Terns in Cumbria

(April 25, 2019)

Four species of tern nest around Cumbria’s coast although there has been a general decline in numbers over recent years. All are notoriously fickle in the use of nesting sites; disturbance or predation can cause the whole colony to abandon a site in the next season.

Most people’s favourite has to be the diminutive Little Tern (see above). Its small size, black tipped yellow bill and white forehead make it very distinctive and appealing. Their flight is fast and jerky and when looking for food they hover with head held low before plunging. This is a very attractive species to watch, especially at the RSPB Hodbarrow Reserve at Millom, where a hide provides perfect viewing. Although the species used to nest all around the Cumbrian coast there are now only a handful of colonies, of which Hodbarrow and Foulney are the largest. Even here, despite wardening and protective fencing to keep out Red Foxes, productivity is unfortunately low. In an average year probably no more than 50 pairs now nest around our coast.

The most numerous Tern species around Cumbria’s coast is the large Sandwich Tern. However it is now restricted to just the one site at Hodbarrow, having previously abandoned nesting at Ravenglass, Walney and Foulney. A raucous but handsome bird, it is recognised by its yellow tipped black bill.

Arctic and Common Terns are hard to separate in flight, although a little easier on the ground. In Cumbria they conveniently help us to get experience in recognition by nesting at separate sites! Arctic Terns currently only use Foulney Island; up to 30 pairs nest on the spit each year, watched over by a dedicated warden. Common Terns are found at Hodbarrow and Rockcliffe Marsh, but total numbers are probably less than for the Arctic. Although not infallible, the bill colour provides the best distinguishing feature – Common Terns have a black tipped red bill (see photo below), while Arctic Terns have no black tip and the bill is often a deeper, more crimson, red.

As Hodbarrow holds three of the four Tern species found in the County it is an important site and well worth a visit in late May and June to see them. The fenced area in front of the hide holds a truly cosmopolitan community of nesting birds. As well as the Terns, there might be Grebes, Ringed Plover, several species of Gull, Geese, and Tufted Duck amongst others:-