TCD EcoEvo we lay out the real reasons for these declines and show why natural predators like Red Kites, White-tailed Sea-eagles and Golden Eagles are in fact of huge benefit to ecosystems.

There’s no doubt that many bird populations are declining at an astonishing rate. An estimated 421 million individuals have been lost from the populations of 144 species over 30 years between 1980 and 2009 [2]. While the rarest European species have increased in population due to intensive conservation efforts, previously common species have experienced massive population declines. Though most of these species are not in imminent danger of extinction their decrease is a worrying sign of the poor health of the European environment. These previously common species are also vitally important in the provision of ecosystem services, such as scavenging and keeping rodent and insect populations in check.

Multiple causes have contributed to bird population decline, but the most important reason is destruction of bird habitats through land use change. As natural habitats have been lost to human development and agriculture has intensified, bird populations have suffered. Many of the species which have suffered most are traditional farmland birds such as Corncrakes, Yellowhammers and Corn Buntings (declared extinct as a breeding bird in Ireland [3]), though declines have been seen across the board. Unfortunately there is no simple solution to this problem. A widespread shift in public mentality to place more value on our natural heritage is likely needed to pressurise legislators to make real progress on environmental issues. In the short term, more engagement with farmers and improvement of incentives such as the tweaking of rural environment funding schemes to enable protection of hedgerows and management of unproductive marginal areas for wildlife, could release pressure on some of the worst affected species.

DSC_0041 (3)


Increased pressure from natural predators is not thought to be a major factor driving the decline in bird populations. In the largest study of its kind, Newson et al. (2010) [1] found no evidence that population increases in avian predators were associated with large-scale population declines in the majority of songbird species. The predators singled out as causes of bird declines on Newstalk, corvids and large raptors, were not considered to have had any significant effect.

Corvids (the crow family) as a group have commonly received a largely unfair vilification. While they can certainly cause localised declines in songbirds, there’s no evidence of them causing widespread declines. Their increase in numbers is due to human modification of the environment. Their adaptability means they do well in the highly fragmented habitat we have created, filled with discarded food and road kill carrion. The increase in corvid numbers is just another symptom of the poor health of the environment, not the cause.

Due to widespread persecution, large raptors were almost completely absent from Ireland by the early 20th century. The reintroductions undertaken by the Golden Eagle Trust  of the Golden Eagle (starting 2001), White-tailed Sea-eagle and Red Kite (both in 2007), along with the dramatic recovery in Buzzard numbers across the island of Ireland, has gone some way to redressing this balance. Predators, such as these birds, play an incredibly important role in structuring and maintaining stability in ecological communities [4]. None of Ireland’s large raptors are thought to be making a significant impact on any declining bird species. Buzzards and Golden Eagles are noted predators of corvids and compete with them for carrion. They also have a behavioural effect on corvids, forcing them to spend time being vigilant for aerial predators, reducing their foraging efficiency. Apex predators provide a major benefit to the ecosystem by controlling medium sized predators in this way.



Ireland’s avian predators contribute key services to the Irish ecosystem. Raptors, along with corvids, carry out the vital role of cleaning up the ample carrion produced by animals hit on our roads, removing carcasses which could harbour disease. The Red Kite is particularly adept at this role as, despite well publicised misconceptions, it is much more of a scavenger than a hunter. Considering these potential benefits, and the absence of any evidence linking our avian predators to a decline in bird populations, these species are rightly legally protected from culling [5,6]. This protection is particularly vital, as despite the recovery of large raptors in Ireland we still have a long way to go compared to other European countries. Red Kite and eagle populations in Ireland are extremely localised and small while the Buzzard has yet to re-colonise large parts of the country. Hopefully with continued support they will go on to establish stable breeding populations in the coming years.

Biased perception can promote persecution and needless vilification, especially of predators. Thankfully the outdated concept that man will somehow bring balance to the environment by killing off natural predators seems to be on the wane. This week’s social media storm certainly showed that attitudes towards raptor conservation have come a long way. Predators need to be appreciated as vital parts of a functioning ecosystem. They also deserve to be appreciated as incredible animals worthy of our affection. Anyone who has stopped to observe the ingenuity of a foraging Magpie or observed the incredible dynamism of a Golden Eagle in flight will know that these are exceptional animals which we are privileged to have gracing the Irish landscape.

Luke O’Neill would like to add that he apologises unreservedly for the errors he made in the interview on the Pat Kenny show and regrets any harm he might have caused to raptor conservation efforts.


Darren O’Connell, Andrew Power, Nicola Marples, Andrew Jackson, Yvonne Buckley (Chair of Zoology), EcoEvo@TCD

Photo credit

Darren O’Connell and Andrew Power


[1] Newson, S.E., Rexstad, E.A., Baillie, S.R., Buckland, S.T. and Aebischer, N.J. (2010) Population change of avian predators and grey squirrels in England: is there evidence for an impact on avian prey populations? Journal of Applied Ecology, 47: 244-252.

[2] Inger, R., Gregory, R., Duffy, J.P., Stott, I., Voříšek, P. and Gaston, K.J. (2015) Common European birds are declining rapidly while less abundant species’ numbers are rising. Ecology Letters, 18: 28-36.

