Thursday, 8 November 2018

The Dublin Bay Birds Project - a quickfire digest of recent events (dive-bombing terns to evening gull watches)

We are continuing our quest to fill many of the gaps in knowledge about how birds use Dublin Bay. Being immersed in fieldwork and data the last while means we have not been blogging as often as we like to. It is now time to take stock, and look at what has been going on.  
The 2018 summer was equal parts challenging and exciting with a big focus on the breeding tern colonies in Dublin Port, while also doing the monthly low and rising tide counts of the whole bay.

But first let's take a moment to mention the DBBP video we made with Dublin Port Company and our friends in Media Coop. We had a lot of fun making it and the bird footage is STUNNING. In case you haven't already seen it, there is a little taster below as the full video can't upload here.  Full video available at this LINK.

Back to the terns. Oh the terns. No matter how many times we make the trips out to the Dublin Port tern colonies by boat, it never, ever gets old. The contrast of nature at its most dynamic and vital – 1000+ terns industriously incubating eggs and protecting nests and screeching in the air around the colonies - juxtaposed with the similarly industrious shipping vessels and port traffic going about their business all around them is an extraordinary sight. And we feel privileged to have the opportunity to be among the birds like this, up close and personal (sometimes very personal with direct hits to our heads from defensive adult terns). Plus, seeing the city from a boat in the Liffey Channel on a sunny day is pretty special.
Tara from the DBBP Team assisting with Common Tern data collection on the Great South Wall pontoon in July 2018. Helen Boland

In 2018, there were at least 596 pairs of terns, mainly Common but a few Arctic too, that nested on the four structures in the port area. The SPA-designated structure underwent significant upgrade works, carried out by ESB, and the terns seem to have adjusted to their excellent, new, specially designed platform. And the pontoon that was re-located pre-summer to a location close to the Great South Wall provided great views for walkers along the wall with a high volume of tern activity easily visible. You can read more about the summer tern monitoring in previous blog posts here and here

Post-breeding tern flocks at Sandymount
Once August arrived we began looking out for the huge annual congregations of post-breeding terns along Sandymount Strand. This is quite the event with thousands of terns gathering in the bay each night just before their southerly migration. As we’ve said here before, Dublin Bay has shown itself to be massively important over those few short weeks in August and September. The highest count we had this year was 6,700 ‘Commic’ Terns - Common and Arctic combined - in September (not quite the heady heights of 17,440 from September 2016 but impressive all the same!). And we had the pleasure of being joined by the South Dublin Branch of BirdWatch Ireland that evening to soak up the sheer spectacle of it. More about these awesome (in the proper sense of the word) tern gatherings here

The DBBP Team with the South Dublin Branch of BirdWatch Ireland looking at thousands of Terns in September on Sandymount Strand. Helen Boland.

In addition to the 135 tern chicks we colour-ringed at their nest sites we also managed to fit colour-rings to three fully-grown Common Terns that we caught in mist-nets in the dark after one of the flock counts in September. Hopefully these birds will be seen somewhere along their flyway helping us understand more about where they go. One of the Common Terns, ‘PFF’, that we colour-ringed in Autumn 2015 at Sandymount, has been seen three times since then in winter in the Gambia! Some previous observations of our colour-ringed terns are described here.

A Common Tern fitted with a Dublin Bay Birds Project, uniquely inscribed, colour-ring ‘2P3’ in September 2018. Helen Boland.

But now we're back in winter mode and the next task for the DBBP Team is a dusk gull roost count next week. It is incredible how many more gulls are present in the bay in the evening having been inland or at sea all day. We wouldn’t have a clue how important the bay is for gulls if we didn’t carry out specially tailored counts like this. Last year we counted more than 34,000 gulls one evening in December, mostly Black-headed Gulls (~29,000), with Herring, Common, Great Black-backed and Lesser Black-backed taking up the rear in that order.  Let’s see what we find next week. Then we move on to our third high-tide roost survey of 2018, with a dawn Brent census coming down the line too. And all the while we have been dealing with the steady influx of wader colour-ring resightings of our Dublin Bay Oystercatchers on their breeding grounds in Scotland and Iceland. More on all of that soon in another post.

