Wednesday 3 July 2013

Unbridled joy 2nd July 2013

Bridled Tern c Justin
I was sitting in the garden of our local pub in Kingham having a pleasant evening glass of wine with my wife and daughter when I received a terse text from Justin. 'Are you looking to go for the tern?' I knew exactly what he was referring to. A Bridled Tern had arrived on the Farne Islands the day before and was 'a mega' as it would be the first one twitchable since July 1988. I consulted my family and as usual was given their wholehearted approval to go. 

At half past midnight I collected Justin in Bicester and we set off north. To my shame I did not know just how far north the Farne Islands were. They are, as I learnt as we headed inexorably north, almost at the Scottish border, further than I had anticipated. Neither of us had got much sleep due to the late decision to go. Justin had a couple of hours on the couch at home and I  had similar but in bed at my home. Slightly frazzled as we set off we regaled each other with past birding exploits just to keep each other awake as we drove onwards. After a while to my tired eyes the reflections from the cat's eyes on the Motorway became like mesmerising white tracer bullets coming at us at speed as we headed north. So long as you remained in a lane they never scored a hit and disappeared behind into the darkness of the empty road. Fanciful I know but this  form of extreme birding brings strange illusions. Boredom, tiredness or just an overactive imagination?  I redoubled my concentration.

Tuesday after midnight on the M1 meant there were few vehicles on the road and we proceeded steadily northwards untroubled by obstacles real or imagined. We had reached Leeds by three in the morning and it was already getting light with a suffusion of pink rising off to the East. Alternating the driving responsibilities was a real  boon on such a long and tiring journey and gave both of us a chance of getting some rest. We passed The Angel of the North, looming huge and rusty over Gateshead but still very impressive against the lightening sky.  By the time we turned off the A1 it was broad daylight bringing that grey and calm early dawn stillness so familiar to birders when most other people are sensibly still abed and for certain not whizzing up or down Motorways and country lanes. We wound around the rural, single carriageway road to Seahouses from whence a boat would take us on a short  sea crossing to our twitching destiny on Inner Farne. Startled groups of Jackdaws flapped heavily from the deserted road at our approach as did a lone Buzzard, perched sentinel on a telegraph pole.

We arrived in Seahouses, a small, pleasant seaside town with one main street, surprisingly containing no less than four fish and chip shops and made for the car park above the pier. It was just after five in the morning. Already the car park was half full with cars disgorging birders, some quite cheerful and energetic others still sleepy from a long drive. Acquaintances were renewed and slowly everyone made their way down to Billy Shiel's smart blue office cum shed where we parted with £15.00 per head to be transported across to Inner Farne. 

Twitchers waiting for the boat at Seahouses
A whisper went round the assembled throng that the tern had already been seen this morning and there was a discernible change in atmosphere from one of tension to a more relaxed and jovial anxiety. Gathered at the end of the pier we filed down the steps and onto the Glad Tidings. Despite the  boat looking somewhat small the two man crew managed to get everyone on board and we were on our way promptly at six. 

Glad Tidings
Over to our left the hulking and brooding outline of Bamburgh Castle was prominent on the coastline as we traversed the calm sea and thankfully no one was ill as the crossing took no more than twenty minutes. From the Seahouses shoreline Inner Farne had appeared as an unremarkable, low lying island with a squat white lighthouse at its highest point. It was only as we got nearer the island that the sheer number of seabirds on and around the small island became apparent. The sea was dotted with hordes of Guillemots and Puffins plus an occasional Razorbill and Gannet amongst them. Above the island a huge number of terns flew in seemingly haphazard circles. We rounded the northern point of the island and drew alongside the landing stage manned by three wardens in bright red jackets. The head warden greeted us with a cheery 'Morning lads. Not to worry. The tern's on the rocks to your left showing well'. The tension and anxiety amongst the fifty or so birders on the boat increased palpably and some could hardly control themselves, gently chivvying those in front leaving the boat to get a move on. Everyone wanted off the boat as fast as possible and to get to see the tern as quickly as possible. Thankfully this being England everyone managed to remain almost polite and soon we were all on the landing stage looking left and getting our first view of the Bridled Tern. 

The landing stage on Inner Farne
The rocks where it was perched were a loafing area for an assembly of off duty Arctic, Common and Sandwich Terns, that after having a wash were sorting out their plumage or just having a sleep.

Every so often 'a dread' would seize the throng and they would all noisily rise up and wheel around for a minute or so before settling again. The Bridled Tern would join them and we were treated to close fly pasts and at one stage it was no more than a few feet above our heads actually calling. A gull like cry, very distinctive above the harsher calls of the other terns. Unfortunately because of the restricted viewing on the landing stage it was virtually impossible to get a decent photo but I certainly got more than adequate views of the Bridled Tern through my bins. 

Bridled Tern c Justin
Slightly larger than the Arctic and Common Terns it was grey brown on the upper parts with a prominent and rather snazzy black and white head pattern. The underparts were snow white. Supremely elegant in flight, its narrow body moving up and down with each  beat of  it's long wings and a prominently forked tail showing white outer tail feathers. It perched on the rocks regularly but was constantly taking off and flying around us. Occasionally it was mobbed in a somewhat desultory fashion by other terns. Maybe they thought it was a small skua due to it's brown plumage and rakish appearance. We watched it for around fifteen  minutes before it disappeared over the top of the island into the milling throng of terns nesting there and was lost to view. It came back briefly some minutes later and performed another circuit but then again retreated back over the island. We all waited but it did not come back. 

The wardens had given special permission for us to be there this early in the morning as normally access is restricted to between 1.30-5.30 in the afternoon and our special viewing was restricted to only one hour and only from the landing stage, which passed all too quickly. Then we all had to re-board the boat to return to Seahouses.

The time I spent between the Bridled Tern making off and the boat leaving for Seahouses was certainly not wasted from my personal point of view. I have always wanted to visit the Farne Islands and took this opportunity to admire and enjoy the sheer seabird spectacular all around me. Arctic and Common Terns were everywhere, constantly active, their beauty and sheer elegance in no way diminished by their continuous raucous and ear jarring cries. 

Common Terns
Common Tern
Arctic Terns

Arctic Tern
Arctic Terns
Arctic Terns usually do not return to the breeding grounds in their second calendar
year but there were a number of these birds present still in first winter plumage

Flocks of terns and Puffins discomfited by the appearance of predatory Herring and Greater Black backed Gulls periodically wheeled wildly in the sky before resuming their positions on the turf and settling back to family duties. A warden ran, shouting and waving his arms at a Herring Gull that landed in a group of nesting terns. Too late. The Herring Gull flew off with a half swallowed tern chick. Puffins stood sentinel on crumbling walls. So dapper in their black and white plumage and  technicolour bills. 

One of the wardens went up the famous pathway to the ruined buildings and was instantly assailed by fearless, aggressive terns pecking at her head. The sheer pulse of life and  the variety of birds was uplifting. The absolute energy and relentless activity of the birds all intent on reproductive success was reward enough for being here but today it was topped by a real tropical star in the very rare Bridled Tern.

Justin making friends with St Cuthbert's Duck. St Cuthbert was a monk who lived
on Lindisfarne, one of the Farne Islands and protected the Eiders that lived there

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