Monday 5 July 2021

Elegant at Cemlyn 4th July 2021

Well, two lifers and two ticks for my British List in the space of seven days has been a totally unexpected but very welcome surprise. Having notched up the Black browed Albatross at Bempton Cliffs in East Yorkshire last Tuesday, today I added a superb Elegant Tern to my list of species seen in Britain.

Sunday morning started slowly as per usual. I had a vague plan to possibly travel to Norfolk to see a Pacific Golden Plover but it was reported as flying off high in the early morning. I was relieved,  being only half convinced I wanted to drive all the way to Norfolk but the plover's disappearance solved that dilemna.

Ten minutes later a further consultation of RBA (Rare Bird Alert) put me back into another birding dilemna. The Black browed Albatross, after an absence of six days had returned to Bempton and by all accounts was showing well, while an Elegant Tern had just been discovered in the Sandwich Tern colony at Cemlyn Bay, which is on the Isle of Anglesey in North Wales.

I discounted the albatross as I had already seen it and have a pre-planned visit to Bempton this coming Tuesday and Wednesday, so I may well be renewing my acquaintance with it. The prospect of notching up an Elegant Tern, a bird I have never seen in Britain and therefore a mega, was a wholly different matter and raised my anxiety quotient considerably.

I was tired after a sleepless night, courtesy of eating too much pizza and ice cream while watching a certain football match. Self inflicted I know,  so I deserve no sympathy but there we are. Did I mention a couple of bottles of the  local brewery's highly recommended Boat Race lager that came with the pizza?

I dithered around, yet again racked by self doubt. Should I not go for the tern? I was only too aware of what it took to get to Cemlyn, having made two previous trips to see a Sooty Tern in July 2005 and then in June 2006, a tern thought to be a Cayenne Tern but which annoyingly turned out to be an aberrant Sandwich Tern with a yellow bill.

Cemlyn is a challenge. It is a very long way from anywhere and from my home in Oxfordshire is, give or take, 250 miles distant and requires four and a half hours of driving to reach. Still I hesitated about going as the time passed but the tern was being regularly reported as remaining on view at Cemlyn. An inner voice spoke. 

'Call yourself a twitcher, anyone worth his or her salt would be well on their way by now'. 

The time was already approaching mid morning and I reviewed the prospect of driving on busy roads on a summer Sunday. More used to relatively empty roads whilst driving to twitches overnight this was altogether a different and unappealing prospect.

However, almost in a trance or at least it felt like that, I loaded the car and set off on the marathon journey, still consumed by inner doubt. My head was spinning.What was I doing? Four and half hours is such a very long time and all in daylight with heavy traffic.I know it is a trick of the mind but I find journeys at night seem to pass more rapidly. 

An hour later I passed Birmingham and north of there, at Stafford Services, made a stop for a coffee. I consulted RBA and found the tern had not been seen for an hour from 10-11am. There was another 170 miles to go. 

'Right that's it. Let's go home'. 

I regained the southbound motorway and was well south of Birmingham when Mark rang to advise the tern was back at Cemlyn! 

'Ye gods.What do I do now? 

I felt the memory of the Tengmalm's Owl twitch to Shetland coming to haunt me, when I was confronted with a very similar situation, made a split decision while driving south and turned north and was ultimately triumphant.I inwardly chided myself on being so timid this time and recalled I was the same person who boldly bet everything last year on multiple occasions and as a consequence saw a Siberian and Eye-browed Thrush, both a Yellow bellied and a Taiga Flycatcher, a Tennessee Warbler and a Rufous tailed Bushchat.

Shamed I took the next available slip road to go up and over the motorway and resumed my journey north, now made an hour longer by my dithering. Sheer lumacy but that is what obsession and a competitive nature can do to one.

