Tuesday 30 August 2016

Royalty in the Republic 27th August 2016

A Royal Tern had been reported in The Republic of Ireland at a place called Roonagh Lough in County Mayo on 16th August. It proved extremely elusive and frustrated many who wanted to see it as Royal Terns are extremely rare in both Britain and Ireland, with only five records and one record respectively. This bird was assumed to be from North America although another race occurs in West Africa.

This particular individual was in almost full breeding plumage, being thought to be around two years old so not quite fully adult but nevertheless displaying a shaggy black crown and a very large orange red bill and was seen to have a slightly injured right leg.

As is the way with such birds it disappeared and soon was put to the back of the memory for those who did not see it and celebrated as a spectacular success by those who did. Its premature disappearance left many with an aching desire to see one and their prayers were answered when the same bird, identifiable by its injured leg was found again on 23rd August, this time near a place called Beale Strand, a large sandy beach by the estuary of the River Shannon near Listowel (formerly Ballybunnion) in County Kerry  

Birders from the UK began to make plans to travel over to see it but it soon became apparent that its appearances were distinctly sporadic and unreliable and not everyone who made the trip was successful. I kept a casual eye on reports about it but was not particularly enthusiastic about making the trip. It's a long way, the logistics are complicated and quite frankly I was not prepared to make the effort.

Justin however was, and contacted me asking if I wanted to make the trip with him. Originally he wanted to fly over and hire a car in Ireland but I was not enthusiastic about flying due to the fact it would be very expensive, as all airlines unsportingly put up their fares over any Bank Holiday. A text arrived from Justin late on Thursday evening enquiring whether I was interested in going the next day by car, leaving at eight thirty on Friday evening and catching the dreaded 'red eye' Stena Car Ferry service from Fishguard to Rosslare at two thirty am on Saturday morning, arriving at Rosslare at six thirty am and then making another three hour drive across Ireland to where the tern was. I said I would sleep on it.

The Royal Tern, the cause of all this excitement had, until a few days ago, been its usual elusive self but now had developed a routine of sorts and was to be found at a high tide roost on either one of two beaches, Beale Strand or Littor Strand in County Kerry on the southern shore of the Shannon Estuary, although it was known to cross the estuary to Carrigaholt opposite, lying on the northern side of the estuary in County Clare. I felt a little more confident about the chances of seeing it with this in mind but only just. It was a big risk but when is twitching ever not?

Friday morning duly arrived and I agreed to go, sending Justin a text to that effect, my decision made easier by the fact that Justin had kindly offered to drive in his car and to pick me up from my home.

That evening found me at the appointed hour waiting at the bottom of my drive for Justin who collected me with a minimum of fuss and we were off into the night. It's a long and tedious drive to Fishguard and the roads on a Bank Holiday Friday evening were predictably crowded even when we turned off towards the Severn Bridge. Relieved of an extortionate £6.60 for the privilege of crossing the bridge we headed into the land of the Red Dragon and slowly but surely the traffic lessened after Cardiff and soon we were on roads that were relatively free of traffic. Well let's face facts, not many people from choice would choose to drive in the wee hours of a Bank Holiday Friday through darkest Wales, but here we were doing just that and soon descending into the unattractive surroundings of the ferry terminal at Fishguard, thankfully shrouded by the night sky. We both remarked we had never seen the ferry terminal in daylight and agreed that probably that was for the best.

I shuddered as we drew up into our allocated lane of cars to await boarding the huge Stena ferry. Having made a car journey of just under four hours to arrive shortly after midnight in a soulless, bleak car park, I defy anyone to find the situation desirable but there was no escape, we had committed ourselves and in a couple of hours or so we would be on the ferry. My memories of doing this self same trip some years ago on another twitch still scar my mind as the four hour ferry crossing is in itself a nightmare of uncomfortable seats, boredom and sleep deprivation. This I still had to look forward to as I contemplated the bumper of the car in front of us.

