Saturday, 22 July 2017

Growing Pins

It’s been a busy time here on The Rock this past month with the vast majority of eggs having now hatched. We’ve seen the eggs here tern from chick to fledgling in what seems like no time at all as we wardens have been scrambling to try keep up with the big peaks in synchronised laying and hatching that happen. The chicks go through dramatic changes here in a very short space of time (30 days). In this blog I wanted to try show how striking a transformation these birds make so quickly.

 This is the first chick hatched in a 3 egg clutch Common Tern clutch and we can also see it’s sibling has pipped a little hole in its egg and will be out soon (likely in the next 24hrs). This chick is around 1 day old, they’re more or less immobile for their first 1-2 days and it is nearing the point of taking it first few steps around the nest. When they emerge from their eggs they are wet, sorry looking creatures but soon they dry off and become these cute little fluff balls that wait in the nest for mammy or daddy to come home with a nice wee sprat or sand eel. They rapidly put on weight and have usually doubled in weight after just 2 days going from 10-12g to 24g!
Here is young Roseate chick at around 3 days old, at this stage they’re still little balls of cute fluff but have begun running around and searching for hiding places and shelter from the elements and predators.

The fluff ball stage lasts for about a week and then they begin transitioning to growing pins. This common tern chick is around 7 days old at this point has started growing their pins, the narrow tube like structures from which their very first set of feathers will emerge from. At this stage they have become quite mobile and start venturing all over the place away from their original nest site to any decent shelter or hiding place. Though venturing around the place comes with its own dangers as they can be pecked by other adults who are usually none too pleased to see these curious chicks that aren't theirs roaming around their nests and chicks.

This is a common chick that has reached a bit of an intermediate stage between chick and fledgling. As you can see it’s still quite fluffy overall particularly on its head and body but the wings are becoming quite feathery and chicks at this stage spend a good bit of time of flapping their wings about to start exercising their flight muscles and preparing for what’s to come. This chick is around 12 days old.
This stage I think is the point that I find them at their least cutest and is unofficially referred to as the great balding (by me) where their juvenile plumage has more or less fully emerged but not fully grown out on the head where the former fluffy top has fallen out and is being replaced by feathers.
Here is a fully fledged Roseate Tern, and this folks is what Rockabill is all about. If these young chicks can survive all the way through the trials and tribulations of early life where they must run the gauntlet of survival, persevering against food scarcity, exposure to wind, rain and being chilled to death and not to mention predation; they eventually take their place out on the rocks amongst the pantheon of great ones (i.e. the ones who survived) near the pools where there parents bathe, preen and sun themselves. At this point they’re capable of flying quite well but still not the best flyers just yet and many end up flying off and ending up in the surf to have to paddle back to the rocks and dry off before making anymore premature flight attempts. They’re also still reliant on their parents for food still quite some time, as the art of fishing remains a mystery to them for quite some time yet.
This fully fledged Roseate might be able to fly but it's still begging for dinner!

Well that's all folks, until next time. 

David Miley 

& The Rockabill Team

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

A Royal Affair

This past weekend our tiny island was lucky enough to receive a royal visit. After much anticipation and a generous piece of luck with our famous Irish weather, Her Imperial Highness, Princess Takamado of Japan, arrived from Lambay just after ten o’clock on Sunday morning, together with BirdWatch Ireland’s Chairperson, Gerry Lyons, and Interim CEO, Declan O Sullivan, and a select party of invited guests. 

Her Imperial Highness, Princess Takamado of Japan, Shane Somers, Steve Newton and two common tern chicks. Photo: Dick Coombes. Taken under NPWS licence

An avid birder, Her Imperial Highness (HIH) is Honorary President of BirdLife International and an accomplished wildlife photographer. Despite a packed itinerary of official business, HIH had made the trip out to us specially here at Rockabill, in the hope of spotting some Atlantic Puffins in their summer finery, as well as some of our breeding Roseate Terns.

By all accounts this special and unique visit was a great success. Following a calm crossing, HIH was greeted on Rockabill by a full variety of the island’s bird life. With the nesting season in full swing, we were able to show HIH everything from clutches of unhatched eggs through tiny fluff ball Common Terns to nearly fledged Roseate Terns. Dr. Steve Newton was on hand to locate a Black Guillemot nest - luckily the entourage came prepared with baby wipes for when the chicks presented HIH with their regurgitated lunch.

As our most seasoned warden, Shane Somers had the honour of catching an adult Common Tern to show HIH. From the ring, we determined that the bird he caught was a local - born and ringed here on Rockabill in 1994, making it 23 years old, the same age as our youngest warden!

Her Imperial highness, Shane Somers, David Miley, Steve Newton and Caroline McKeon. Photo: Dick Coombes. Taken under NPWS licence. 

Along with this season’s young, HIH got a good look at the adult terns as well. The hide in Garden 5 has previously been modified for ease of access, and proved a perfect spot for observing the aerial acrobatics of Roseate Terns in flight. Hopefully HIH got some great shots!

After signing Rockabill’s guest book and posing for some photos of our own, HIH sailed back to Howth for the final stop on her seabird sightseeing, leaving us flustered, impressed, and surrounded by much appreciated cupcakes from HIH’s boat!