[3] Balmer, D., Gillings, S., Caffrey, B., Swann, B., Downie, I. and Fuller, R. (2013) Bird Atlas 2007-11: the breeding and wintering birds of Britain and Ireland. HarperCollins, UK.

[4] Estes, J.A., Terborgh, J., Brashares, J.S., Power, M.E., Berger, J., Bond, W., Carpenter, S.R.,  Essington, T.E., Holt, R.D., Jackson, J.B.C., Marquis, R.J., Oksanen, L., Oksanen, T.,  Paine, R.T., Pikitch, E.K., Ripple, W.J., Sandin, S.A., Scheffer, M., Schoener, T.W., Shurin, J.B.,  Sinclair, A.R.E., Soulé, M.E., Virtanen, R. and Wardle D.A. (2011) Trophic downgrading of planet Earth. Science, 333: 301-306.

[5] Wildlife Act, 1976, Wildlife (Amendment) Act, 2000, and Wildlife (Amendment) Act, 2012. Stationery Office, Dublin, Ireland.

[6] Council Directive 2009/147/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 30 November 2009 on the conservation of wild birds.









Tropical Field Course Kenya

IMG_1564We’ve just returned from our annual Tropical Ecology Field Course in Kenya with our final year undergraduates. Our trip took us on a journey through the rift valley to the theme of biodiversity, conservation and sustainable livelihoods. Here are some of the sights of the trip:

Visit to Lake Nakuru National Park where water levels have been on the rise creating these eerie tree graveyards!
A Grey Crowned Crane on the shores of Lake Baringo where we were camping.
A hike along the soda lake of Bogoria



Maribou stork looks on
Little fruit bats keeping a close eye on us!
An olive baboon and her baby eyeing us suspiciously!
The gorge at Hell’s Gate National Park, Naivasha- look out Simba!


Author: Deirdre McClean

Photo credits: Deirdre McClean and Ian Donohue

Bird Feeders

AWBVDSC_2691.jpeg-p194p512d2km1im218hp1hk2sjt-0It’s coming up to winter so people will be conscious that our garden birds need a helping hand to get through the cold months. Bird feeders will be stocked, bread served up and water dished out. In the UK alone, almost half of households provide supplementary food for birds throughout the year. And although songbirds are usually the species that come to mind when we think of provisioning food the same principle can apply to more exotic birds, notably vultures. Indeed conservationists have supplied extra food to these scavengers for decades. Instead of bread or berries, a carcass is left out for the vultures to feed on. A recent paper of ours advocates this technique for a population of African White-backed Vultures in Swaziland.

This country is home to the densest breeding population of this species so we should do our best to conserve them given the huge declines suffered by vultures throughout the Old World. In the paper we showed times when there isn’t enough food in Swaziland to feed the whole population which means the birds are forced to forage farther afield, most likely in South Africa. On the face of it this doesn’t seem problematic because South Africa has huge populations of herbivores which could supply carcasses to vultures. But the birds must fly over unprotected areas as well. This increases their chances that they’ll encounter a poisoned carcass, perhaps set out by a farmer to kill the terrestrial carnivores harassing his livestock.

It’s well known that vultures are particularly sensitive to poisons, especially NSAIDs. Their group foraging behaviour makes them even more susceptible too, the discovery of a carcass by one individual will bring in the rest of the soaring birds in visual range. The hope with creating vulture restaurants is the birds will focus on foraging for carrion in Swaziland, minimising the risk of poisoning.

Yet there are well known problems with supplying supplementary food for animals in general. They may act as an ecological trap for instance, drawing the birds into an area only for the fickle humans to stop the supply of food. Carrion is an unpredictable resource so vultures forage in a characteristic way to improve their chance of encountering it. If food is supplied in a predicable way there is a fear we may disrupt these behaviours. Another recently realised danger in providing supplementary food is that it can attract unwanted guests. Sites tailor made for vultures in South Africa were shown to draw in jackals and hyenas.

Given these issues practitioners need to think carefully about how they provide food. Perhaps the best approach is a series of sites supplying food at random which would best represent the distribution of naturally occurring carrion.

Author: Adam Kane, @P1zPalu, kanead[at]

Photo credit: Munir Virani

A tern-up for the books

Little Tern taking off from nest © Andrew Power and Peter Cutler
Little Tern taking off from nest © Andrew Power and Peter Cutler

The last two years have seen successive record breeding seasons for Little Terns (Sternula albifrons) on the Irish east coast, with over 350 pairs breeding in 2013 and over 400 pairs in 2014. These record years are the result of 30 years of dedicated efforts to rescue Little Terns as an Irish breeding species, after population collapses in the 1980s and 1990s. As part of the BirdWatch Ireland team involved in these two exceptional years, we reflect on the conservation success story which has led to this remarkable tern-around in fortunes.

