The remarkable increase of breeding Black-headed Gulls in the Lee Valley has continued this year, nearly all of them nesting on rafts provided for Common Terns. This year’s total amounted to 107 pairs spread across four sites, with good numbers of young birds fledged. By contrast, the Common Terns have had a very poor year. The total of 52 pairs is the lowest in the valley for some 30 years. Not only that, but productivity has been equally poor. But are these two stories linked?
Terns in general appear to have had a very mixed year, both between and within species. The poor summer, with a high proportion of windy days preventing fishing and the downpours chilling eggs and chicks, has been a major problem. In the valley, many terns failed to settle until very late this year, with limited success. In general, productivity at inland colonies is frequently better than the average. Common Terns nesting on freshwater sites have been shown to make shorter feeding forays than coastal birds, allowing for better colony protection as birds are away from the nest less.
Although the Black-headed Gull is over ten times as numerous as the Common Tern as a breeding bird, both species have shown an interesting similarity in trend in distribution and abundance in recent decades. Although there have been declines in the north and west of the UK, increases have taken place in inland areas of southern England, much linked to the spread of flooded gravel pits in river valleys. In recent years, Black-headed Gulls have spread rapidly along the Thames valleys and its tributaries, in many cases nesting on rafts provided for Common Terns. The reasons for the declines in the north are unclear but an increase in predation, particularly by Mink, and unfavourable land-use changes have been suggested as the cause.
With the Black-heads increasing rapidly in recent years, the general feeling is that the terns are being squeezed out. Despite this, all the local colonies had available space on the rafts. In recent years, the delaying of the positioning of rafts has shown some limited benefits for the later nesting terns. Perhaps the time has come to vary the design of the standard tern raft to better accommodate both species as they seem to have subtle differences in nest location. Around the world you can find examples of a very different approach. Look at the 22,000 m2 floating island designed for Caspian Terns in Oregon, USA for example (below). Some trials next summer at a number of sites may begin to show the way.