Big News for Little Terns

Big News for Little Terns

by | Nov 30, 2021

by Meerabai Kings

Church Norton oozes tranquility – but in the summer, through your binoculars, you will see a flurry of comically short legs, chopstick-like beaks and dramatic eye stripes, a frenzy of little terns. Even the exuberant commotion of the colony, mingling with the calls of seabirds and waders, does not drown out Church Norton’s serenity. This time of year, the chattering little terns have flown to West Africa to escape the wet Sussex winter – and who can blame them!

But summers at Church Norton haven’t always been alive with the noisy tern colony. Since 1985, little tern numbers have plummeted nationwide – partly due to climate change, as rising seas and frequent floods wash away nests. When disturbed, perhaps by a dog off the lead or a visitor straying from the path, a little tern leaves its nest, leaving the chicks cold and vulnerable. With more human activity in recent years, little terns are forced to nest in areas where foxes, badgers, kestrel and crows can catch them, or steal their eggs. Today, there are only a handful of little tern colonies in the UK, and all we’ve left for them is the land we do not yet want for ourselves.

But all is not lost for Pagham Harbour’s little terns, thanks to the tenacious staff and volunteers who happily spend time giving the little terns a helping hand. Initially, the Little Tern Project – initially funded by EU LIFE+ Nature – worked on 16 sites around England and Wales. Here at Pagham, volunteers have maintained a protected haven for the little terns at Church Norton, an island protected from land predators at high tide. Even at low tide, the fencing gives the little terns the upper hand.

The hard work has paid off; 2021 was Pagham’s best year for breeding seabirds on record. 46 little tern pairs were documented, the most recorded since 1982. Additionally, 25 little terns fledged this year – the highest number since records began. This is reassuring news, as terns who successfully rear chicks will almost definitely return the following year, meaning Pagham’s colony will likely thrive in years to come!

The little tern colony sits against the backdrop of the rolling South Downs, whose mosaic fields are the furthest thing you can see before billowing clouds on a clear day. Chichester Cathedral spire looks over the whole scene, a fitting spectator considering that Church Norton was the site of the original cathedral over one thousand years ago.

The terns put on an acrobatics show at high tide, twisting and turning at impossible angles before diving like darts into the calm water, emerging with fiddly-looking fish in their mustardy beaks. With the naked eye, you can see ripples in the shallows which, revealed through a pair of binoculars, come from the meandering dark bodies of large fish, also after the smaller fish. Through binoculars, the serenity of the ripples is broken as you see a fish race forward, struggling for its meal. It’s a wonder there are any little fish left, with so many mouths snapping after them.

We are pleased to say that the little terns are reclaiming their place in the ecosystem at Pagham Harbour. Whether you are in the reserve to soak up its serenity or to watch feeding frenzies through your binoculars, please respect the footpath signs and keep an eye on your dog – for the terns’ sake!

If you want to hear more about volunteering work at Pagham Harbour, contact us at 01243 641508 /, or pop by our Visitor Centre on the B2145 between Chichester and Selsey – we’d love to hear from you!

“A frenzy of comically short legs, chopstick-like beaks and dramatic eye stripes, a frenzy of little terns.”

“The terns put on an acrobatics show at high tide, diving like darts into the calm water. “

“Little tern numbers have plummeted nationwide, in part, due to climate change.“


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