Wednesday, 20 June 2018

A Royal Visit to Sussex 20th June 2018

On Saturday the 10th of June 2017 I was leaving my home with my wife for a week's holiday in Achiltibuie, which is in the far northwest of Scotland, so you can imagine how I felt when news came through that an Elegant Tern had been found that very morning in the Sandwich Tern colony on Tern Island at Church Norton, in what is now the RSPB reserve of Pagham Harbour in West Sussex. This tern had first been seen at Hayling Island in the neighbouring county of Hampshire on the 5th June, then it disappeared but had now relocated to West Sussex.

For the whole week we were away reports came through of the Elegant Tern being seen every day in the tern colony. The day we drove south from Scotland it went missing but was reported late that evening, by which time we had got home. I drove to Church Norton before dawn the next day but despite mounting an all day vigil with numerous other birders it never showed up  and then, to add to my woes, it was reported in the late afternoon from Brownsea Island, further west in Dorset! It was far too late in the day to get there and that evening a videocam showed stomach wrenching images of it roosting with the nesting Sandwich Terns on Brownsea Island. The next morning it had gone. I had dipped (twitcher parlance for not seeing a bird)

Fast forward, if you will, to yesterday, the 19th June and imagine my pleasant surprise to see a report on RBA (Rare Bird Alert) of an Elegant Tern, again frequenting the Sandwich Tern colony at Church Norton. It was first discovered at 3.20pm and it was then being regularly reported from Church Norton until at least 9.30pm by which time about ninety, mainly local birders, had managed to see it

It was a pretty good guess that it would roost that night on Tern Island in the company of the nesting Sandwich Terns but what would happen in the morning? Would it still be there or would it have departed at dawn? I was elated as here was a chance to settle the score and finally have a good chance to see the Elegant Tern that had given me the slip a year ago but worried that it would not stay.

But hold on. Checking RBA, I saw that the Elegant Tern had been re-identified as an American Royal Tern based on photos taken that day and that were already circulating on social media!  So there was to be no Elegant Tern for me after all but now, just as good and just as rare, if not more so, there was an American Royal Tern to be seen at Church Norton! The bird was ringed on its right leg and was identified as being the same Royal Tern that has spent the last  two winters frequenting Guernsey in The Channel Islands and various points on the northern coast of France. British birders had long held out hopes that it would eventually find its way to mainland Britain but they were never realised but now, at last, it had crossed the Channel to try its luck on the south coast of England.

Royal Terns are big as terns go, about the size of a Common Gull. They are well proportioned and becasue their upperparts are the palest of grey they can appear almost white overall. It looks similar to an Elegant Tern hence the initial confusion about this bird's identity but the Elegant Tern is smaller, with shorter legs and less bulk and with a narrower, longer bill that is more pure orange in colour than the orange red bill of a Royal Tern.

I was in a quandary about dropping everything there and then and heading south from, my home immediately but it had gone 5.30pm before I saw the news about the tern on RBA and getting around Oxford and down the A34 in the chaos of the evening rush hour would be a driving nightmare. By the time I got to Church Norton I estimated it would be 8.30pm. I decided to gamble, control my emotions and hope the tern would still be there if I  got to Church Norton before daybreak in the morning. My plan was to leave home at 1.30am in the night to get to Church Norton at around 3.45am when it would be just starting to get light. There was also the added incentive to get to the very small car park at Church Norton before light as it would quickly become crammed with birder's cars.

I did not bother about going to bed but read for a couple of hours after watching a World Cup Football match. I  felt pretty good, even excited, as I set off into the night at the appointed hour, following the familiar roads south from the Oxfordshire Cotswolds but then found my access to the A34 closed and was sent on a huge detour around the City of Oxford before rejoining the A34 on the southside of the city. I regained my equanimity once back on the southbound A34 but passing Newbury  my anxiety levels were given another upward jolt as I drove into light fog and had to slow the car.  This carried on all the way to the M3 Motorway and I began to worry about what the weather would be like on the coast at Church Norton. Would the fog be thicker there and the tern consequently be invisible on its island?