We had two hours to wait but after trying unsuccessfully to grab some sleep in the car we just sat and people watched as our fellow travellers in the vehicles around us walked dogs, packed and unpacked their cars, fiddled about with roof racks and indulged in anything to while away the boredom of waiting, waiting, waiting for something to happen. 

Eventually the ordeal was over for all of us and the lines of cars started to move, merging into one column of vehicles to be swallowed into the gaping maw of the ship's open bow doors, for all the world like some behemoth swallowing its prey. It really did feel like that and I was hardly relishing the four hours of guaranteed tedium as we crossed the Irish Sea in the dark but consoled myself with the knowledge that the sooner it commenced the sooner it would be over.

There were other twitchers on the ship, intent like us on seeing the Royal Tern and I made a pleasant re-acquaintance with Steve and Dave who I had spent time with chasing other rarities in times past but we were all beyond any sensible conversation and they too were looking for a suitable place to bed down for the night, so we parted.

Finding a long, cushioned of sorts, bench seat in a secluded corner of the huge chrome and polished wood cafe area, Justin and myself established a base camp where we planned to stretch out and sleep on the bench which would easily accommodate the two of us lying full length. First though, I suggested a tea for each of us before we settled for the night. Two teas later at the cost of an eye watering, pocket lightening £4.20 I was already regretting my offer.

My contribution to Stena Ferries Profit and Loss Account.
Never was the exhortation 'Enjoy' more inappropriate
It is said that one's body clock is at its lowest ebb around three am in the morning and that is when many people give up the unequal struggle and die. I was beginning to understand as we approached the fatal hour but resolved to put a brave face on it, lay prone on the bench, closed my eyes and failed to die.

It was of course impossible to sleep properly as the bench seats were not that comfortable but needs must and anything was better than the floor.  Others were obviously made of sterner stuff, night owls that to my amazement were tucking into a full English or Irish breakfast at two hours after midnight or just walking around in zombie like fashion, possibly hoping not to be seasick. The cafe closed and a peace of sorts descended, though no one dimmed the lights and I endured the sleeping/waking hell of adopting uncomfortable positions on an unforgiving narrow bench as the ship shuddered and groaned its way across the sea. In the end sleep finally claimed me courtesy of sheer exhaustion but Justin found it much easier to sleep for which I was silently thankful as he would be doing all the driving. 

The ship's cafe. I know it looks so nice but believe me this is hell at 2.30am
The morning arrived and Steve came over to chat and share a coffee. We agreed to keep in touch by phone and contact each other if there were any updates on the Royal Tern from our various birding contacts. The huge ship docked and we went down to the car deck and prepared for the three hour drive across Ireland to the beaches near Listowel and hopefully an encounter with the Royal Tern.

Leaving the ship at just after six thirty, an early Irish morning of low lying mist greeted us, blanketed sullen and grey over the green countryside but allowing patches of blue sky to peek through, as we made our way up the hill from the ferry terminal and towards the West. It would be another three hours at least before we got to our ultimate destination on the shores of the Shannon Estuary and Justin gave the car a full work out with the accelerator as we sped along quiet roads, passing towns which up until now had only been names on a map. Clonmel - home of Magner's Cider, Waterford of Crystal fame, Tipperary, and yes, it is indeed a long way but a very nice and attractive town with a high street full of colourful buildings when you get there. Limerick was next and then we were turning onto smaller roads and heading for Littor Strand.

I was regularly checking my RBA (Rare Bird Alert) phone app, unlocking and locking the data roaming button to access any news of the tern without incurring a monstrous bill from Vodaphone but there was nothing. Matt, a twitcher friend of Justin's rang to tell us there was no sign of the tern at Beale Strand which was where he currently was. Later he rang to tell us that the tern had been seen on the other side of the Shannon estuary at Carrigaholt.

Tired and wearied by the lack of sleep and the prospect of chasing around after the tern I slumped in my seat. Steve called me to give me the same news as Matt had given to Justin and told me that he and most of the other UK birders who had come over with us on the ferry last night were now going to take the smaller ferry from nearby Tarbert to Carrigaholt, leaving at ten thirty.