Her Imperial highness, Shane Somers, David Miley and Caroline McKeon. Photo: Dick Coombes. Taken under NPWS licence. 
Aside from our weeding and carpentry, a huge amount of preparation went on behind the scenes into organising and authorising this amazing visit.  A BIG thanks to everyone at BirdWatch Ireland HQ for making it happen. It was great to have the opportunity to host such an interested and genuinely enthusiastic birder, not to mention someone who happens to be royalty! Hopefully HIH will take back some fond memories of her time on the Leinster coast, which along with her photos, showcase the fantastic natural heritage still to be found here, and the importance of the conservation work done to protect it.

Caroline McKeon 
The Rockabill Team

Monday, 26 June 2017

Dalkey Tern Colony Mid-Season Update

 We had our first ringing session 21st June on Maidens’ Rock. Steve, Brian and Niamh all joined to help me out. We ringed 11 chicks with 2 others too small just yet. I think we might have missed 6 others which had already hatched but with so many nooks and crannies to hide in it is hard to tell. There are also Oystercatcher chicks around but they need to grow a bit before they are big enough to ring, usually they are much faster than tern wardens at that stage!
Steve, Niamh and myself ringing chicks under NPWS license on Maidens' Rock. Photo: Brian Burke

A confused Arctic Tern chick, just ringed (and photographed!) under NPWS license. Photo: Brian Burke

There has been an influx of new nests on Maidens’ rock but unfortunately this is likely due to the Lamb colony collapse over the weekend of 10th/11th June where there were at least 90 pairs. The Maidens’ colony has grown from about 30 pairs to approximately 90, it is impossible to tell for sure due to relaying of original pairs and continual relaying of new pairs due to predation or weather effects.

Very well camouflaged Oystercatcher chicks. Photo taken under NPWS license by Andrew Butler.

I do regular visits throughout the season to track the progress of the colony and hopefully get some Roseate Terns nesting too.

As always, Johnny gets us on and the islands safe and dry. Thanks Johnny! 


The Dalkey Tern Watch is running every Tuesday Evening 5-8pm until the end of July at Coliemore Harbour as well as Weekend events. During July the South Dublin BirdWatch Ireland branch also run the event from 6:30-8pm, they have been doing so for many years.

The next events are this weekend, Sunday 2nd, 11am-1pm. I’ll be running the Tern Watch as normal and then 2:30, 3:30 & 4:30pm I will be running 45 min guided walks on Dalkey Island. You need to make your own way to the Island (ferry), meeting at the pier on the Island. The event is weather/boat dependant.

The species list from our watch event on Tue 23rd May.

All events will be advertised on: locally in Dalkey town centre.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Veni, Vidi, Census

Common nest goes from 3 eggs to 3 chicks.

Dr. Chris Redfern, Miley and Shane with Percy the Short-Lived.
Last week we were delighted to host Paul Morrison and Dr. Chris Redfern from the UK as part of knowledge sharing within the EU LIFE Project. Paul oversees the conservation of a number of seabird species on the massively important Coquet Island. Coquet is the second largest Roseate tern colony in Europe. The island also supports over 12,800 puffins and many Eider ducks, Common and Arctic Terns. Following the success of the GLS monitors used on Black Guillemots here last season, a number of roseate terns were caught and fitted with their own monitors. Chris and Paul’s expertise were vital in fitting these loggers safely. These devices will track the birds migrations using incident sunlight to detect latitude and longitude. Hopefully we will have both these gentlemen back to recapture the study birds next year!

Roseate with GLS tag which will record its migration path.
We have recently completed our nest census which involves counting every tern nest on the island whether Common, Arctic or Roseate. The official numbers are 2085 Common nests, 1597 Roseate nests and 44 Arctic nests. A large proportion of these have hatched in the last week so the island is crawling with chicks. We have high hopes this year to fledge more Arctic chicks than previous years. We have therefore started patrolling the colony early in the morning to deter predators from taking eggs or chicks in the more exposed areas of the colony. Arctics nest here in very low numbers so don't have the mob mentality of their Common cousins. This means they are pushed to the edge of the colony and more exposed to predation.

The "If I can't see you" method of camouflage".

- SS

Thursday, 8 June 2017

BREAKING: First Chicks!

This week marked two major milestones of the season here on Rockabill. Firstly, we are in the midst of the all important nest census (or in the official parlance; The Great Egg Hunt). The nest census involves us covering every inch of ground including paths, tops of walls and the most unlikely looking undergrowth. Counting the number and size of the clutches for each species is a vital part of monitoring the effectiveness of the our conservation efforts for the Roseate, Common and Artic terns. An accurate count of nests on the island along with the data from our intensively monitored study plots gives us information on the number of fledglings produced by Rockabill each year. The nest census also tells us the number of breeding pairs on the island- one of the most important measures of the health of any species.

Our first Roseate chick, sheltering in a nestbox. Picture taken under NPWS licence.

Today we were very excited to find our first chicks of the season! Our first Roseate chick hatched in a nest box and we stumbled across a very well camouflaged Common Tern during the census. This means we are moving into a new phase of our duties here as wardens. We will monitor the growth rates of each chick in our study plots which is a great indicator of their health and ultimately the quality of their diet. The ability of the adult terns to fish is a major concern as our marine resources are severely strained due to overfishing. Hopefully our feeding studies later in the season will shine more light on this aspect of the terns ecology.

Freshly hatched Common Tern. Picture taken under NPWS licence.

The noble visage of Andrew Power, grandly surveying all that lays before him.

Finally, a huge shout out to Andrew Power who was here last week to carry out fieldwork for his PhD on marine contaminants.  It was a privilege to have one of Irelands leading wildlife conversationalists (sic) in our midst! Come back (bring food).