Birdwatchers are celebrating the first puffin colony on the Copeland Islands — although all is not what it seems.
In a bold bid to attract Arctic terns and puffins, ornithologists used decoy birds and sound systems playing bird calls in a bid to lure real birds to nest.
Arctic terns are a protected species and although between 500 and 700 pairs have been nesting on the biggest of the three islands off the Co Down coast for the last seven years, only 10 or so chicks ever made it through to fledging.
The birds are prone to deserting their nests.
“We wanted to make a real effort to get them to nest on the outer islands,” Shane Wolsey of the British Trust for Ornithology said.
“We got some money from the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and bought decoys that had to be specifically made in the States and a couple of sound systems that are solar powered and play tern calls. We put out 100 decoy terns.
“They started to nest as usual but on June 22, there was a storm, a really prolonged bout of rain, and they all deserted. June 22 was very, very late for them to be |deserting nests but they made it out to the two outer islands and within a week relaid their eggs. That island hasn’t had terns for 60 years.”
Not only did the sound system lure up to 450 pairs to Mew Island, it kept them there.
“It ended up with the terns not only staying but getting away more than 200 youngsters. It’s been an astonishing success,” Mr Wolsey said.
“We kept the sound system running and we think in the end it helped to keep them dedicated to their chicks. They kept working on the chicks because the thought there was a lot of activity round them. Usually they will up and leave very quickly — they’re the most fickle of the lot.”
Something similar happened with the puffins — which have never nested on the Copelands. Their strongholds on Rathlin and the
Gobbins on Islandmagee have suffered huge losses in the past 10 years, so staff at Copeland Bird Observatory are keen to get them into new safe breeding grounds.
“It’s a brilliant place for them, if only they knew it,” Shane said.
“There are no rats, no cats, no mice, no mink, no ferrets, no foxes — any of the things that eat ground nesting birds. Puffins should be there but they never have been.”
The team ordered decoys and founded a new colony of dummy puffins on Lighthouse Island.
“We had a sound system putting out happy puffin calls on the nursery slopes that puffins would like. Within a week we had half a dozen real puffins, within a fortnight we had 20 and by the end we had up to 50 real puffins coming in and landing and going in and out of the burrows,” Shane said.
“It was very late in the season to be putting all this kit out but throughout the season we had them coming and going, with up to 50 showing an intense interest in the place.”
While none produced chicks, it’s thought many of the puffins were ‘pre-breeders’ — below the age of six, when puffins tend to start mating — and may eventually use the Copelands as a breeding ground in future years.
Mr Wolsey added: “If we can get them into a very secure site the boatmen will be able to run trips to see the puffin colony.”