Spring terns

PUBLISHED: 06:45 02 June 2014 | UPDATED: 08:25 02 June 2014

Little tern courtship feeding, Winterton, Julian Thomas

Little tern courtship feeding, Winterton, Julian Thomas


In May all nature shouts and clamours, declaring life’s most basic law: Breed now, pass on your genes, let life flow through you. Nowhere is this insistence clearer than in a colony of gulls and terns, on the Norfolk coast or at an island on a gravel pit or broad. The shrieks and scraping calls of the colony are heard first; then above it you see a swirling, silvery smokestack of slice-winged birds, displaying in pairs and, as summer unfolds, coming and going with food for their incubating partners and their growing chicks.

Common tern, Ranworth Broad, Pauline SaggersCommon tern, Ranworth Broad, Pauline Saggers

Black-headed gulls were here first, for they spent the winter in Norfolk, their hoods blushing chocolate as sunlight and hormones called them back to their colonies to breed. Among the many soot-smudged wings of the black-heads are a few gulls with blunter wings of a white so pure it glows. These heavier birds have ink-black hoods and beaks the colour of arterial blood; and as they soar the sunny sky rings with their peacock yelps. They are Mediterranean gulls, birds of a startling beauty which have colonised Norfolk in recent decades. A few dozen pairs now breed here, brightening the spring sky along our coast with their ice-white wings.

Of the terns the first to come home to us in spring is the Sandwich. Our largest tern, with a dishevelled crest and a black bill tipped in brimstone yellow, the Sandwich tern flies in the way an eight-year-old boy, on the first day of school, wears the sleeves of his big brother’s jumper flapping over his hands. Sandwich terns, and their strappy wings, begin to arrive from the middle of March but most of their pebble-dappled eggs are not laid here until May.

Among the sandpapery “keeuurick” calls of the hundreds of Sandwich terns, the angry “keeyaarr” of common terns may also be heard. These are smaller, greyer on the mantle, and shear-winged, with red legs and bills. Unlike Sandwich terns which are exclusively coastal, common terns nest on freshwater too, often beside black-headed gulls on platforms provided specially for them. Such a colony may be seen at Norfolk Wildlife Trust Ranworth Broad, just metres from the floating visitor centre.

Perhaps the most vulnerable of our terns, both in terms of its UK population and because it nests in the most readily disturbed sites on beaches, is the little tern. Its wings are short and its desperate, bat-like flapping belies the fact that, like most European terns, this plucky bird visits the coasts of West Africa in winter. On a sky-blue day in high spring the little tern announces its return to Norfolk with its breathy Morse code and the glowing of its buttercup beak over a coastal sand-dune.

As ground-nesters, gulls and terns are hugely sensitive to disturbance by people and their dogs. If you visit a colony this spring, to revel in the spectacle of sound and sight it offers, stay far from the birds and rigorously respect signs and fences around them. Most Norfolk colonies are found on nature reserves, such as the National Trust’s Blakeney Point. Smaller colonies may be seen at NWT Holme Dunes and at numerous Norfolk Broads managed by Norfolk Wildlife Trust. Wherever they are found these continent-crossing birds are at their boisterous best in May. So make time to visit them this month.


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