I continued north in a rainstorm, to turn off one motorway onto another somewhere near Liverpool, then headed west to the Land of Leeks. It was attritional driving and I had to keep my wits about me on the busy roads.The coffee inevitably required another stop to relieve myself in some services and refuel the car and then it was a wearying slog down the road that never seems to end, winding as it does along the North Wales coast to cross the Menai Strait into Anglesey 

Finally and with some relief I turned onto a quieter minor road that the satnav intoned would take me to Cemlyn after nine miles. A few twists and turns down a, by now, single track road brought me to the National Trust's Car Park at Cemlyn Bay, which unusually for such a money orientated organisation  is totally free and is located by a large semi derelict house called Bryn Aber.

Bryn Aber was purchased in 1930 by a wealthy and eccentric gentleman going by the name of Captain Vivian Hewitt who, as luck would have it, bought it because he had a passion for birds and wild places.What is now the permanent brackish lagoon with two tiny islands of vegetation where the terns nest, used to dry out in the spring and summer but Captain Hewitt created a dam and weir so that a lagoon was formed which would remain all year round.The two islands in the lagoon were safe from predators and the terns found this to their liking and moved in.The house and lagoon were subsequently purchased by the National Trust and the reserve is managed by the North Wales Wildlife Trust who appoint a warden every summer to look after the terns.

The Lagoon and larger island at Cemlyn

The lagoon at Cemlyn harbours a Sandwich Tern colony of over one thousand pairs. The numbers fluctuate from year to year and at its peak it has contained around two thousand breeding pairs, all situated on the larger of the two islands. It is also the only Sandwich Tern colony in Wales.The terns are very successful in raising young, averaging one chick per pair and this success is thought to be the reason the colony has continued to thrive, as there is always a plentful supply of young birds that will return to breed the next year.There are also healthy numbers of Common and Arctic Terns breeding on a smaller adjacent island in the lagoon.

Heavy rain showers had been predicted for North Wales and indeed I drove through any number getting to Cemlyn but there was no sign of rain when I left the car, just grey cloud and a strong breeze as I trudged along Esgair Cemlyn, the shingle ridge which separates the lagoon from the sea.

Esgair Cemlyn- the shingle bank dividing the sea (on the right) from the lagoon

I expected more birders to have come to see the tern but was pleased to find only around twenty lined up on the ridge overlooking the lagoon. A lady, rather too enthusiastically, told me the tern had not been seen for forty minutes, having flown off when a Peregrine spooked the entire colony. Not the news one wishes to hear but I was not too worried as rare terns often do this and this tern had already disappeared for an hour in the morning and then returned.

A rather edgy wait commenced and as the time passed inevitably the doubts set in.They always do in situations like this but I told myself to stop being silly.The tern was bound to come back.It's only out there at sea feeding. I was certain of it. I tried to feel convinced and exude an air of confidence.

I chatted to a fellow birder and scoped the assembled terns, finding a Roseate Tern in the process, perched on some rocks with Common and Arctic Terns, its black bill and subtly paler plumage distinctive. A constant stream of  mainly Sandwich Terns were returning to the colony from the sea, flying over our heads, some carrying a sandeel or small fish crossways in their bill, bringing it back to feed their young while others carried nothing and possibly had been feeding for themselves or had no parental duties. 

Terns can do little without making a lot of noise about it and as this ceaseless procession of terns arrived from the sea and crossed the stony beach they would cry in excitement kirrrrick kirrrrick, adding their harsh calls to the cacophony coming from the birds already on the island.

The sight that greets one at the colony is a pageant of endlessly active Sandwich Terns, with birds constantly arriving or departing from the colony, pairs parading and displaying with their wings held 'akimbo' as they walk, stiff legged around and beside each other, progressing with peculiar mincing steps and heads held high. Forever graceful. Others wander around with a sandeel held in their long bill, seeming distracted and uncertain what to do with it. Some tried to feed it to their young but were rebuffed
 while others appeared to be presenting the fish to a mate as a courtship offering. 

The sheer spectacle of ceaseless activity is something to marvel at, accompanied as always by a similar constancy of raucous calls delivered, without fail, at high volume.There is never a second of silence. Yet through all the noise and commotion the all round experience is somehow calming.