There was nothing to do but try to control my worries, press on and hope. At first the Motorway was just as fog bound as the A34 but as I passed Portsmouth the fog lifted and the Motorway was clear again but now another anxiety beset me, the night sky was visibly lightening, earlier than I had estimated. Would I be too late? It was 3.30 am and I had another fifteen minutes driving before I got to the car park at Church Norton.

Turning off the winding road to Selsey and onto the narrow lane leading to Church Norton I drove to the end of the lane and turned the blind corner into the car park with some trepidation about what I would find. I was right to be anxious as the car park was already totally filled with cars. Birders cars.

There was no space to be had anywhere that I could see and I had to turn the car around and go back to the entrance. I checked again and saw that there was the possibility of getting the car tucked in close to the hedge and where it would not obstruct other vehicles.

Once parked I was out of the car in a trice. Donning a fleece over my polo shirt, I slung my camera bag over my shoulders and grabbed my scope and bins. Other birders who had just arrived were standing around in that pre dawn daze that is so familiar to us twitchers and comes after a long, often tiring drive from who knows where. It was up to them what they did but for me there was no time to lose and I had but one thing in mind and that was to get to the shingle bank that overlooks Pagham Harbour and Tern Island, on which the terns were nesting, as quickly as possible.

I completed the short walk from the car park to the shingle bank in a couple of minutes and joined a line of about fifty other birders ranged along the bank, all with scopes pointing optimistically, across the lagoon, at a currently nigh on invisible Tern Island due to the darkness. Although you could hardly see the birds you could certainly hear them. The distinctive excitable kirrrick calls of the Sandwich Terns forming a constant background noise along with the peevish cries of Black Headed Gulls and yodelling voices of a few Mediterranean Gulls.

I trained my scope on the vague outline of Tern Island and slowly, as the dawn's light strengthened, the white bodies of Sandwich Terns and Black headed Gulls became discernible. We were all training our scopes on the spot where the Royal Tern had last been seen yesterday evening.

It was still impossible to discern anything other than amorphous shapes but slowly they grew into defined outlines of terns and gulls and the spot where we were looking appeared to be the heart of the small Sandwich Tern colony. I was still struggling with the light and the birds constant movement but someone off to my left had younger, sharper and less tired eyes than mine and spoke up. 'I'm pretty sure I can see it. A brief period of silence then ensued. Then he spoke again. Yes that's definitely it.' Having announced this he was promptly deluged with enquiries about specific directions and refreshingly, instead of the usual garbled, imprecise guidance that often comes in such circumstances, he proceeded, for which I am ever grateful, to give understandable pointers as to where the tern was on the island, which was far from easy considering the mass of birds, posts and other landmarks required to direct us. The directions heavily relied on fence posts of which there were plenty and it took some time to ascertain exactly which post we needed to look at on the island. There were also other pointers to be considered such as individual Black headed Gulls involved in various activities for example, such as walking past or preening by the tern. Then the Royal Tern would move and we would have to go through the whole rigmarole again but more and more people were seeing the tern now, so directions came thick and fast.

I, along with others, still could not locate it but all the while the light was improving and then I saw the Royal Tern. Its white forehead now clearly visible in the stronger light and from this my eyes were guided down to its long orange red bill. Oh yes!  It was 4.24am and I had connected with the Royal Tern.

It remained in the general area of the centre of the Sandwich Tern colony but was moving almost constantly as a result of being mildly chivvied by the testosterone fuelled male Sandwich Terns which threatened it with outstretched, yellow tipped, black bills. It flew briefly, only to settle closer to us on a muddy strand slowly being covered by the rising tide. There was a comical episode where a person to my right was keeping up a running commentary of its flying and where and what it was doing flying over the island. I can only assume it was a Sandwich Tern he was looking at as we were all looking at the Royal Tern currently standing on the mud!