We will share our news and findings more frequently now that we are back on top of our hectic schedule again! The information we are gathering improves our understanding of birds, how they use the bay, and what areas are particularly important for them, and hopefully it can help with informed decision-making about Dublin Bay.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Lights, Camera, Action

Last week we embarked on our first ever project video shoot. The aim was to produce a short video to describe the motivation behind the Dublin Bay Birds Project, the activities we undertake, and of course highlight the beauty of Dublin Bay whilst giving the wintering waterbirds the starring role.

Filming Bull Island south lagoon from a vantage point
close to the causeway
Ricky Whelan
It took the guts of five days to capture the bird footage, human bits, and narrative, and was a really great experience for the project team. We started filming during our recent Ring-reading Event at The Bull Island Visitor Centre and, with weather and tides on our side,  we got out to capture the bay at its best while searching for colour-ringed birds afterwards. 

Volunteers concentrate as they read colour-rings during
 the recent ring-reading event
Ricky Whelan
With almost five years of monitoring under our belt for the project, and with waterbird numbers at near peak levels, we knew where and when we would find the birds over the course of the few days. At Bull Island we captured the hustle and bustle of this waterbird hot-spot, not to mention a very obliging Golden Plover flock. It was also a great opportunity to film some of our colour-ringed birds up close! Filming also brought us to the Great South Wall to find small waders such as Turnstone and Sanderling, and plenty of gulls feeding on the rocks, tide edge, and river channel. We wanted to round it off in style and show the effect that the tide has on waterbird movements and activities. To do this we bedded-in for a full tidal cycle at Merrion Spit, an embryonic sand dune which is a roosting site for thousands of waders at high tide. We trudged the gear out at low tide, and with a short set-up window we got the gear in place and camera positions set. The time-lapse camera was ready, Francois and Theo, our cameramen, were in position, and by god did the birds and tide perform. 

Filming at a "secret location" Ricky Whelan

Francois busily filming the waders on the tide-line
 as a "V" of Brent Geese fly overhead
Ricky Whelan

Theo gets comfortable before a five-hour stakeout Ricky Whelan
Overall it was a massively enjoyable week and it gave us a small insight into the amount of effort, experience and knowledge it takes to film wildlife. We couldn't have asked for more in relation to the birds, the weather and the tides, and we now sit impatiently as we await the finished result. We will share the final product with you all very soon!

Time-lapse camera captures thousands of
 waders as they roost on the high-tide line
Ricky Whelan

Thanks to the great team at Media Coop, with particular thanks to Francois Gray for filming, producing and generally doing everything. Big thanks also to our awesome wildlife cameraman for the duration, Theo Jebb. We are grateful to Dublin Port Company for supporting the making of the video.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Adding Value to a Days Birdwatching

Back in October 2015 the Dublin Bay Birds Project Team hosted a 'ring-reading’ event at Bull Island Visitor Centre, see here. On Saturday, February 10th 2018, we are pleased to be running another similar one and we would love you to come along.

Colour-ringed Redshank John Fox

The event acts as a way for us to thank and provide feedback to  the observers who have been submitting their observations of colour-ringed wintering waders to us, but, also, we would love to help more people get involved with this element of the Dublin Bay Birds Project. The Citizen Science contribution to the project is of immense value and crucial to this work.  We would like to encourage even more new Citizen Science contributors and catch up with established project contributors.

Ring-reading Event Poster BirdWatch Ireland

Since 2013,  we have ringed more than 1700 waders in Dublin Bay of which over 500 are colour-ringed (376 Oystercatchers, 99 Bar-tailed Godwits, and 41 Redshank). But all of that means nothing if nobody tells us where they spot them and the context of their observations. With five years of colour-ring resighting information now compiled we are seeing some interesting stories beginning to emerge. 

