Air bed rescue for chicks swept away in the floods

by Rhiannon James

credit: Pat Jefferies

A desperate rescue attempt to save drowning chicks was launched by staff at two urban nature reserves in the south west as hundreds of nests were overwhelmed by flood water.

Torrential downpours flooded RSPB reserves Radipole Lake and Lodmoor in Weymouth at the weekend and staff were forced to swim out with inflatable mattresses to try to provide a refuge for tern chicks still unable to fly.

the Discovery Centre at Radipole Lake credit: Pat Jefferies

Lodmoor has one of the largest common tern colonies in the south west with more than 100 pairs breeding on two islands in the reserve, and both this site and Radipole Lake are also home to marsh harriers, reed and sedge warblers, bearded tits and other birds.

“We shot over to Lodmoor first thing on Sunday morning because we knew that the tern islands were in trouble,” said Luke Phillips, Weymouth Wetlands Information Officer. “We had to do a bit of quick thinking and we managed to find some air beds. We got two of them out there and within ten minutes some of the adult birds were sitting on them with fish in their beaks trying to coax the youngsters up on to them.”

“We still lost a lot. There were probably 80 tern chicks there and we’re down to less than 30 now but at least a few of them made it,” he said.

There was nothing though that the staff could do to help the warblers nesting in the reed beds or the marsh harriers who have rather unexpectedly chosen to make a home in Weymouth. “They’re usually found in places like the Norfolk Broads, we’ve got the only urban family of marsh harriers in the UK. Sadly, we lost the nest and all the chicks that were in it at Radipole. Luckily though, at Lodmoor, the chicks were much bigger and able to fly so at least two chicks have fledged,” he said.

a tern chick looking for dry land credit: Pat Jefferies

Phillips is still unsure of the total number of chicks that were killed in the floods but says “there were hundreds of nests and each nest could have three, four or five chicks in it so the numbers could be large”.

The Discovery Centre at Radipole Lake was also seriously damaged in the floods, with water inside reaching a metre deep and is likely to remain closed for some time. The reserves though are open to visitors and staff will be on hand as usual. The council car park next door, which is to be used as the drop-off point for the park and ride for spectators at Olympic sailing events later this month, was also flooded but is now open as normal. “When we got to the reserve yesterday morning to assess the damage, it looked almost normal. There was hardly any debris and the paths all looked quite clean. It’s quite incredible. But clearly, out in the reed beds, it’s a different story with all the washed out nests,” Phillips says.

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