Now the Royal Tern was much closer to us I could see its huge orange red bill, white forehad and shaggy black crown to good effect. It stood alongside other off duty Sandwich Terns, demonstrating its larger, bulkier size. Its black legs were clearly visible with a metal ring on the right leg. Even in the dull light the long and slightly down curved bill shone orange red. It bathed in the rising seawater and then indulged in a short preening session before wandering with rapid, precise steps along the muddy shoreline to stand in front of a Black headed Gull and its half grown chick.

The Royal Tern stood here for a couple of minutes and then took to the air, following another two Sandwich Terns across the rapidly filling tidal lagoon, across the huge shingle bank guarding the lagoon and out to sea. The time was 4.37am when it departed and I had been watching it for twelve minutes.

I hoped its absence was just temporary and it had gone fishing, as, undoubtedly, did the many other birders arriving just too late to see it and who disconsolately set up their scopes. pointing them at Tern Island, in the hope rather than optimism that it would return. With the inevitable denouement after the Royal Tern's departure I now found the time to occupy myself with the other residents of Tern Island, currently providing a source of constant activity and noise. 

Apart from the compact colony of Sandwich Terns there were many Black headed Gulls breeding with them but they were more widely scattered across the small island, many with brown fluffy chicks of various ages, the larger ones bouncing up and down from within the vegetation, looking ridiculous  as they tried out their half formed wings. The occasional Mediterranean Gull flew over us, ghost white in the dull light of early morning, their strange yelping, quizzical calling, distinct above the cries of the other birds. Little Terns were also breeding on the island and I counted at least five pairs in amongst the Sea Kale growing on the shingle and keeping well away from the larger, raucous Sandwich Terns and Black headed Gulls. They are such elegant and engaging little birds, everything about them is attenuated, bill, wings and tail amalgamating into a precise angular shape, as their dainty white and grey feathered forms cleaved through the air.

The forecast was horribly inaccurate and instead of the predicted mild conditions it was quite cold and a mizzle of soft rain threatened on the wind that was blowing at our backs. It was unpleasant and everyone, bar me, was wrapped up in sensible clothing. I do not know why I decided on shorts and a polo shirt and thanked my stars that I had at least managed to bring a fleece. Tiredness brings an increased sensitivity to the cold and after another half an hour of watching Tern Island in case the Royal Tern put in a surprise return, I left the shingle bank and my fellow birders and sought the sanctuary and warmth of my car.

Sat in the car I finished my flask of tea, put my head back and promptly fell fast asleep, happy  in the knowledge that, unlike many of the birders still mounting a cold vigil on the shingle, I had achieved what I set out to do. I awoke to find the time was now 6.30am. I dozed on and off and listened to the radio for another two hours but there was to be no alert about the tern coming back and at 8.30am I left the car park. Wending my cautious way back down a lane now made hazardous with randomly parked cars of birders in every possible space available. I decided to head for home, but not before refreshing myself with a skinny latte and a pastry from Enticotts, wonder bakers of nearby Selsey.

My grateful thanks to Andrew House for the use of his images of the American Royal Tern taken, as you may guess, yesterday, when the weather was much better and also to Owen Mitchell of 'Birding the Selsey Peninsula' see here


Subsequent to its early departure from Pagham Harbour, in the evening of 20th June the American Royal Tern, to the disappointment of the many still holding out hope at Church Norton, was found to have moved southwest along the coast  to Dorset and was seen flying over the RSPB's reserve at Lodmoor at 8pm and then in the late evening it was found perched on a buoy at nearby Ferrybridge in Portland Harbour before flying off at 10.15pm. This movement southwestwards is very similar to what happened with the Elegant Tern last year. I wonder if the American Royal Tern, like the Elegant Tern will find its way to the Sandwich Tern colony on Brownsea Island?

The American Tern was seen very briefly off Weymouth at 5.30am on the morning of 21st June but then disappeared. I wonder where it will turn up next?

Please click on any image to view a slightly larger version.