DBBP Ringed Oystercatcher Resightings From Scotland BirdWatch Ireland

All of the observations we receive paint a picture of where the birds go to breed and what routes they take to get there, and they play a key role in identifying staging sites. But, importantly, your observations of colour-ringed birds in Dublin Bay provide valuable information about how they use the bay for feeding & roosting. This information in turn informs our policy work and our conservation efforts, and it opens up dialogue with our colleagues internationally to feed into international bird studies and conservation management. 

Sample Resighting Report/Bird History BirdWatch Ireland

What we want you to do is - stop when a colour-ringed bird catches your eye and, if possible, read and note the ring inscriptions. With that done you can enter your observation online and we will get back to you with the movement histories for that bird. All sounds simple, but of course it takes a bit of practice, concentration, and a good pair of binoculars or a telescope! If you would like to find out more or just want to come hear about the project and meet like-minded people we would love to see you on February 10th at 10am at the Bull Island Visitor Centre. 

Friday, 3 November 2017

New Book: Dublin Bay - Nature and History

A new book, Dublin Bay - Nature and History has just been published by Collins Press. The authors, Richard Nairn, David Jeffrey and Rob Goodbody have done a superb job in compiling all that is wonderful and interesting about the heritage (natural and built) of the bay.

Book cover  from Dublin Bay - Nature and History
Collins Press
The book was launched on November 2nd by Senator David Norris at the Dublin Port Centre to a big crowd of naturalists, historians and academics as well as the family and friends of the authors. Senator Norris gave a characteristically enthusiastic and humorous speech followed by author Richard Nairn who summarised (on behalf of all three authors) the motivation and journey behind getting the book to print.

Authors, David Jeffrey, Rob Goodbody, Senator David Norris and author Richard Nairn
Dublin Port Co 
The book covers many aspects of the natural history of Dublin Bay, including its habitats and birds making it of particular interest in the context of the Dublin Bay Birds Project. The book is also full of beautiful photographs, old & new maps and interesting illustrations. Local birdwatcher and contributor to the Dublin Bay Birds Project, John Fox, was Principal Photographer for the book, and his bird and landscape photographs are superb.

Black Guillemots  John Fox

BirdWatch Ireland's Ricky Whelan with Eoin C. BairĂ©ad at the launch 
Dublin Port Co

The Dublin Bay Birds Project Team and all at BirdWatch Ireland would like to wish Richard (who has close ties to the project through his work for Dublin Port Company), David and Rob great success with the book and future publications.

Friday, 20 October 2017

Ready or Knot!

When out counting Terns in September I cast my eye over some wader flocks - delighted to see some of our Dublin-ringed Oystercatchers back for another winter, as well as some individuals ringed on their breeding grounds in Iceland. As my scope-view moved across a flock of newly-arrive Knot – some carrying traces of ‘rusty’ breeding plumage and others with their plainer whites, browns and grey feathers that they’ll have for the winter, something bright yellow caught my attention. It was a flag – very similar to a colour ring, but one that sticks out to make it easier to read. The tide was pushing in and the Knot were constantly on the move but I eventually managed to read the code – 07K – my first Knot ring/flag to read!

The Knot I had seen was ringed in Iceland last May, and had been seen in Merseyside near Liverpool at the end of August before moving on to Dublin in the subsequent two weeks.

Knot in NW Iceland. Photo by J. van de Kam.

Knot with unique colour ring and coded-flag combination.

'My' bird was part of a study to learn more about the different populations of Knot in northern Europe and where they go at different times of the year (breeding, moulting, staging, wintering). You can’t conserve and protect a species if you don’t understand the different parts of its life cycle and where the protection is needed! 

The study began with ringing at sites in north Norway and Iceland, and has recently expanded to include flocks in the Irish Sea in Liverpool Bay and the Ribble Estuary. Several thousand birds have been ringed as part of this project since it began and resightings are providing vital information on this species. We’ve already spotted one bird from Liverpool that had moved over to Dublin Bay, and there will undoubtedly be loads more over the winter!