Movement emanates also from the many juvenile birds, almost full grown, their bodies freckled brown with matching brown caps, wandering around on the muddy margins of the island. It looked like most of the well grown young had gravitated here with their parents, while birds still incubating or with very small young remained concealed in the vegetation at the centre of the island.

An anxious forty minutes elapsed before a birder, to my immediate left, quietly announced he had the Elegant Tern in his scope. Cue a mad rush of other birders to his side, nearly knocking me sideways. All decorum forgotten. Words of remonstration.The inevitable panicked enquiries. 

'Where is it mate? '

'Any directions'

Totally unnecessary, as it was easy enough to locate the tern, for it could not have perched more conveniently. Stood on the flat top of a nest box, which elevated it above the lush vegetation, it showed little inclination to drop down into the vegetation which would render it almost invisible. Apparently this had been a problem for birders earlier in the day but not now. The tern went into a vigorous preening session, inbetween disputing possession of the box with the surrounding Sandwich Terns which it stabbed at with a formidably long, orange yellow bill.

It remained on the box for a good twenty minutes preening, then stilled and relaxed, if ever a tern is capable of doing such a thing. It was obviously calling every so often but it was impossible for my ears to discern its call from the myriad calls of the Sandwich Terns.

It took off and flew low over the island and round, to land back in the vegetation and was almost invisible  as it bickered with nearby Sandwich Terns, the occasional sighting of its yellow bill pointing above the vegetation was all that indicated where it was. 

Suddenly one of those familiar and periodic 'dreads' seized the colony and en masse the terns rose into the air in a swirl of white movement, screaming for all their worth and just as quickly swung round and settled like snow flakes to resume their daily activities. It was as if nothing had happened.

The Elegant Tern when compared to the Sandwch Terns was a fraction larger, its bill noticeably long and downcurved, slightly deeper at the base and conspicuously pale orange. Its black cap and crest were shaggier and extended further down the nape too.The body plumage was similarly grey above and white below and when it flew I could see the rump and tail were white, which distinguishes it from a Lesser Crested Tern and there were markedly dark areas on the outer primaries and trailing edge of the secondaries. The latter feature might suggest this is a second summer bird.

The Elegant Tern's normal summer range is along the Pacific Coast of southern USA and Mexico and they move south in winter to Peru, Ecuador and Chile. In May this year an unauthorised drone crashed onto one of the only four known nesting colonies, this one at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve south of Los Angeles in Orange County, California, causing the terns to completely abandon the colony at a total loss of 1500 nests. A huge and totally avoidable tragedy. 

The first record for Europe was of one seen in France in 1974 and since then it has been recorded almost annually in Europe involving around 20  individuals with many returning to the same Sandwich Tern colony for successive years and occasionally hybridising with the Sandwich Terns.

Since 2009 eight or more Elegant Terns have bred near Valencia in Spain, either pairing with a Sandwich Tern or pairing with one of their own species.This has resulted in  both hybrid juveniles and also at least seven 'pure' juveniles.

It has been recorded in Britain on four previous occasions and in Ireland on six. The first record for Britain was one at Dawlish Warren in Devon on 18th May 2002. I can also recall spending a fruitless day at Pagham Harbour in mid June 2017 waiting for one to show up, that had been present for over a week while I was in Scotland, only to learn at the end of a long hot day it had settled further west in the Sandwich Tern colony on Brownsea Island in Dorset! It was gone the next day and never seen again.

I waited for a brief time to see if the Elegant Tern would re-emerge from the vegetation that concealed it but there was no indication it would. Most had left when it disappeared into the vegetation, just five of us remained as late arriving birders came huffing and puffing along the shingle bank, anxiety writ large on their faces.

Is it showing?

No but it's here. Wait a while and you will see it.

And with that it was six pm. Time to leave.

I had been here an hour and a half.

A long drive awaited me but I would take it easy.

Relaxed and content.

There is no sense of urgency now 

Elegant Tern. 

Number 513 on my British List......

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