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Adieu Colin the Cuckoo 17th June 2018

On Saturday a particular field in the middle of the heathland that is Thursley Common in Surrey was very much on my mind. The reason being that, soon, the adult cuckoos that visit Britain in ever declining numbers will be heading back southwards on their long migration to Africa. In fact some cuckoos have already departed these shores and are in southern France as I write, their presence confirmed by the tiny geo-locators that have been fitted to them and allow their every movement to be tracked.

With this in mind there was no time to lose if I wished to see Colin for one final time. Colin, I should explain, is a remarkably confiding male cuckoo that has returned for his fourth year to Thursley Common. His fame has spread over the years, so that now birders, photographers and the general public are all aware of him and come from far and wide to see him.

He frequents the trees around a large field on Thursley Common called Parish Field, where meal worms are put out by photographers to entice him to a variety of prepared perches that are set up towards one corner of the field and where Colin will visit at random times and at variable intervals ranging from as long as two hours to as little as thirty minutes, to feed on the mealworms at distances as close as a few feet. He is to all extents fearless of human presence, which makes it all the more remarkable that he has survived at least eight journeys back and fore to Africa, as I am sure in other lands people may not be inclined to view him so benignly and the perils of his migrations are many, not just from humans but also other natural predators.

So a slightly damp Sunday morning found me leaving the car at The Moat Car Park, near to the pleasant village of Elstead and taking the sandy tracks and wooden boardwalk out through the heather, birch and gorse of Thursley Common to Parish Field, and hopefully a rendezvous with Colin, if he was still there. The wooden slats of the boardwalk were being warmed by intermittent sunny spells and at this early hour had been undisturbed, so Common Lizards were using the warm slats to heat their bodies preparatory to facing another day. I counted at least four as I followed the boardwalk out onto the Common, each lizard coiled at the edge of a slat where it met the security of the damp grass into which they could drop at any sign of danger. Even thus exposed they were reluctant to move, still sluggish as they sought to absorb the heat necessary to energise them and this gave me the opportunity to photograph one and even show it to a passing family of trail bikers.

Common Lizard
I carried on along a sandy track as the song of Dartford Warblers came to me from the surrounding heather and gorse. Always reluctant to show themselves, apart from a brief check of me from the top of a gorse bush, the warblers were but dark shapes flitting away over the heather.

Last year Colin, by all accounts, was seen on Thursley Common for the final time on 19th June so time was running out and it was with some trepidation that I took the short track through the woods to Parish Field. My journey had been something of a gamble but on getting to the entrance gate to the field I was relieved to see three photographers already ensconced there but no evidence of Colin.

As I approached, Colin confirmed his presence with a loud sequence of 'cuckoos' from the surrounding trees. All was well. He had not yet departed.

One of the photographers greeted me and we chatted whilst awaiting the arrival of Colin. Intriguingly he told me that both he and his colleague were making a major life change to become professional photographer/guides specialising in wildlife and landscapes, with one moving to Pembroke and the other to Cornwall. I could but wish them well with their respective brave decisions. 

They had been here since seven and Colin, they told me,  had already visited twice. It was now getting on for ten but apart from hearing Colin calling from various locations around the field and brief sightings of him chasing another cuckoo he was conspicuously absent from the perches, enticingly set up for him to land on in the field.

There are those who are dismissive of a contrived situation such as this but this is the way amateur bird photography is heading. Amateur wildlife photography be it birds insects or mammals is big business now and everyone seems to have a camera of one sort or another and why not, as it can record the moment and give much pleasure in later weeks, months or even years. Personally, I have no qualms in taking advantage of such a situation as this on Thursley Common, especially as it is free to whomever it is of interest. From a birders point of view, which is what I still regard myself as primarily being, it also has the advantage of giving me the opportunity of wonderful close up views of a bird that would otherwise be hard to see well and to see it well for extended periods.