As recently as 22 September 2017, 519 Knots were colour-flagged in Liverpool Bay. The birds are marked on the tarsus with an orange flag with two inscriptions, over a pale blue ring. About 50% of the marked birds were 2 years old, which means that for the first time the summering population on the west coast has been marked in good numbers.

Knot in N Norway(bottom). Photo by J. van de Kam.

In Jim Wilson’s own words:
As so many knots are now carrying flags you are almost guaranteed to find marked birds, but in most situations need a good telescope to read the codes on the flags. The record is about 90 readings in one day, but that was near the ringing site. Even if codes are not read off, the position and colours of flags and colour rings also tells us whether knots are marked in Norway, NW Iceland, SW Iceland or the Netherlands. Knots with one flag and 4 rings on the tarsus are marked in the Netherlands. Records of lack of sightings despite searching through flocks are also interesting.”

Sightings of Knot in Ireland with the above rings/flags should be sent to

Photo courtesy of J. van de Kam

Photo courtesy of I. Hartley.

Photo courtesy of P. Knight.

Monday, 28 August 2017

The worst named bird in Dublin Bay!

At this time of year thousands and thousands of Terns gather and roost in Dublin Bay before migration, providing an unforgettable spectacle for birdwatchers and Dublin residents alike! It's one of the most important tern gathering points for Europe and we've been monitoring it for several years to find out how many Terns use it, what species are there, how long they stay, and what kind of threats the birds and the site might face. So this blog is inspired by our late-summer evenings spent on Sandymount Strand, but it's not about Terns....

Black-headed Gulls roosting on Sandymount Strand - August 2017 (B Burke)

The Terns spend their day feeding out in the Irish Sea and return to roost around 8pm, arriving bit-by-bit in their 10's and 100's until after dark when there are several thousand present. Before they get there however, we see the arrival and gathering of their Larid (Terns & Gulls) cousins, including large flocks of the humble Black-headed Gull! The Black-headed Gulls also gather in Dublin Bay in their hundreds and thousands, but rather than coming from the middle of the Irish Sea, most arrive here from rivers, ponds, parks inland, as well as coastal sites, around county Dublin. Unlike our Terns they'll be here with us through the winter.

A Black-headed Gull beginning to come out of its summer plumage - changing from brown head to white. (B Burke)

Black-headed Gulls are one of the small gull species, much smaller and very different from an ecological point of view to the sometimes-controversial large Gulls. Black-headed Gulls don't nest in urban areas, but like Terns they nest in colonies on offshore and inland-lake islands around the country. They have a brown head during the breeding season, a mostly white head in winter, and show various shades in between during the spring and autumn months. During winter they're very common pretty much everywhere there's water - the coast, inland lakes, rivers, turloughs and even ponds in parks. Don't let this seasonal abundance fool you though, they're red-listed in Ireland and like most of our ground-nesting species they're under threat and losing ground year after year.
Black-headed Gull in late summer, changing from brown to white head (B Burke)

Black-headed Gull in late summer, having lost most of its brown head (B Burke)

A winter plumage Black-headed Gull - the dark smudge at the back of the head is the only hint of it's alternative summer plumage (B Burke)

The reason for their ubiquity from August to March is because we get a huge influx from all over Europe. Before our Autumn Tern counts at Sandymount and Merrion we set aside some time to look for Gulls and Waders that have been colour-ringed, and we haven't been disappointed. We've seen Black-headed Gulls with yellow, white and green rings; some with letters, some with numbers, and some with both! A bit of googling and a few emails later we found that our Black-headed Gull flock in Dublin last week consisted of birds from colonies as far away as the UK (2), Belgium (1), Norway (2) and Poland (3)! A lot of last week's birds have been ringed in the last five years, though given that many of them were ringed as adults they are likely a good bit older than that. The BTO tell us that their typical lifespan is around 11 years old, though the oldest Black-headed Gull on record was over 32 years old!

