Tern Island

Common Terns at Royal Quays Marina: A Wildlife Success Story


Over recent summers, Royal Quays Marina has become home to a thriving colony of Common terns (Sterna hirundo). The birds migrate all the way from sub-Saharan Africa to mate and rear their young, and in doing so they have become a notable feature of the marina in the summer months. The colony started from a couple of pairs which Marina Manager Matt Simms first noticed nesting about 12 summers ago and has grown steadily to reach over 60 breeding pairs each year.

Initially, the terns nested on a small patch of old railway track ballast at the end of the marina peninsula used as a temporary surface when the marina first opened. Matt and the marina staff were keen to encourage the birds; by reducing the vegetation before the birds’ arrival at the end of April and erecting electric poultry fencing to stop raids by the local foxes, the colony prospered. However, whilst this patch of ground was very much to the terns’ liking, they were not welcomed by all the marina users, some whom found their territorial behaviour and aerial attacks threatening. Hard hats and umbrellas had to be provided for passers-by on the marina pontoons! Ultimately, the site had always been earmarked for development, and with plans for a new cafe bar restaurant gathering pace, the decision was taken to provide a safe new home for the Terns on a floating raft in the north-west corner of the marina basin.

Seeking advice from Dr Paul Morrison, the RSPB Northumberland Coast Site Manager who had been keeping a close interest in the success of this colony over the years, and Jackie Hunter, an ecologist with the local council, both supported a proposal to relocate the colony in recognition of the conservation gain from having a more protected habitat.

Tern Island

Common tern (Sterna hirundo) at Royal Quays Marina

A specially converted marina pontoon, complete with crushed scallop shell and gravel surfacing, chick shelters, and rescue ramps to enable errant chicks to climb back on board, was launched and moored in April 2014. When the terns returned from their winter break in early May, they were lured onto the new raft with hand-painted clay decoys (a rather large net having been placed over their old home). After a few anxious days whilst they checked it out, the team were relieved to see that the birds took to their new home and enjoyed a bumper breeding season. On the raft the birds suffered less from disturbance and passers-by, and marina users were not subjected to the usual aerial bombardment, allowing wildlife and a busy marina to co-exist more harmoniously.

These attractive birds are easily distinguished from other seabirds. They are lightly built, with long slender wings, a forked tail, a black cap and bright red beak and feet. They have a buoyant and graceful flight and can be seen hovering over the water before diving for herring sprat and fry which come into the estuary and marina in great numbers. Mating begins with an aerial courtship with male and female climbing in spiralling circles over the marina to a height of 100 metres or more. The male will pass fish to his mate whilst in the air or you may see them feeding fish to their mate whilst perched on the end of the finger pontoons. Two or three eggs will be laid in a shallow scrape in the gravel. It is thought that pairs mate for life, but as maybe one in ten birds fail to return, some have to take new partners. If one of the pair is five days or so late returning, then there is a good chance that the first bird may have moved on to a new mate. They can live for around 25 years.