One of the North-East's rarest birds is being given a helping hand to help keep its tenous foothold in the region. Reporter and amateur twitcher Adrian Worsley discovers how.

YOU'VE survived baking heat over the Sahara, sneaked past hungry raptors patrolling the Mediterranean and you've managed to navigate 400 miles of English coastline to find your favourite spot.

Then, being a little tern and one of the UK's rarest seabirds, the last thing you want is some careless teenager trampling on your nest.

Until ornithologist Kevin Splindloe arrived on the scene, that was the very real danger confronting the 50-or-so pairs of birds that make the North-East's rugged coastline their summer home.

It wasn't just clumsy clodhoppers that were taking their toll on the attractive little birds. With their favourite nesting spot being flat, exposed shingle beaches, they were being picked off by natural predators, such as foxes, and unnatural ones, notably egg collectors.

Two years ago, the number of little terns had dwindled to a handful of pairs at their biggest nesting site near Crimdon, just north of Hartlepool.

Approaching the site today however, it is clear that even the most cunning fox wouldn't get so much as a sniff.

Surrounded by an electric fence and roped off to humans, the only way in and out of the little reserve is from the air.

Mr Splindloe, who has been appointed full-time site warden by the Industry Nature Conservation Association (Inca), was this week observing the first of what should be scores of arrivals in the next few weeks.

"They've just started arriving from West Africa," said Mr Splindloe, who also runs an ornithology business, a sort of freelance version of the RSPBl.

"They live for about ten years and that's how many trips they make from Africa during their lifetime.

"It's unfortunate in a sense that their favourite nesting ground is flat, shingle-covered beaches which are naturally exposed to predators.

"They've been coming to this beach for thousands of years and it's only since humans arrived that they've had problems."

An electric fence will deter all but the most pain-resistant foxes and humans, but there is one foe that no amount of wattage will stop - the tide.

Mr Splindloe has even thought of that. "We've placed a handful of concrete tubes around the reserve.

"They act as little shelters for the chicks when the weather gets rough, but more importantly, when the tide comes in we can pick up the nests and place them next to the tube.

"They act as a little landmark, so we know where we've put them. It helps prevent the chicks being from being drowned and the parents seem none-the-wiser."

He is also armed with recent legislation under the Wildlife and Countryside Act that prosecutes anyone who intentionally or recklessly disturbs a site containing category A-list rare birds, such as the little tern.

But as much as Mr Splindloe tries to keep a 24-hour watch on the colony - foxes mainly strike at night - he desperately needs volunteers to help keep a vigil.

He is spearheading a drive to recruit volunteer wardens to ensure the colony doesn't suffer at the hands of egg thieves, vandals, predators and off-road bikers.

Anyone interested in helping preserve the colony is invited to an illustrated talk at the Hartlepool Art Gallery and Tourist Information Centre in Christ Church, Hartlepool, at 7.30pm tonight.