Terns look like small, slim, graceful seagulls. Their black caps, forked tails, grating calls and habit of plunging into the sea to catch small fish are good ways of identifying them. They visit the Norfolk coast to breed on the beaches, flying long distances to and from wintering areas much further south, and are particularly sensitive to disturbance during nesting and fledging.
Terns nest in colonies, in shingly areas near the top of beaches. They are relatively long-lived, which is important as breeding success can be affected by the weather one storm tide at the wrong time can wash out a whole colony of nests. Crows, gulls, foxes, stoats and other animals eat their eggs given a chance, birds such as kestrels may take the young fledglings, and theyre dependent on a good supply of sandeels and sprats at sea. All things considered, they need all the help they can get.
There are three species youre likely to see along the Norfolk Coast in spring and summer. In order of decreasing size these are Sandwich terns, common terns and little terns. Important areas for tern colonies include the beaches at Holme, Titchwell, Brancaster, Scolt, Holkham National Nature Reserve, Blakeney Point and Winterton to Horsey.
Nests are simple shallow depressions on the ground and the eggs are very well camouflaged. If you see a lot of terns together its likely to be a nesting colony. These are protected by rope and stake cordons put up by wardens looking after the site, sometimes with notices.
You can identify little terns by their daintiness, small size and their black-tipped yellow bills. They are Europes smallest tern and rarest breeding seabird, and the most threatened of the three terns breeding in Norfolk. The Norfolk coast is a stronghold for little terns, supporting at least a third of the UK population.
What you can do to help
Look out for groups of terns and protective rope and stake cordons.
Dont approach too closely. Watch from a distance and avoid disturbing the birds.
Keep dogs on a lead near any colonies.
Help to inform others.