Saturday 10 June 2017


Elegant Tern - Church Norton, Sussex.

It had been a hell of a tough week. As a committed socialist I was finding it difficult on Friday to contemplate how 13.6 million deluded wank spangles could vote for an inept old crone and a party that encouraged the sale of parts of our precious NHS, that cut benefits for the disabled, ill and elderly and slashed the budgets of our already overstretched education system. From a concerned conservationist perspective this was also an evil collective who were considering a free vote to bring back fox hunting with hounds, who defy science to cull badgers and who continuously fail to prosecute most who persecute our native birds of prey. 

To add insult to injury, as I battled against the election night fatigue of the previous day, the 'selfservatives' were even considering joining forces with the 'Democratic' Unionists in a desperate bid to form a majority government. I really do fear for the future of this planet at times. In the face of adversity and depression though, I seek solace in wildlife and in the company of my wonderful like-minded pals.

Somewhere along the south coast of England, an extremely rare bird and a species that is native to the Pacific Ocean did lurk. On Wednesday it had been spotted briefly, at high tide on Hayling Island in Hampshire and on this very Friday it had also made another tantalizing appearance in the area before flying off east. The species in question was a pure, adult male Elegant Tern, confirmed by multilocus barcoding of its DNA. This colour-ringed individual had been present in a Sandwich Tern colony in western France during the breeding seasons on and off since 2002.

Despite the negativity surrounding the election result and the odds of this bird being relocated being pretty low, I was determined to take a positive stance and give it my best shot. What better way of banishing the blues than spending the day on the coast, sat on a sandy beach scanning the sea for birds. Luckily for me, two other keen birders had similar ideas and during the early hours of Saturday morning, I pulled on my lucky boxer shorts, gathered my kit together and was joined by Jules Allen and Jase Oliver on an expedition south.             

With the 'lucky pants' you cannot dip!
There was no better location to start our search than Hayling Island, east of Portsmouth. If the bird had been seen there twice already this week then there was always a chance it may return. With a small group of birders staking out Sandy Point near Eastoke and a few more keeping an eye on Fishery Creek nearby, we decided to check out the area around Hayling Island Sailing Club, just in case it was missed by either group.

With the sun blazing, we were all initially in very good spirits as we methodically scrutinised every distant tern and gull that passed by. There is always something to knock you off kilter though as a report of a Red-necked Phalarope came through from Middleton Lakes RSPB, just a few miles from where I live. Perhaps we had made the wrong decision after all. As the time elapsed and the tide rolled in, we found nothing except for the occasional Sandwich Tern and Common Tern popping into view. As we started to discuss our lunch options and our strategy for the afternoon, a 'mega alert' sounded. Each of us nervously fumbled around for our pagers and phones. The Elegant Tern had been spotted about fifteen miles further east near Pagham in the neighbouring County of West Sussex. 

The short dash from Eastoke to Church Norton.

With Jules using his best Lewis Hamilton moves to neutralise the threat from the dawdling Saturday afternoon motorists, we made pretty good progress over to the western side of Pagham Harbour. There was one major problem though, the bird had disappeared. Unfortunately terns have a habitat of doing just that. To make matters worse, we hit rural gridlock as we approached the tiny hamlet of Church Norton. After more U-turns than Theresa May though, we eventually located a quiet place to park and we calmly made our way to where the rarity had last been seen.

As we trundled and moped across to the view point I suddenly caught sight of the small line of birders. Seasoned twitchers can tell a mile off whether a rarity is showing, just by tuning into the general mood and behaviour of the distant crowd. Just one glance at the nervous shuffles and the purposeful gestures of this particular posse sent alarm bells ringing. The Elegant Tern had returned.

What followed was about fifteen minutes of shear agony. The rarity had apparently flew back in and landed out of view among the breeding Sandwich Terns on a tiny offshore island. I set up my scope, composed myself, took a few deep breaths and waited. I was reassured by the chap next to me that it was definitely still there. With the tension mounting I foolishly decided to check my phone. At that exact moment though the bird spiraled upwards briefly, only to return back to the safety of the colony within a few seconds. Jules and Jase had both seen the tern and were obviously ecstatic, I on the other hand had not.

