Thursday, 15 August 2019

Dalkey islands: Volunteers helping to 'tern' things around

The tern season on the Dalkey islands is wrapping up, and what a few months it has been! The small, but tenacious Arctic Tern colony (29 pairs), have succeeded in raising 20 chicks, including 7 on Dalkey Island itself, the first ever fledglings from the island! This is an amazing result, and one which all at BirdWatch Ireland and our funders, the EU Life Project and Dún Laoghaire – Rathdown County Council, are absolutely thrilled about, (see here in the Irish Times for more info).

Arctic Tern nest with some interesting decorations!
Photo by: Tara Adcock

Arctic Tern chick still at the fluffy stage
Photo by: Tara Adcock

First ever Arctic Tern fledgling on record from Dalkey Island itself!
Video by: Tara Adcock

On top of this, there were signs and sightings of Rock Pipit, Shelduck, Pied Wagtail and Oystercatcher chicks, along with many healthy and noisy Herring, Lesser Black – backed and Great Black – backed gull fledglings. 
Oystercatcher chick with wonderful camouflage
Photo by: Tara Adcock

Colour ringed Great Black - backed Gull chick
Photo by: Graham Prole
But today, as we wrap up, it is the volunteers and members of the community who helped and participated to an extraordinary degree over the course of the project, that I would like to ‘tern’ our attention to.

Last winter, BirdWatch Ireland with guidance from Karen Varnham of the RSPB, began working on removing Brown Rats (Rattus norvegicus), from the islands. Brown rats are an invasive species and have a devastating impact on seabird colonies when present, (see here and here for more info). Rat control is definitely one of the least glamourous tasks anyone could take on! Between handling bait stations and searching for signs of rat in the field, it calls for a strong stomach (and a lot of hand sanitiser!). 

Monitoring block with rat teeth marks beside a bait station
Photo by: Tara Adcock
Who would have thought that we could find anyone enthusiastic enough to join us in the middle of an Irish winter to help carry out such work? And yet, along came Chris Johnson and Shelly Biswell. Over the course of the three and a bit months, they were instrumental to the success of the baiting project, and their indefatigable cheerfulness was a god send!

Chris Johnson in action checking bait stations
Photo by: Tara Adcock

Shelly Biswell with her partner, Ken, out beautifying Dalkey Town
Photo by: Ken Biswell

As tern numbers on the island began to grow, we were delighted to welcome three new volunteers to the project. Tom Murphy, Sandra Jordan and James Tallon braved thistles, nettles and dive - bombing Arctic Terns as we censused nests and chick numbers on the islands. From the get-go, all three proved exceptionally able at spotting the well camouflaged chicks and were unbelievably enthusiastic even when under fire from angry tern parents!

From left to right: Tom Murphy, Sandra Jordan and James Tallon just before heading across to the islands
Photo by: Tara Adcock

From left to right: Tom, James and Sandra searching the thistles and nest boxes for chicks. 
Photos by: Tara Adcock

Three species of gull also breed on the island; Herring Gull, Great Black – backed Gull and Lesser Black – backed Gull. We were lucky enough to have Graham Prole (aka ‘The Gull King’) of the Irish Midlands Ringing Group come out to Dalkey Island on several occasions to colour ring gull chicks. 

This colour ringing project is fascinating! It is looking at how gulls use urban and more natural spaces such as Dalkey Island, whether there are population exchanges between these two habitat types and the longevity of gulls living in each environment. It is amazing and timely work, and we desperately need more people like Graham Prole who actively champion these stunning birds!

Graham Prole with  colour ringed Great Black - backed Gull chick
Photo by: Tara Adcock

Working as a warden in Dalkey is not all about the birds, as the islands are rich in both history and ecology. For instance, Dalkey Island was used by the Vikings to hold slaves, while Muglins Island, east of Dalkey Island has the bodies of two pirates buried under the lighthouse. Grey seals are a regular sight just off - shore, the small herd of feral goats (descendants of those put over for the soldiers during the Napoleonic war), can be frequently seen (and more frequently smelt), and the rocky shore is home to a host of marine life. 
Feral goat herd with Muglins Island in background
Photo by: John Fahy
The guided walks on Dalkey Island, were a chance to showcase this diversity and history. Des Burke – Kennedy of Dalkey Tidy Towns (DTT) came along to the first walk of the season, iPhone in hand and photographed and promoted the events. 

Guided walk on Dalkey Island
Photo by: Des Burke-Kennedy 

Des has also been instrumental in getting the word out about the ecological reasons dogs should not be present on the islands and organised a talk I gave on the Dalkey Tern Project in the Dalkey Heritage Centre. All this, while working tirelessly with other DTT volunteers to further beautify this idyllic town and in the process uncovering an EIRE sign from the second world war above the White Rock swim point.  

Des Burke - Kennedy in centre alongside his fellow DTT volunteers

Second World War Éire sign on Hawk Cliff, Dalkey uncovered by DTT
Tern Watch events were another method we used to get the word out about the project, and they ran every Tuesday from June to July. During these Fiona Sayhoun, a veterinary student in UCD, had a sixth sense for finding chicks on the island to show curious passers-by.

This year as in previous years, the South Dublin and Wicklow BirdWatch Ireland branches were out during the month of July showing people both the tern colony and surrounding wildlife. They are a fantastic bunch, and if you get a chance, I’d recommend joining them during the monthly events and meetings they host. 

Tern Watch Events were made all the more enjoyable thanks to the South Dublin and Wicklow BirdWatch Ireland branch members.
Photo by: Tara Adcock
The next event will be on Sandymount Strand, Dublin on the 26th of August at 19:30. Huge flocks of terns come here at the end of the breeding season at dusk, prior to their migrations south, and it truly is a phenomenal sight. See the South Dublin BirdWatch Ireland website for more information.

Terns coming in to roost on Sandymount Strand
Photo by: John Fox
One aspect of the job that is great fun is island hopping. The tern colony is spread over three islands; Maiden Rock, Lamb Island and Dalkey Island. Ken, Johnny and David Cunningham were lifesavers (in fact sometimes literally as a kayaker last year can attest to) and dropped us to all three islands free of charge during the breeding season. 

This unbelievable generosity is testament to the decency of the Cunningham brothers and the respect which they have for their natural heritage. Also, if you want to learn about the history of the area, take a boat trip with Ken. One of the highlights of my days was listening to him fill in tourists on the local history. 

Johnny Cunningham bringing us safely to and from the islands.
Photo by: Tara Adcock
Lastly, a massive thank you to everyone who came to the events! This has been an amazing season and a huge part of that has been down to the people who have taken the time to come and witness the wildlife and learn about the history in and around the Dalkey islands.

Guided walk
Photo by Des Burke-Kennedy
We will be continuing our rat control work over the winter in preparation for next season. If you are interested in volunteering with the Dalkey Tern Conservation Project over the winter or summer months, please don’t hesitate to contact me, Tara Adcock, at

A talk on the wildlife and conservation of the Dalkey islands will also take place on August 20th at 7pm in the Lexington Library in Dún Laoghaire. So, if you want to find out even more, why not come along!


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