Seabirds tricked into their best breeding year in decades...with a little help from this fake Arctic tern
Seabirds on the Copeland Islands are enjoying one of their best breeding years in decades – thanks to a box of fake birds and a couple of sound systems.
No more than ten young Arctic terns fledged on the islands off the coast of Co Down in the six years up until 2011. But this summer it was the most productive tern colony on the island of Ireland with an incredible 1,200 breeding pairs and at least 700 fledglings.
Puffins have never bred on the islands – yet this summer around 100 pairs showed up, explored burrows, dug their own holes and displayed mating behaviour. Experts were unable to spot eggs or fledglings but are confident they will breed next summer.
And the key? A little sleight of hand and misdirection. Over the last few summers, decoy birds and sound systems have been set up on Lighthouse Island, one of the least disturbed of the Copeland Islands, in a bold bid to make seabirds think there were already colonies there.
Thanks to money from the Northern Ireland Environment Agency Challenge Fund, 50 specially-made decoy Arctic terns, 50 decoy puffins and four sound systems lured birds to breed in a place where they hadn't nested before, safe from many predators.
Over the last few years, the puffin strongholds on Rathlin Island and the Gobbins on Islandmagee have suffered major losses, so staff from Natural Copeland were keen to lure them into safe breeding grounds free from predators that target ground-nesting birds.
And it worked.
Shane Wolsey of Natural Copeland explained: "With the terns we've ended up with the best breeding year we've had in decades – it's just fantastic. We've undoubtedly had the best productivity of any Arctic tern colony in Ireland.
"We had up to 1,200 pairs and we don't know how many youngsters got away but it was in excess of 700. Last year we got away up to 300 and we thought that was absolutely fabulous – we've more than doubled that this year. During the six years before last year, perhaps 10 youngsters in total got away.
"Last year we put out decoy puffins and sound systems and we ended up with 50 puffins going round the burrows. We ended up with more than 100 puffins this summer, carrying out mating displays, going in and out of burrows, digging burrows.
"It could be that we're attracting younger birds that aren't quite ready to breed, but it was fantastic. I can't believe they won't breed next year.
"When you get 100 puffins ploughing around, it's a lot more than there are in the Gobbins these days. Any mainland site can have problems with rats or mink or ferrets. Where those pairs bred were quite inaccessible sites that even rats and ferrets might have difficulty getting to."
Decoy birds are used to attract birds to an area where they haven't nested before, or at least recently. Many seabirds are strongly drawn to places where they hatched so it can take a bit of a push to spread them to other sites. Decoy puffins have been used to lure birds to Pembrokeshire's Ramsey Island, while life-size decoys of ospreys have been used in a bid to bring the huge birds of prey back to Poole.