In the absence of Colin we were entertained by the regular arrival of an equally confiding male Common Redstart, which came to collect mealworms to take back to his young in a hole in a silver birch beyond the field. His striking white forehead was the first intimation of his pending arrival on the perch as it could be seen hurtling towards us across the field from the wood, the white forehead looking disembodied, coming at us head on as he flew over the grass at high speed towards us. On arrival, he stood alert at the top of the perch with his russet tail shivering in characteristic redstart fashion, then dropping to the ground to collect two or three mealworms in his beak, before flying back across the field and into the woods to feed his young. To see a male so close is to appreciate just how beautiful they are in their breeding plumage and due to his very closeness you could almost feel the nervous energy and high speed pulse of his existence transmute itself across the few metres that separated us. The male visited many times but curiously we never saw a female. Maybe she was less confiding or had not discovered this ready source of food.

Male Common Redstart
Two hours had passed with nothing to get excited about apart from the redstart's visits. A Mistle Thrush flew low across the field, superficially looking like a cuckoo in flight but that was all. The Mistle Thrush dropped from a tree into the field to look for food but was wary of our presence and soon departed. 

Mistle Thrush
Meanwhile the weather became more unsettled with the threat of light rain which thankfully never materialised but it brought with it a chill wind. Then Colin finally decided to visit us and came, on fast and shallow wing beats, parallel with the tree line, to turn into the wind and fly low across the field to land just feet in front of us in a flurry of grey and white bars and spots. 

He sat there, unhurried and regarding us with that now familiar expressionless sulphur yellow eye before dropping down to gulp up mealworms from the grass. He was with us for about ten to fifteen minutes and then flew off and that was the last we saw or heard of him for another hour and a half.

A couple more people joined us and another person left but we were never more than half a dozen at any one time. A Common Kestrel and Common Buzzard flew over the field and Colin, teasingly, called occasionally from some distant trees. Then, as before, silently and unexpectedly he made a similar approach to last time and there he was, right before us once again. 

This time he remained a little longer, for about twenty minutes, and we had the intriguing sight of both him and the redstart in close company. The redstart was none too certain about the presence of the much larger cuckoo and kept up its constant plaintive alarm note  whilst keeping discreetly out of the way of Colin who seemed totally oblivious of the redstart. But there were young to feed and the redstart driven by the greater urge to feed its young overcame its fear and  dropped down to grab some mealworms as quickly as possible and departed. 

Colin hopped around in the grass or just stood there doing nothing. He would fly back up onto the perch every so often and sit there too, again apparently  disinterested in anything, occasionally cocking his head to look at a wriggling mealworm in the grass below, but he was replete and he had no need to feed further.

Just as before he flew, suddenly and silently, away across the field and was gone into the trees. The day was now dull with grey skies and decidedly chilly, with the wind coming in strong gusts and I was getting cold but decided to wait for Colin's return just one more time. After half an hour he duly arrived and so we settled down for yet more communing with this remarkable cuckoo. At first he was a bit restless and flew back into a tree close by, as if uncertain but after a few minutes flew back down. 

Most of the time he hopped around in the grass looking for mealworms or perched above to digest them and, finally replete, he just sat, stoic and still for around fifteen minutes. This is probably what cuckoos normally do but when perched in trees. However, here he was, perched low down on a log, right out in the open, doing exactly the same. I noticed that when totally relaxed the feathers of his forehead and chin become looser and impart a different profile to his head. He must have been present on this visit for almost  forty five minutes, maybe longer, and one had to pinch oneself that here in an unremarkable field was a very remarkable cuckoo, sitting quietly on a log, offering an almost unique experience.

Colin the Cuckoo remained unmoved, as we walked, crouched or sat within feet of him, taking his picture from every conceivable angle, and finally just watched him, the cameras silent as there was nothing more to be done. 

As sudden as it was unexpected and with no warning he flew, fast and low to the trees at the far side of the field and was gone.

So farewell Colin and I hope you make it back here for another year. You have a long and hazardous journey to survive before you do.

Please click on any of the above images to view a larger version