Floating Airbnb for birds

Monday 26th March 2018

Storton's Pits raft by Ian HilbertStorton's Pits raft by Ian Hilbert

Welcome summer visitors to Northamptonshire, common terns are being offered floating havens to help them nest and breed in safety

Common terns, Sterna hirundo, are seasonal visitors to Northamptonshire and the Trust are giving them a warm welcome with exclusive board and lodging. Tern rafts are floating platforms topped with gravel aimed to help the birds breed, to maintain and if possible increase the local population numbers. Common terns like gravel banks, and in general islands with bare ground, to make their nests; these habitats have become scarce in the last few decades. The rafts simulate a tiny gravel bank in an island, to attract the terns - their nests are basically a small depression in the ground, not usually built with grassy or woody materials, as they lay their small spotted eggs over the gravel, the camouflage making them harder to be detected by predators. By the 19th century, these birds were almost brought to extinction as they were hunted for their long tail feathers and wings, which were used in millinery.

Storton's Pits nature reserve is visited by common terns during the summer, but up until now they have never had a suitable nesting places. Despite lying close to Sixfields stadium and Franklin Gardens sports facilities in Northampton, the large reed bed and surrounding reserve provides excellent habitat for many birds. The site warden and some keen volunteers generously raised funds which, along with kind donations of materials from a number of local businesses, Haddonstone Ltd, FW Burrows Ltd and Oil Free Lubricants Ltd, enabled a floating platform to be constructed. Partially constructed off-site the tern raft was then assembled in the water, on one of the coldest Sundays this winter. After a finger and toe numbing five hours' work, it was launched into the lake where hopes are it will provide a nesting site for common terns.

Up the Nene Valley at Nene Wetlands nature reserve at Rushden Lakes, common terns are frequent visitors in the lakes in summer months, when they look for fish or invertebrates, which are abundant on site. To prevent other birds competing for the platform with the potentially nesting terns, the raft has recently been covered temporarily with a net. Once the terns arrive from their winter headquarters in Southern Africa, the net will then be removed to allow the birds to explore and inhabit the raft. The raft is also fitted with perspex walls, to deter otters and other animals getting on board and predating the tern nests.

Above: volunteers at Storton's Pits prepare the raft for floating, left; the covered raft at Nene Wetlands, right

From their boathouse on Skew Lake, Canoe2 generously supported the operation, escorting Nene Wetlands senior ranger Toni Castello onto the water to float the raft into position on yet another inhospitable wintry day.
As Toni Castello says: “It is going to be a very exciting time of observation in the next few months, to see if these lovely birds are interested in our tern raft. We are indebted to HLF for funding which helps make this work possible and to Canoe2 for giving their expert help, and contributing to a conservation action to help make a difference in the Nene Valley. We invite everybody to visit the reserve and follow how this exciting project evolves.”

Above right, common tern in flight