A juvenile Black-headed Gull - they're Red Listed as a breeding species in Ireland (B Burke)

In Ireland we also have two other small-to-medium sized gulls that offer a glimpse into how confusing some bird names can be. One of our other resident Gulls is the Common Gull - but it's much less Common than the Black-headed Gull. We also have a growing population of Mediterranean Gulls who actually have a black head during the summer, in contrast to the brown head of the Black-headed Gull! So we have Black-headed Gulls that aren't actually black-headed, and are much more common than the Common Gull! 

Winter plumage Black-headed Gull (B Burke)

Keep an look out for these birds next time on your walk along the coast or in a suburban park, take a look at the variety of head-plumages on show, and keep your eyes peeled for a colour-ring that might give you an insight into the history and travels that bird has taken to get there!

For further information about Black-headed Gulls, see the links below:

  • Our South Dublin BirdWatch Ireland Branch will be meeting at 7pm this Thursday to go and see the Tern roost at Merrion Strand - if you haven't seen it before then this is your chance!

Monday, 31 July 2017

'PUL' the other one!

An important part of our work in Dublin Bay involves the ringing of key waterbird species to learn more about the birds and how they use Dublin Bay. As well as providing us with important information on their usage of breeding/feeding/roosting areas within the bay, we also get some very interesting ring resightings of ‘our’ birds from further afield – some of the Terns we’ve ringed in Dublin Bay have been resighted in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and on migration in Namibia!

Common Tern - the most numerous Tern in Dublin Bay. (BB)

For the terns, these resightings are largely in line with what we’d expect – we’d expect the terns that breed in Dublin would be using parts of the Irish coast on migration and eventually end up in Namibia. We’d also expect that the majority of the Terns that roost in Dublin Bay after the breeding season might be from different parts of Ireland, or colonies nearby in the UK. Though somewhat expected, this is still all very useful information to collect from a conservation point of view! That being said, we do enjoy some of the more ‘novel’ and unusual sightings – so imagine our delight when we got an email from Oddvar Olsen in Norway!

Enclosed in the email was the picture below of yellow ring PUL – a ring we had put on an adult Common Tern at Sandymount Strand in south Dublin last August. Sandymount gets several thousand terns in August and September each year, roosting in the evenings for the few weeks between leaving their breeding site and setting off on migration for African waters for the winter (it's quite the sight on a late summer's evening!).

Colour-ring PUL - put on a Common Tern at Sandymount Strand last Autumn.

PUL was caught in Dublin last Autumn, but won't be back this year! Ring found at Raudholmane in Norway this year.

Now it’s always great when someone accompanies a resighting with a picture, so we can be absolutely 100% sure that the ring was read correctly etc. That being said it’s less great when there’s no bird in the picture… 

Oddvar found our Common Tern ring while investigating causes of decline of Black Guillemots along the Norwegian coast. The ring was  close to the nest of a Great Black-backed Gull. 

Great Black-backed Gull - the largest gull in the world (BB)

Great Black-backed Gulls have a very flexible diet, that often includes young seabirds at this time of year – those that aren’t great at flying take a few seconds extra to take off and they aren’t as manoeuvrable in the air. An adult Common Tern like PUL is a much trickier meal though – these ‘Sea Swallows’ are skilful and pacy flyers compared to a lumbering GBBGull. I have found the rings of adult terns myself near GBBGull nests and roosts though – sometimes the Tern might have been sick or injured, and sometimes the GBBGull might just get lucky! It’s all part of the circle of life and has been going on for thousands of years. In recent times us humans have been disrupting the natural order by destroying the habitat, nesting sites and food sources of terns and gulls alike – that’s where the problem lies! The resulting effects are felt throughout the seabird communities and wider ecosystem biodiversity around our coasts.

Great Black-backed Gull. (BB)

In the coming weeks our Dublin Bay Birds Project staff and I-WeBS team, along with some very dedicated volunteers, will be counting and recording roosting Tern flocks around the country. We'd very much appreciate records/counts of tern flocks from around the country - full details here:

For anyone who thinks they might have spotted one of our Dublin-ringed Terns, please enter the details of the sighting here and we'll get back to you:

Keep an eye out for the next blog later in the month!

- Brian B