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At a very full meeting of North Northumberland Bird Club in February, Dr Paul Morrison, site manager of the RSPB reserve on Coquet Island, treated the audience to a comprehensive overview of this nationally important site.

Monday, 14th March 2016, 08:00 am
Updated Wednesday, 9th March 2016, 09:48 am

Owned by the Duke of Northumberland, Coquet Island lies only a mile off shore, east of Amble, and is now highly protected, unlike past times when it was inhabited, and later when people could land and picnic at will. The reason for this modern inaccessibility is what Paul Morrison described as the “bird assemblage”.

Although the lighthouse keepers of the 1920s were paid to count the eiders, the site only became a reserve in 1970.

Small and grassy, the island doubles in size when the tide is out. It has no facilities, and these days, power is solar generated. The lighthouse and cottages are now home to the warden and volunteers, without whom the island could not function as a reserve. The extensive renovation had to be done with care since the island is a Scheduled Ancient Monument because of the monastic ruins.

The 46,000 nesting sea birds are the reason for the island’s national and international importance. Designated as an SSSI and SPA, it is carefully managed to provide the very best possible habitats for terns and puffins.

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At the start of every season, staff have to find ways of discouraging the large gulls, which would predate the chicks. Methods vary from the relatively hi-tec solution of broadcasting gull alarm calls to going out in hi-vis jackets and flapping arms around.

The bird assemblage is famed for its huge puffin population, a red-listed bird in the UK, with the Scottish population diminishing and the breeding success of the Norwegian population also declining. The reasons are unclear, but part of the work on Coquet Island is to monitor, observe and record so that situations like this can be more readily understood.

The island is also home to four species of tern, which arrive in the spring to breed. Careful site management provides suitable and different nesting sites for sandwich, Arctic, common and roseate terns. The latter is the UK’s largest breeding population. Common and Arctic terns are doing well, but sandwich terns are in decline along our coast.

The work involved in creating the breeding habitat for these birds is immense, including bringing shingle on to the terraces for the roseate terns, whose nesting boxes have to be replaced in identical positions year on year since the birds return to the same sites to build their ‘scrapes’ and lay their eggs.

Unbelievable as it may seem, the staff still have to keep watch for human egg thieves, as well as turning away well disposed people who hope to land. Protection of the birds and their nests is the priority.

Dr Morrison detailed the winter maintenance work that has to go on, including the removal of unwanted invasive plant species and the cleaning and sterilising of all the nest boxes

This was a talk full of interest, expertise and humour, illustrated by excellent slides that kept us all enthralled. The concluding few minutes had everyone laughing out loud as we watched a few short video clips of puffins entertaining themselves with a variety of objects, including swings and mirrors.

Above all, we were left with a lasting impression of the tremendous conservation work done on places like Coquet Island and how lucky we are to have such a site on our doorstep, giving us all the opportunity to enjoy these visitors to our shores, albeit from a distance.

Our next indoor meeting takes place at Bamburgh Pavilion tomorrow, at 7.30pm, when Chrissie Nicholson, of Speyside Wildlife, will present an illustrated talk on Birds of Speyside and Beyond.