VISITORS to the North-East coast are being urged to respect a colony of rare seabirds which nest annually on the beach.

The legally-protected little terns have taken up residence on a stretch of beach at Seaton Carew, near Hartlepool, after nesting there for the first time in 2019.

Around 24 birds recently arrived at the site and more are expected to follow.

Weighing only 40-60g and about the size of a starling, little terns are the smallest of the five species of terns that breed in the UK. They winter in West Africa and migrate thousands of miles to nest here from May to August.

The birds lay their well-camouflaged eggs in shallow scrapes in the sand, but this makes the nests very difficult to spot and leaves them extremely vulnerable to disturbance and damage.

The birds’ nesting area at Seaton Carew, close to the resort’s centre behind the bus station, is being marked and roped off, and volunteer wardens from the Durham Wildlife Trust are monitoring the site.

Sarah Scarr, Hartlepool Borough Council’s heritage and countryside manager, said: “We would urge people to respect the site and keep their distance.

“The majority of people who use the beach respect the nesting site but in previous years we have had cases of people walking through nesting site or letting their dogs off leads in the vicinity – in breach of a dog exclusion order which applies to this particular stretch of beach.

“Adult birds will leave their nests if disturbed, leaving their eggs and chicks vulnerable to the weather and predators.”

The penalty for deliberately disturbing or damaging the nesting site is an unlimited fine and/or 6 months in prison. Anyone who witnesses such activity should contact the police on 101.