We were thrown into a dilemna. What should we do? The tern had been seen today and we knew it was on the other side of the estuary. However the ferry to Carrigaholt only sailed at thirty minutes past each hour, and the crossing took thirty minutes to get there and then the tern had to be located unless someone was watching it already. If seen, then the return journey would be at least another hour before getting back to Tarbert so at least two hours would be taken up getting  back and fore between Tarbert and Carrigaholt. What if the tern was not at Carrigaholt when they arrived but over on this side of the estuary, which according to previous reports in the last couple of days it was prone to do, coming to roost at high tide on Beale or Littor Strand? This needed serious thought.

Despite our tiredness I am gratified to relate that we did not go into a state of mild panic and head for the ferry unlike all our twitcher colleagues but with calm logic worked through our options and decided to wait at Littor Strand in the hope the tern, as it had done for the last few days would come there to roost at high tide, which was scheduled for around two pm. Justin called Matt who was still at Beale Strand and told him we were going to the nearby Littor Strand to wait and see if the tern came in to roost there and we agreed we would liase by phone if the tern came to either strand. We had both strands covered and Steve would surely let us know if the tern was found at Carrigaholt.

We parked the car in a very narrow lane that led directly onto Littor Strand, a vast expanse of empty sand, stretching away to the grey choppy waters of the Shannon Estuary and beyond which on the far shore lay County Clare and the distant village of Carrigaholt. I was nervous and anxious about the fact we had taken a huge gamble based only on the limited facts known to us about the tern's movements. Should we have gone with the others on the ferry or had we made the right call to remain here and trust to our logical assessment of the facts at our disposal? Only time would tell. It was now around eleven am.

There was no one else on Littor Strand apart from a very distant birder who was walking away towards Beale Strand. I looked east and saw a flock of about twenty Sandwich Terns roosting on the sands. We walked under the lee of a high bank to get closer. Once in position we scoped the roosting terns methodically but there was no sign of the Royal Tern. We did however find a few Mediterranean Gulls and Common Terns of various ages with the flock. 

Some of the Sandwich Tern roosting flock
Part of Littor Strand and the Shannon Estuary.
The Sandwich Tern flock is roosting on the distant shoreline
It was quite wild on the deserted beach, the sun was now long gone and the wind was getting chilly, blowing quite strongly from the northwest. 

Littor Strand
The tern flock was being regularly supplemented by other Sandwich and Common Terns coming to the roost and there was still a distinct feeling of hope and expectation in the air as we were joined by three friendly Irish birders. The tide slowly edged inwards covering the sand. Bar tailed Godwits, Dunlin and Ringed Plover flew into roost on the shore and a couple of Sanderling, shining white in winter plumage ran back and fore with the incoming surf. The Sandwich Terns regularly flew up into the air as they took alarm at something but then swept down to land on the sand again, only to be then moved on by the incoming sea, their short black legs pattering over the beach as they ran from the incoming water to the nearest area of still exposed sand. After another hour had passed it was not looking so good as more and more sand was covered by the incoming tide, there was no sign of the Royal Tern and no more terns of any sort seemed to be coming to the roost. Suddenly the tiredness and sheer effort of making the long journey swamped me and dragged me down into a state of resigned depression. My limbs felt heavy and my spirit crushed. It looked very much like we had failed. Our risky gamble and off the cuff logic did not look so clever now. My phone rang. It was Steve calling from Carrigaholt. They had not seen the tern, missing it by a narrow margin. I told him there was no sign of it here and we agreed to keep in touch if there were any positive developments. The three local birders with us were also fielding calls from friends speculating on where and what the tern might be doing but no one really knew anything and the calls were just evidence of the growing tension and anxiety on everyone's part. 

