East Norfolk and South Suffolk Little terns 2020 Season

In January, your group kindly invited fellow volunteer Caroline and myself to come and talk to your group about the work we do protecting Little Terns on the beaches of East Norfolk and North Suffolk. We promised you an update on the 2020 season and I apologise for this taking so long but hope that you and your members may find this short summary interesting.

Like everyone else in the country, we were affected by coronavirus which restricted staff and volunteer activities but we were able to erect fencing to protect the colonies at Eccles-on-Sea, Winterton and Kessingland. Only essential monitoring of nests, predation and fledging was possible as we had far fewer volunteers on the beach than in previous years.

2020 was not a good year for our Little Terns. Our colonies failed to meet the 0.75 fledglings per pair needed to maintain the population (achieving only between 0.19 and 0.35, though this could be an underestimate due to reduced monitoring this year). Final estimates were:

Eccles between 25 and 38 fledged from 136 breeding pairs

Winterton 0 fledged from 55 breeding pairs

Kessingland between 24 and 49 fledged from 62 breeding pairs

In addition, 18 ringed plover pairs fledged 6 young

Fortunately, there was good news from elsewhere in Norfolk as 154 pairs of Little Terns on Blakeney Point successfully fledged 201 young.

There were a number of reasons for the nest failures this year. Human disturbance caused around 20 nest losses over the 3 colonies but most of the losses were due to kestrel predation. Kestrels are an ongoing problem but one which fluctuates greatly, having a massive impact in some years (2020) and minimal impact in others (2019, when the terns at Eccles and Winterton together managed to successfully fledge 369 young from 219 pairs). Solutions being tried to reduce kestrel predation include: (1) diversionary feeding near known kestrel nests (timing seems to be critical here and we may have been too late starting this in 2020 due to the coronavirus restrictions); (2) providing more chick shelters in the colonies and spiky defences in the form of garden canes in the marram grass to make it difficult for the kestrels to swoop down; and (3) for the future, investigating with local landowners whether habitat for small mammals could be improved to increase the availability of alternative prey for the kestrels.

2020 was not a good year for Little Terns on our patch but while disappointing there is no reason for dismay. We know from monitoring over the past decade that productivity fluctuates greatly from season to season and the productivity of our colonies over the past four seasons has been high and local population numbers appear stable. As long as low productivity years are balanced by high ones, current conservation efforts should maintain the species presence in East Norfolk and North Suffolk.

Interesting stories emerged from colour-ringed birds spotted on our beaches. The second-oldest Little Tern ever recorded in the UK was spotted in Kessingland, having been ringed in Great Yarmouth in 1997. Two birds ringed on islands in the Dutch Wadden Sea turned up at Winterton. This and sightings from other years increasingly suggest interconnectivity between UK and Continental colonies around the North Sea.

Caroline and I really enjoyed our visit to your group in January and appreciate the interest shown by your members so do feel free to pass this information on to them. Next year we hope to renew our volunteer efforts in a post-coronavirus world. We will be looking for new volunteers who might like to try beach wardening (training will be provided) and for keen bird watchers to locate active kestrel nests in the vicinity of Eccles and Winterton beaches so that we can put in diversionary feeding. If any of your members think they might be interested in helping with either of these things, they can contact me initially and I will try to answer their questions or put them on to someone who can.

Pat Grocott, Little Tern Volunteer Warden


Tel. 01263 731128