Wednesday 1 August 2018

A Sooty Tern in Aberdeenshire and Scotch Argus in Cumbria July 2018

A family reunion and combined birthday celebration took me and my wife north of the border to Glasgow on Wednesday 25th July. I was mindful that a Sooty Tern had been appearing erratically along the northeast coast of England, being first discovered on Brownsman Island, one of The Farne Islands on 7th July and then disappearing only to be seen again around the Farne Islands on the 19th July but by the next day it had relocated to the large tern colony just northeast of Aberdeen, at the tidal mouth of the River Ythan which lies adjacent to the small and pleasant village of Newburgh.

The family celebrations were not until 28th so on the 26th I arranged, with the understanding of my family that I would not be gone too long, a solo pre-dawn trip north from Glasgow to attempt to see the Sooty Tern, which if I was successful would be my second in the UK, following the one I saw at Cemlyn Bay on Anglesey, Wales in June 2005. Sooty Terns are a rare visitor to western Europe and to date there have only been 26 accepted records of Sooty Terns in the UK. They are remarkable birds for a number of reasons. Normally it is a bird that inhabits tropical and sub tropical oceans worldwide, rarely coming to land except to breed, which it only does after it has reached the age of four or five years. It has been known to remain at sea for up to ten years but it cannot swim on the water as its plumage is not waterproof and it would become waterlogged preventing flight and as a consequence the tern sleeps on the wing when at sea. They are highly sociable birds, breeding in vast closely packed colonies. I have been lucky enough to visit a breeding colony on Bird Island in The Seychelles in 2016, which at its peak can contain up to a million birds, a scarcely believable sight to encounter, with so many birds in one small area at the same time. 

The adult Sooty Tern that frequented Cemlyn Bay in June 2005
It is a three hour drive from Glasgow to Newburgh but leaving our hotel in Glasgow, as I did at 4am, I had most of the roads north to myself and two and a half hours later was nearing Aberdeen on a pleasant and sunlit early morning. I had regularly checked my RBA (Rare Bird Alert) app for news of the tern whilst driving north but whenever I did there was no news which probably meant it was not around, unlike yesterday when it had first been seen very early in the morning and then disappeared, only to return at just after 9am. Bearing this in mind I was not too troubled about the current lack of positive news.

I negotiated a slowly awakening City of Aberdeen at around 7am and following the coast road north eventually turned off to follow a short rural route down to Newburgh and with the aid of the postcode supplied by RBA found myself parking in a large grassy car park betwixt a golf clubhouse and an unpretentious golf course running through the gorse on the north side of the River Ythan.

I realised that I had been here before when I visited Blackdog in June 2011, which is located just a few miles south, to see another very rare bird, in fact a first for the UK, in the form of a White winged Scoter and then came north the same day to this very car park to successfully view a King Eider on the River Ythan. That was quite a morning.

On leaving the car, the first thing I noted was the unmistakeable sound of many terns calling from beyond a rise in the dunes and on the other side of which lay, presumably, the tidal part of the river.

Walking towards the sound of the terns, I could hear a couple of Sedge Warblers singing lustily from a bank of pink willowherb and brambles. It was so strange to hear them as in my home county of Oxfordshire they are, to all extents, now fallen silent.

I followed a sandy track through thick gorse and dunes and found myself standing on a wide expanse of beach and looked south across the Ythan to where a huge tern colony was situated on the opposite side. There were terns literally everywhere I looked, mainly Arctic and Sandwich Terns, either flying above their nests in the rank vegetation on the far bank, standing in their hundreds on the sand by the river or flying in from the sea, each bird's bill holding a sandeel, glinting tinfoil silver in the early morning sun. It was a hugely impressive gathering and the noise was equally impressive but despite scanning the throng of terns I could find no sign of the Sooty Tern, which was hardly surprising considering it had not been reported so far.

I scanned the beach but could not find any other birder. Strange? I looked further along the river's course as it wound inland and found some birders clustered around a tin hut but no one seemed to be looking intently. This surely confirmed the Sooty Tern was currently absent.

The Sooty Tern had been regularly reported from various closely linked locations alongside the Ythan on previous days but the concensus of opinion was that the best place to stand and look for it was the open plan, rudimentary golfer's shelter with a green tin roof, that was stuck out on a small promontory that overlooked the river, surrounding sandbanks and mudflats and the tern colony opposite.