A woman and her two daughters plus two dogs came along the beach. They saw us looking at the terns on the beach,  knew exactly what we were doing but carried on regardless and the terns duly rose and swept further away to land more distantly on the sands near some rocks. Thank you for being so considerate. To make our anxiety and frustration even worse they came back along the beach half an hour later and repeated the process but the terns just moved further out on the sand and fortunately did not fly away but they were now very distant and it was hard through my tired and watering eyes to make out details of plumage and bill colour.

No one said or did anything for a while. We were all inwardly contemplating defeat and the earlier optimism had long since faded as we just kept looking and looking through the now sixty or so roosting Sandwich Terns and  then out to sea for any terns that might be flying out there and coming our way. 

Steve called again and told me a local birder had suggested to him that the best option might be to scope the tern flock when they were eventually driven to roost on the rocks at the eastern end of Littor Strand by the incoming tide. I assimilated this information and decided to follow the now distant Sandwich Terns, which as a roosting flock were settled on the sand quite near to the rocks in question. It would be good to be in position should the Royal Tern favour us with an appearance, hope of which was rapidly diminishing.

I told the others of my intention but no one seemed inclined to follow me as I walked several hundred metres along the beach to bring me much nearer to the terns and now I was able, once again to see them in detail. Of course there was no sign of the Royal Tern but more Sandwich Terns had recommenced flying in to the roost so a vague hope was rekindled in me once more.

I called Justin  to suggest he came up the beach to join me but just as he answered there was some excitement from the Irish birders, evident in the background and coming to me over his phone which promptly then went dead. A group of four Sandwich Terns passed me flying low along the sea's edge heading for the roost.

My phone rang again with Justin shouting excitedly. 'The tern's flying your way. It's with a group of Sandwich Terns!'  Was it one of the four terns that had just passed? Juggling the phone and bins I located another small party of eight or so Sandwich Terns flying along the seashore, whilst simultaneously speaking to  Justin. 'How many terns is it flying with. Is it about eight?' I shouted above the wind and Justin said 'Yes, that's the group'. I cut the call and followed the group of terns in my bins but I was too late to get a side on clear view as they had passed and were flying away from me. I followed the group and watched them land, grabbed the scope and there was a large tern, well apart from the others, squatting on the sand head into the wind and with its back to me but when it turned its head I saw its huge orange red bill, about as distinctive as it gets. The Royal Tern! At last! I watched in awe and heightened excitement as it looked around, remaining on the sand well away from the main roosting flock. Would it stay?

The Royal Tern. Note the similar size to the Common Gull in the upper image
Perhaps it was because of its damaged leg that it preferred to be away from the constant shifting and bickering of the Sandwich Tern flock and it sat on the sand rather than stand as that appeared to make it more comfortable. I quickly called Justin and told him that he and our Irish friends needed to get up here as fast as possible as I had the tern in my scope sat on the sand. The image that sticks in my mind is that of the enormous down curved orange red bill, almost luminescent in the dull light. It was in virtually full summer plumage with a black cap finishing as a shaggy tuft or crest on its nape. The rest of the plumage was a silvery grey on its upper-parts and white underneath with much black or dark grey in the primaries. It stood and raised its wings evidencing their greater length and its larger size compared to the Sandwich Terns and it would stand its ground against any Sandwich Tern that settled near or threatened it, opening its bill and thrusting it at its adversary.

I called Steve to tell him we had the tern sat on the beach, gave him instructions as to where we were and rang off assuming Steve would tell all the other birders on the ferry. Justin and our Irish friends joined me and we watched the Royal Tern for twenty minutes as it sat in splendid isolation on a patch of sand well apart from the main flock, occasionally standing but then sitting again to rest its bad leg. I took lots of images but the awful light and distance precluded anything but what are wistfully called record shots.

Justin called Matt and his wife at Beale Strand to tell them the good news and they set off in their car to make the short journey to Littor Strand. A little later a panicky phone call came from Matt who was confused as to where he should be and thought he had driven down the wrong lane. A comedy of errors ensued as various directions were given and questions answered by Justin and it turned out they were in the right place all the time and all they had to do was walk down the lane from their car and turn right onto the beach where they would see us standing in the distance. The combination of anxiety, tiredness, adrenalin and sheer fear of missing the bird often result in such situations where one becomes incapable of logical thought processes and the mind becomes befuddled and unable to process the simplest of instructions. We have all been there.

