Sunday 27 April 2014

By a Whisker 25th April 2014

Late on Friday afternoon and after running 4km at the Gym I was relaxing at home and soothing my stiffening limbs with a large Sloe Gin. Nestled in the comfort of our sofa I planned not to move for the rest of the day. I fell asleep briefly to be awoken by a text alert on my phone.

Dismissing it as probably some work related message of no major importance and which could wait until Monday I nevertheless took a look as one always does. Is it just me or does everyone suffer the same compulsion to answer a phone immediately? It's like a baby crying, there seems to be some irresistible auto response within one that demands instant attention and action.

Anyway, the text was from none other than our illustrious County Bird Recorder Ian Lewington, in my opinion the finest bird illustrator currently practising his art anywhere in the known universe. Oh! Sorry where was I?  The text.  It read. "Possible Whiskered Tern at Otmoor from the First Screen." Bloody hell. A major rarity and a truly mega bird for Oxfordshire. I was now well and truly awake. 

It was however only 'a possible' and mindful of my aching limbs, the time, which was now gone 5pm and the drive to Otmoor RSPB which would take forty five minutes and then the almost mile walk to the First Screen, I was desperately clutching for reasons why not to go but in my heart I knew it had to be done. I rang a few other Oxonbirder friends and finally discussed it with Peter Barker who determined my inevitable departure for Otmoor   by giving me an update and telling me he had spoken to Ian, who in turn had spoken to someone actually watching it. After getting a verbal description from the person watching the tern Ian was now convinced it was a Whiskered Tern and was on his way to collect Pete. That was good enough for me.

Informing my wife that the Spaghetti Bolognese she had  promised for dinner that night would have to go on hold or at the very least count me out until after 8pm, I got set to leave the house. Boots, boots where are they? Sod it where did I put them? Finally I found the damn things and then it seemed to take an age to get them on. Finally I was set to go. What seemed a lifetime had only in reality taken just over five minutes. I swept from the house with bins and scope and set the Audi in the direction of Otmoor.

I was dreading the drive. It had rained solidly for most of the day although thankfully it had now stopped but as a consequence of the downpour  the narrow rural roads were very wet and strewn with deep puddles and all this would have to be coped with in the rush hour. I needed to check my speed. The Audi would not be going into hyper drive for this jaunt!  Unbelievably I met no traffic, not one car, as I took the back lanes from my home, heading to Otmoor.  One advantage I suppose of living in a  rural part of Oxfordshire.

Forty minutes later I arrived in the car park at Otmoor and noted some familiar vehicles already parked there. Pete Roby and Oz arrived just after me closely followed by Nick. Nick and myself, now in full blown twitcher mode, then set off apace down the track to the First Screen. Pete and Oz followed soon after. Nick did not know the reserve so I guided him in the right  direction. Ian called Nick as we walked and told him he was watching the tern. We could see the First Screen distantly across the reserve. Our pace quickened markedly until in the end desire overtook decorum and Nick started running. I tried to follow but having already done 4km earlier was in no shape to do anymore. I let him go and shortly after arrived at the screen, sweating profusely under my waterproof clothing and with steam literally rising from my brow. But who cares, all I wanted was to see the Whiskered Tern. The others soon put me onto it. You could hardly miss it. Slap bang in front of the screen, the only tern present, pale grey almost ghostly in the dull evening light, it swept back and fore with that lovely liquid, easy flight motion that terns have, picking insects from the tops of the reeds or flying up higher to seize them in flight above the reeds. It was in the company of around sixty Swallows also feasting on the insects and on one occasion was mobbed by a lone Swallow. What a stunner. A robust almost dumpy looking tern, this impression possibly caused by the short tail with no elongated streamers. The wings were grey with white 'venetian blind' flight feathers whilst  the underparts comprised a charcoal grey breast with a much darker grey belly making it look like it had stained itself.  The upper half of the head sported the usual tern black cap whilst the lower half was a gleaming pure white. All this topped off with the standard tern bill of crimson red.

I watched this vision of loveliness cruising back and fore. Swooping up and down over the winter brown tassled reed heads. 

Fourteen lucky Oxonbirders watched it from the screen.  Many of Oxonbirds finest were there although sadly some good friends were either unable to make it or for various reasons heard about it too late. Last to arrive was Gnome, who arrived in some disarray and was for a while totally unable to view it through his optics due to the heat that was emanating from his body steaming up his optics. A nervous few minutes passed as we all shouted instructions to him which as we all know is not the most helpful thing to do in times of stress. "Its over the reeds going right." "No its going up higher now." "See that grey cloud?" "Can you see the church tower? It's right above it but closer." "Its going left now." "No it's going round again".  "It's coming straight towards us." "You must be able to see it?" "You can even see it with the naked eye." Poor Gnome. What with steamed up optics and a cacophony of distracting but well meaning directions he did well to keep his cool and eventually get onto it and I think we were all just as relieved as he was when he finally saw it.

Now everyone relaxed a bit and we set about enjoying this all too rare moment. Just as well we did as after about fifteen minutes the tern rose higher and higher over the reeds, up into the sky and headed with some purpose northeast into the gloomy heavens. We followed it until it was just a speck and then it was gone. I had seen it by just a short margin. Gnome by even less. Two others arrived just too late. The worst feeling in the world. They accepted their bad luck with good grace although we were to hear later that they hung on at the screen and it returned at around eight pm and gave every indication it was going to spend the night there.

We walked back to the car park triumphant. It really is the best feeling in the world and I just savoured the all too brief time it took to get back to the cars as we relived the moment by sharing our enjoyment and experience of seeing the tern.

The next day. Saturday, the car park at Otmoor was crammed full at first light with some birders even arriving at 4am, an hour before dawn to secure a place at the screen. Sadly all were disappointed  as the tern was nowhere to be seen. A few mutterings began about whether it truly returned on Friday night but that's birding for you. A post sighting analysis seems to be de riguer nowadays for sightings such as this involving examination of every minute detail of the circumstances and every possible discrepancy.

I am sorry that it left so soon, especially for friends such as Clackers,The Wickster, Justin, Paul and Vicky. It is so much more rewarding when you can share the experience with colleagues. I hope another turns up but apparently this is the first to be seen in Oxfordshire for forty four years according to Ian, so I hope it is not as long before the next one. If it is I will not be around to see it!

I do however now have this one on my county list. Oh yes!!!

All images by Terry Sherlock to whom I offer grateful thanks as I left the
house in such haste I forgot to take my camera

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