After a further five minutes of mental torture though the bird took flight once again, but this time I was ready for it. After missing this species in Devon and dipping it in Gwynedd back in 2002, the pain of fifteen years rapidly dissipated into the balmy, coastal air.

Elegant Tern - Church Norton, Sussex.

For the next hour or so we enjoyed some pretty decent scope views as the Elegant Tern circumnavigated the seabird colony several times before dropping back down into the vegetation. At one point we could also see it holding its bright, yellowy-orange bill aloft as it displayed to the other terns nearby. On two other occasions it also flew off purposely towards the sea before it thought better of it and double-backed. On the third occasion though it continued out of the harbour, over the shingle ridge and disappeared from sight.

The modest Elegant Tern twitch at Church Norton.

After a prolonged period of hand-shaking, celebratory fist pumping and post-twitch socialising, our attentions then turned to the other bird species in the area. As well as the numerous Sandwich Tern and Black-headed Gull there were also smaller numbers of the diminutive Little Tern to enjoy, some of which spent their time fishing the nearby creek, down to just a few yards. We also counted around forty Mediterranean Gull in the vicinity along with a very interesting pair of Peregrine.

We had taken a bit of a gamble driving all the way down from the West Midlands, however on this occasion it had been well worth the effort. 'He who dares, wins' and all that good stuff.

Little Tern - Church Norton, Sussex.

Our day of birding was not over though, not by a long shot. By 6.00pm that same evening, Jules had safely driven us the 180 miles back north and taken us to one of our local patches, Middleton Lakes RSPB reserve. Following the long stroll over to East Scrape, we were soon watching the aforementioned Red-necked Phalarope we had briefly agonised over earlier on in the day. This was the first twitchable bird in the Tame Valley for over 17 years and what a little stunner it was too.

It was while watching this gorgeous gem spinning around that a report of yet another local rarity came through. There was apparently a Cattle Egret within striking distance, down at the adjacent Kingsbury Water Park. After a brisk walk along the canal, we entered the hide and there it was, a handsome summer plumage Cattle Egret roosting low down on the opposite side of Otter Pool, sheltering from the early evening drizzle. This was only my second sighting of this range expanding species following a bird that had graced nearby Middeton Hall with its presence during April 2009.

Yet another 'Best Day with British Birds' as the classic book goes.

Cattle Egret - Warwickshire by A Archer.

The ELEGANT TERN in Great Britain

This species has a very restricted breeding range, spanning less than a thousand kilometres along the Pacific coast from southern California to the Sea of Cortez in northwest Mexico. It has a relatively small breeding population, estimated to be in the region of just 30,000 breeding pairs, of which more than ninety percent are in a single colony on Isla Rasa, Mexico. It winters along the Pacific coast from southern Mexico to southern Chile but mainly south of the Equator. 

So how is it that this species can occur so far outside its range? A plausible explanation is that the odd Elegant Tern could perhaps join Cabot's Terns, which they tend to mix with outside the breeding season and cross Central America to the Caribbean with them on their spring migration. Once on the Atlantic side of Central America they could then disperse within the North and South Atlantic and pair up with either Cabot's Terns or Sandwich Terns when the opportunities arise.

As all keen birders in Europe know all too well, there have been records of mixed pairs of Elegant Tern and Sandwich Tern in France for a number of years. Please view this excellent article entitled, 'Occurrence of multiple Elegant Terns confirmed in Western Europe' courtesy of Birdguides that covers this phenomena superbly. Within the article you will also be able to read about the history of our Elegant Tern labelled 'bird C' that is currently gracing the south coast of England.

As it stands, this species is yet to be formally accepted onto the British List by BOURC, however with this pure Elegant Tern appearing, it will no doubt make their decision much easier in accepting both this particular individual along with other past records. These are listed in full as follows:

2002 - Devon - Dawlish Warren - adult on 18th May, then 8th to 9th July & again 18th to 19th July.
2002 - Gwynedd - Black Rock Sands & Porthmadog - adult from 24th to 26th July. 
2005 - Dorset - Christchurch Harbour and Hengistbury Head - adult on 10th May.
2017 - Hampshire - Hayling Island - adult male - 7th & 9th June.
2017 - West Sussex - Pagham Harbour, Church Norton - adult male - 10th to 17th June at least. 

Special thanks to my comrade Jan Charteris for the use of his photographs.

No comments:

Post a Comment