The Little Tern is Ireland’s second rarest breeding seabird. They breed in three main colonies on the east coast, Kilcoole (Wicklow), Baltray (Louth) and Wexford Harbour, and 10-15 smaller colonies on islands off the west coast. Little Terns breed in Europe, migrating to the west coast of Africa each winter. They arrive in Ireland from late April and leave with their fledged chicks in mid-August. The fledglings spend their first year in Africa, returning to breed in their second year. During the breeding season Little Terns nest on shingle beaches, with their nest being little more than a scrape in the shingle. Their eggs rely on their perfect camouflage for protection. However, this makes them acutely vulnerable to human disturbance, as eggs are easily trampled by people and dogs. The increased use of beaches as a recreational resource from the middle of the 20th century onwards led to severe population losses and the abandonment of many traditional colony sites such as the North Bull Island, Co. Dublin.

In response to this population decline the first Irish Little Tern protection scheme was initiated at Kilcoole in 1985 by BirdWatch Ireland and the National Parks and Wildlife Services. A section of the beach was fenced off from the public during the breeding season, with wardens on site to monitor breeding success and ward off potential predators. Coming from a low base of fewer than 20 breeding pairs in the mid-80s, numbers built slowly through the 1990s and Kilcoole was the only Irish Little Tern colony to maintain a breeding presence during this period. Good breeding seasons between 2003-2005 and 2008-2011 (50+ pairs, 100+ fledglings) paved the way for this year’s record success, with 120 pairs producing 219 fledglings.

The recovery of Little Terns was greatly aided by the initiation of a second wardening scheme at Baltray in 2007 by volunteers from the Louth Nature Trust, funded by the Heritage Council. BirdWatch Ireland joined the Baltray scheme as a partner in 2013. That year saw the Baltray colony more than doubling its previous success, with 102 pairs producing 193 fledglings. The 2014 season proved more difficult, with the colony suffering heavily from predation. However, the maintenance of a second wardened colony is hugely important, so that breeding success is no longer entirely dependent on a single site.

Little Tern chick © Susan Doyle.
Little Tern chick © Susan Doyle.

While wardened colonies such as those at Kilcoole and Baltray have succeeded in halting population decline in Little Terns in Britain and Ireland, their contraction in range has been much more severe [1]. Their vulnerability to disturbance has seen a shift towards fewer, larger colonies in the remaining areas where they are free from human disturbance, mostly in fenced off wardened areas or on offshore islands. This brings its own problems. Little Terns would naturally breed in smaller colonies, widely spread along shingle beaches. The more densely inhabited protected colonies are a beacon to predators, especially mammalian predators such as foxes, hedgehogs and mink, which can clean out a colony in a single night. Most wardened colonies have had to adopt elaborate fencing and 24-hour wardening to protect against heavy predation. While these fenced off areas are far from a natural environment, these wardening schemes have ensured the continued existence of the Little Tern as a breeding species, as well as having a positive knock on effect for breeding waders and other species which depend on the shingle beach habitat.

2014 was also a special year because we were lucky enough to be the first wardens to colour ring Little Terns in Ireland. Green darvic colour rings were used, with a unique three letter code in white writing, beginning with ‘I’. Between Kilcoole and Baltray 159 Little Tern chicks were colour ringed in Ireland this year. In addition to the Irish scheme Little Terns are being colour ringed with yellow colour rings engraved with black writing on the Isle of Man and at various other British sites. This will give us a much better understanding of the movements of Little Terns between colonies within the Irish Sea, their pre-migration staging posts and the routes they take through Europe on migration. It will also allow us to gain a greater insight into aspects of their biology such as pair fidelity, recruitment rate of fledglings into the breeding population, individual preference in nest location and adult longevity.

IAN the Little Tern chick © Kristina Abariute and Andrew Power.
IAN the Little Tern chick © Kristina Abariute and Andrew Power.

We have already started to reap the rewards as Kilcoole fledglings have been re-sighted at Hilbre Island in the Dee estuary, south Devon, Brittany and Lisbon. These first few sightings have already given us insight into how Little Terns move through Europe on migration. Hopefully these are the first of many sightings and we eagerly await summer 2016, when the first Little Terns colour ringed in Ireland should be returning to breed for the first time!

While 2013 and 2014 were unparalleled successes, Little Terns colonies are extremely vulnerable to predation and inclement weather. This was illustrated in 2012 when the east coast colonies experienced almost zero breeding success due to a series of storms. Therefore the continuation of current conservation measures are necessary for their survival. As well as its conservation value, the BirdWatch Ireland tern colonies have also proved an invaluable educational resource, providing a point of contact with the public. They have also provided inspiration, training and employment for many budding conservationists.

For more information about the Kilcoole project see the recent RTÉ news report on the project’s record year:

Or visit the project blog and see a recent documentary:

Darren O’Connell, Susan Doyle and Andrew Power

The 2013 Baltray and 2014 Kilcoole Little Tern Wardens

With a special thanks to Niall Keogh, Cole Macey, Jerry Wray, Tony Glass and Maurice Conaghy, our co-workers on many an early morning and late night, project manager Dr Stephan Newton and all the volunteers who make Baltray and Kilcoole tick.

Balmer, D., Gillings, S., Caffrey, B., Swann, B., Downie, I. and Fuller, R. (2013) Bird Atlas 2007-11: the breeding and wintering birds of Britain and Ireland. HarperCollins, UK.