I made my way along the edge of the golf course and out to the tin roofed hut to join the half dozen birders, some of whom had driven overnight from distant parts, and to ascertain what the current situation was. However, on getting to the hut I found the sun rising in the east was now shining directly towards our viewpoint which was hardly going to make it easy to locate the Sooty Tern if it showed up.

A stiff northeast breeze was blowing in off the sea and at this relatively early part of the morning imparted a definite unwelcome chill to proceedings. I scanned the massed terns endlessly but of the Sooty Tern there was no sign. I figured that it was out at sea fishing just as it had done yesterday, so the best bet was to keep scanning the constant procession of terns arriving in from the sea and following the river's meandering channel to the tern colony. For forty five minutes I faithfully carried out my plan but had nothing to show for it. Helicopters were regularly arriving overhead, ferrying oil workers inland from the oil rigs out in the North Sea. The noise from each low flying helicopter put up the terns in a whirling maelstrom of white birds, all complaining bitterly in their harsh and unmelodious voices. I scanned these too but  still had no success. Another fifteen or so minutes passed slowly and I was now readying myself to leave and make the three hour return journey to my ever patient family back in Glasgow. My luck appeared to have run out this time.

A lady birder to my left, and how refreshing to be able to see the fairer sex birding,  suddenly exclaimed she had the Sooty Tern in view in her binoculars, flying in from the sea and following the river's channel through the exposed sandbanks and mudflats. We all scanned to where she was looking and there, at last was the Sooty Tern, a long winged, slim bodied elegance of dark brown almost black upperparts and surf white underparts, flying steadily on its dark and narrow wings towards and then past us, proceeding further up the river channel towards the tidal mudflats opposite Newburgh. It looked so distinctive amongst its much paler and slightly larger Sandwich Tern companions and eventually it settled with a small group of Sandwich Terns and gulls loafing on a mud bank, turned a vivid green by seaweed.

It was now opposite another small promontory called Insch's Point at the seaward end of Newburgh and myself and another birder decided to drive the short distance there as it would get us closer to the tern. The walk back by the golf course to the car seemed to take forever but soon we were driving back up the narrow lane from the golf course, turning right and passing through Newburgh, to come out on the other side of the village and drive down to the point.

On our arrival we discovered from some other birders already there that the tern had flown off again after being hassled by the Sandwich Terns but after ten minutes it came back and rather distantly settled once more amongst the terns and gulls, and this time it was left in peace. We watched it standing on the mud preening but as it was facing into the wind, for the most part it had its back to us but occasionally it turned sideways to reveal its distinctive head pattern of black eyestripe and crown with white forehead and throat. A real beauty, thousands of miles off course but making the best it could by finding birds similar to itself.

Photography was almost out of the question as both the bright sunlight shining directly towards us and the  distance conspired to thwart my camera's capabilities but I got a couple of record shots of this precious moment. 

Adult Sooty Tern on the River Ythan Aberdeenshire 2018
By way of compensation I have taken the liberty of adding some much better pictures I took a couple of years ago of breeding Sooty Terns in their normal habitat on The Seychelles in the Indian Ocean. The adults really are smart looking birds.

Adult Sooty Terns on Bird Island in The Seychelles 2016
I stood with some excited and friendly  birders from Tees-side for whom the tern was a lifer. We celebrated our good fortune at finally seeing the tern,, now seemingly settled and prepared to remain on the ground for a while but then, unexpectedly and for no apparent reason, it rose and flew back towards the sea, passing the distant tin hut and was gone from view. Oh well, we had seen it well but, wait a minute, here it was returning to settle once more amongst the Sandwich Terns and gulls. I could even hear it calling, a harsh, nasal and very distinctive keeeyaah  so completely different from the slurred kiiirrick calls of the Sandwich Terns. It was restless, walking amongst the loafing gulls and terns seeming not sure of where to settle and eventually took off again, to repeat its flight beyond the tin roofed hut but then circled and returned yet again to rejoin the terns and gulls.

I looked at the time. It was now 10.30am and I had a three hour journey back to Glasgow and my family. It would not be a good idea nor fair to keep them waiting any longer so I left the Sooty Tern, still standing on its green seaweedy sandbank and accepted my good fortune at seeing it at the last possible moment. There have been some who have travelled the long miles and failed to see the tern as its appearances can be maddeningly sporadic and unpredictable.