Once the phone call to Matt was over and he seemed to have understood where he was, we in turn relaxed but just as we began to feel settled and confident that the Royal Tern was now equally settled, the encroaching sea convinced it otherwise and it flew up and following the shoreline came towards us, passed us and settled on the sand beyond, somewhat nearer to us than before. In flight it looked long winged, slim and distinctly big, its outer flight feathers were dark grey or black and slightly ragged with a small dark bar evident on the secondaries which would mean it was not quite an adult but more likely to be two years old. Its tail was shortish, white and also slightly worn and ragged. It had been calling in flight and sounded not too dissimilar to a Sandwich Tern.

Once it settled on the sand we could now see it completely isolated and relatively close and what an imposing bird it was. About the size of a Common Gull, it exuded a combination of latent power and grace of form, standing four square into the wind on short black legs, slightly favouring the left one, its bill more orange than red with a  faint yellow tip. In the dull light its upper-parts still appeared very pale apart from the long wing tips which were darker grey even black on the outer primaries.

The Royal Tern
Sadly it did not remain  for long, maybe five minutes, I cannot really recall exactly, as it was all a blur of excitement and a rush of adrenalin after such a long journey and tense period of waiting for it to appear. It lifted into the wind and flew further down the beach towards Beale Strand some mile and a half further on. It passed Matt and his wife who were just coming along the beach but fortunately they managed to see it.

It was now my turn to get on the phone and I called Steve who was on the return ferry coming over to Tarbert, to tell him that the tern was on the move and now was headed for Beale Strand so he and all the other, no doubt anxiety wracked birders with him on the ferry should go there and not waste their time coming to Littor Strand. I rang off happy to have done my bit for the twitching fraternity.

So it was just the five of us that currently stood on a wild, lonely strand under grey clouds as the wind and waves created an evocative soundtrack to our triumph.There really is no feeling like it in the world when it all comes together like this.The wild swing of emotions down and then up the scale to the final triumphant conclusion is incomparable. Maybe that is why twitching is so addictive, the greater the effort required and distance travelled, the greater the trials and tribulations, so the greater the exultation one feels if it all comes to a successful conclusion.

It was good that just the five of us saw, shared and had the tern to ourselves as we had each taken the not inconsiderable personal gamble to back our convictions and not get swept up in the mild hysteria of the other twitchers who had taken the ferry to Carrigaholt in their anxiety to see the tern. I admit to feeling a little smug, who wouldn't, but I had diligently kept Steve abreast of events so he could keep the others informed and once the ferry got back to Tarbert  they too would hopefully see the tern on Beale Strand and everyone would be happy.

Our three Irish friends recording the moment
We chatted amongst ourselves, smiling, laughing and joking to release the tension that had been slowly building in the increasingly fraught time we had waited for the tern. It was now around one in the afternoon although time seemed irrelevant as we savoured the moment. Justin and myself bade farewell to our three Irish colleagues and headed back along the beach as we fancied driving round to Beale Strand to see more of the tern. Matt and his wife were already walking along the beach in that direction.

We were relaxed now, happy, excited and in banter mode, reliving our own personal thoughts and experiences by relating anecdotes to one another as we walked back to the car. We made a short drive down some narrow lanes  to Beale Strand and found a similar although larger and more populated stretch of sand onto which you could drive. No rip off car park or any restrictions whatsoever - rural Ireland at its best and most welcoming. We set off walking but now it was Matt's opportunity to return a favour and he called to tell us that the Royal Tern had thought better of it and returned to Littor Strand and rejoined the flock of Sandwich Terns. It made sense as Littor Strand had little human disturbance whereas Beale Strand from what we could see did.