Now fast forward with me, if you will, from my familial celebrations to our departure from Scotland  and back to our home in Oxfordshire

We left for Oxford on the 30th July and I chanced my luck by asking my wife if it would be possible to stop at a place called Arnside Knott National Nature Reserve which is in Cumbria and not that far off the M6 motorway that we would be taking southwards. Arnside Knott is a limestone hill owned by The National Trust, rising to 159 metres above the small village of Arnside and giving spectacular views from its summit across to Morecambe Bay on one side and the estuary of The River Kent on the other. It is one of only two places in England where one can encounter the Scotch Argus butterfly, a species I had yet to encounter. They are common enough in Scotland but a rare insect in England.

Thankfully the answer was in the affirmative and we duly detoured off the motorway to Arnside.The weather prediction on the way south had been good, promising sunshine, so with some inevitability it had to happen that grey cloud rolled over and spots of light rain troubled the car windscreen as we approached Arnside and it hardly looked propitious for butterflies.

I was in no mood to be deterred, reasoning that I could try and flush a Scotch Argus from their hiding places in the bracken and  grass on the top of Arnside Knott. We duly arrived, via a rough track come road,  in the car park of Arnside Knott NNR. My wife opted to remain on a nearby bench to admire the view rather than go for a yomp up the steep incline to the very top of Arnside Knott and who could blame her?  I set off up the hillside, slogging my way to the top to where, I  had been informed, the Scotch Argus butterfly was to be found in some profusion, literally thousands on sunny days, but today was one of cloud and occasional rain showers with consequently a predictable absence of any butterflies. It was going to be hard work to find even one Scotch Argus.

It was mild almost muggy and the grey skies made it depressing as I strode around likely looking areas of rough grass and bramble. A butterfly eventually took fright from its hiding place and flew from my feet but it was only a Gatekeeper, looking surprisingly orange with its large wing patches and not nearly dark enough to be a Scotch Argus.

A couple of very ragged and faded Ringlets with wings splayed wide were trying to absorb some warmth on top of bracken fronds and day flying migrant Silver Y moths, which seemed to be everywhere, careered off at high speed to crash land in the low growing vegetation. Try as I might I could not locate or flush a Scotch Argus. There are meant to be thousands here but just one would do at the moment.Time was running out fast for me to find one.

I carried on walking east just below the flat top of the Knott and found a Northern Brown Argus, tiny and pale of underwing which flew briefly from me and promptly disappeared deep into a grass tussock.

'Where are they?' I muttered to myself as I followed another track on yet another futile butterfly search, passing through low growing grasses and sundry other vegetation. My query was answered almost immediately as a dark, medium sized butterfly flew up from the grass. It was incredibly dark, almost black but not quite, more the colour of very dark rich chocolate with a hint of orange on its wings as it flew. It jinked up and down, bobbing and weaving over the grass and away from me.

It had to be and it was. A beautiful Scotch Argus but it seemed reluctant to land. I ran after it, determined not to lose sight of it and where it would land, as I might not find another. I followed its erratic progress before it turned and flew haphazardly back past me, circled around and settled low down on a grass blade, keeping its wings open for a fraction and allowing me a glimpse of the rich orange patches on its upper wings surrounding small white centred black spots. A real beauty but then it firmly closed its wings shut and settled to await another day when the sun might shine. I could still however see the 'double eye' in its orange spot on the closed wing and the broad, pale grey brown band running across its lower wing. I could now console myself that I had at last seen my first Scotch Argus and even got a picture of it, albeit with its wings closed, which considering the circumstances was more than welcome. 

It remained static, immobile and was obviously not going to open its wings or move so I pressed on and soon another arose and I repeated my chase and like the previous one this too closed its wings even more firmly on landing and refused to co-operate. In fact it even hid the orange spot by sliding its upper wing under its lower wing a sure sign it was not going to budge anytime soon.

I turned away, satisfied with my views of this much coveted species of butterfly and just as I did another rose from my feet and flying only a very short distance settled with its wings open but because of the topography allowed me to only photo it from an angle but  I managed to get some shots of its open wing and the lovely orange bands with their patterning of black spots.

Scotch Argus
The rain commenced to fall harder and I got a bit of a soaking on the way back down the hillside to the car. I cheerily told my wife of my success and she blithely told me how, earlier, just after I had set off up the  frighteningly steep hillside, she had sat on the bench a few metres from the car and a Scotch Argus landed on the bright yellow head of a  Ragwort right in front of her. Sometimes you just have to grin and walk away, saying  'How nice for you dear.'

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