I called Steve once more and informed him to now go to Littor Strand as the tern had gone back there! We drove back and turned down the now familiar lane to Littor Strand and there in front of us was Steve and colleagues just parking their car. We walked with them to the bottom of the lane and turned right onto the beach where we could see Matt and his wife presumably looking at the tern. They were about half a mile away and as we walked all the other birders on the ferry had also found the lane  and were hurrying along the beach in our wake, anxiety written large on their faces. I carried on at my own gentle pace as I had the luxury of knowing I had seen the tern and now could take my time walking through the soft sand. I heard gasping and wheezing sounds coming from close behind me, a birder no doubt running through the sand anxious to see the tern and by the sounds of it about to expire. As he drew level with me I turned my head curious to see this person who was so desperate that he was pushing himself to almost beyond his physical limits. It was Lee Evans, the self proclaimed George Michael of birding. I just looked at him but said nothing. We do not get on. My expression probably said it all. He looked at me and was probably at that moment incapable of saying anything, as like a landed fish he was gasping for air. Probably just as well. What a state to get in. He stumbled onwards, heavy legged through the sand and I turned to wait for Justin to catch up. We joined Matt and gradually other birders came along the beach and there must have been around twenty five of us stood in a line admiring the Royal Tern, which annoyingly for those just arriving was obscured by a Common Gull but eventually the gull moved and the tern was there in all its magnificence for everyone to see.

Some of the twitchers scoping the Royal Tern
Justin wanted to go as we had another long drive back to Rosslare to catch the ferry back to Fishguard. 'OK. Just another five minutes Justin and then we can go.' We said our goodbyes to our various twitching friends, now relaxed and as content as we were and walked back along the sand encountering a variety of anxious birders heading in the tern's direction. 'Is it still there?' they gasped in passing. 'Yes' we replied.

It was over. We had done it and the commencing steady rain suggested that we were right to end our day now.

We drove back the way we had come and drove out of the rain and into sunshine. We made a stop in Limerick for Justin to grab a ten minute power nap in a garage car park and for me to spend my last Euro coins on danish pastries and doughnuts by way of celebration, then it was onwards towards Rosslare. We were, however, making such good time that we decided to try to go to the wonderful Tacumshin Lake which is very close to Rosslare. It made sense as Tacumshin is renowned as a place to find rare waders and is a very beautiful and atmospheric place in its own right. Also it would be far preferable to spend an hour birding there than sitting twiddling our thumbs in the concrete hell of the waiting zone for the ferry.

We had to check in by 8pm at the latest for the ferry so we had around an hour to see what we could find at Tacumshin. It took us about twenty minutes of wrong turns and guess work to find the lake as it is not exactly well signposted and the tiny parking area is at the end of a most unlikely looking track but we found our way eventually. There was one other car there but no sign of any birders apart from two over on the far side of the huge lake.

We walked along a grass track, flushing some Little Egrets and  Dunlin from beside the lake and came to an area where we could see a small muddy bay and various waders running about on it.

We soon found some Curlew Sandpipers amongst a flock of Dunlin. A good sized flock of Black tailed Godwits were also feeding beyond them and then we were joined by a local birder, a very friendly and nice man called Paul Kelly who became even more popular with us as he pointed out a Pectoral Sandpiper and a Wood Sandpiper feeding with some Ruff and Common Greenshanks in the muddy bay. He told us there was a Buff breasted Sandpiper over on the far side beyond the lake but we did not have time to go over there so we chatted about various things and then as he lived in Rosslare he offered to guide us back out through the daunting maze of unsigned lanes and back to Rosslare. It was a very pleasant way to end our day in Ireland and yet another welcome demonstration of Irish hospitality and kindness.

The rest was a reprise of the hellish journey outwards ameliorated by the warm glow of triumph at having seen the Royal Tern which after all is said and done was the sole justification for undergoing the torment of the ferry. I was home at 4.30am on Sunday morning. Thirty two hours non stop door to door. Now I could rest.

Congratulatory selfie! Yours truly and Justin
Thanks a million Ireland! Slainte!