Wednesday 20 June 2018

A Royal Visit to Sussex 20th June 2018

On Saturday the 10th of June 2017 I was leaving home with my wife for a week's holiday in Achiltibuie, which is in the far northwest of Scotland, so you can imagine how I felt when news came through that an Elegant Tern had been found that very morning in the Sandwich Tern colony on Tern Island at Church Norton, in what is now the RSPB Reserve of Pagham Harbour in West Sussex. This tern had first been seen at Hayling Island in the neighbouring county of Hampshire on the 5th June, then it disappeared but it had now been rediscovered in West Sussex on the south coast of England.

For the whole week we were away reports came through of the Elegant Tern being seen every day in the tern colony. The day we drove south from Scotland it went missing but was reported late that evening, by which time we had got back to our home in Oxfordshire. I drove to Church Norton before dawn the next day but despite mounting an all day vigil with numerous other birders it never showed up  and then, to add to my woes, it was reported in the late afternoon from Brownsea Island, further west in Dorset! It was far too late in the day to get there and that evening a videocam showed stomach wrenching images of it roosting with the nesting Sandwich Terns on Brownsea Island. The next morning it had gone. I had dipped (twitcher parlance for not seeing a desired bird)

Fast forward, if you will, to yesterday, the 19th June and imagine my pleasant surprise to see a report on RBA (Rare Bird Alert) of an Elegant Tern, again frequenting the Sandwich Tern colony at Church Norton. It was first discovered at 3.20pm and it was then being regularly reported from Church Norton until at least 9.30pm by which time about ninety, mainly local birders, had managed to see it.

It was a pretty good guess that it would roost that night on Tern Island in the company of the nesting Sandwich Terns but what would happen in the morning? Would it still be there or would it have departed at dawn? I was elated as here was a chance to settle the score and finally have a good chance to see the Elegant Tern that had given me the slip a year ago but I was also worried that it would not stay and therefore determined to get to Church Norton before dawn the next day to increase my chances of seeing it.

But hold on. Checking RBA for one more time, I saw that the Elegant Tern had been re-identified as an American Royal Tern, based on photos taken that day and that were already circulating on social media!  So there was to be no Elegant Tern for me after all but now, just as good and just as rare, if not more so, there was an American Royal Tern to be seen at Church Norton! The bird was ringed on its right leg and was identified as being the same Royal Tern that has spent the last  two winters frequenting Guernsey in The Channel Islands and various points on the northern coast of France. British birders had long held out hopes that it would eventually find its way to mainland Britain, as it would be the first to be seen here, but those hopes were never realised. Now, at last, it had crossed the Channel to try its luck on the south coast of England.

Royal Terns are big as terns go, about the size of a Common Gull. They are well proportioned and because their upperparts are the palest of grey they can appear almost white. It looks similar to an Elegant Tern, hence the initial confusion about this bird's identity but the Elegant Tern is smaller, with shorter legs, less bulk and with a narrower, longer, more downcurved bill that is more pure orange in colour than the blood orange bill of a Royal Tern.

I was in a quandary about dropping everything there and then and heading south from my home immediately, but it had gone 5.30pm before I saw the news about the tern on RBA and getting around Oxford and down the A34 in the chaos of the evening rush hour would be an anxiety wracked, driving nightmare. By the time I would get to Church Norton I estimated it would be 8.30pm and doubtless the small car park there would be full, necessitating a long walk from the alternative parking at the RSPB Visitor Centre. I decided to gamble, control my emotions and hope the tern would still be there if I  got to Church Norton before daybreak in the morning. My plan was to leave home at 1.30am in the night to get to Church Norton at around 3.45am when it would be just starting to get light. There was also the added incentive that it would wise to get to the very small car park at Church Norton prior to dawn, before it became crammed with birder's cars.

I did not bother about going to bed but read for a couple of hours after watching a World Cup Football match. I  felt pretty good, even excited, as I set off into the night at the appointed hour, following the familiar roads south from the Oxfordshire Cotswolds but then found my access to the southbound A34 closed and was sent on a huge detour around the City of Oxford before rejoining the A34 on the southern side of the city. I regained a semblance of equanimity once back on the A34 but passing Newbury  my anxiety levels were given another upward jolt as I drove into light fog and had to slow the car.  This carried on all the way to the M3 Motorway and I began to worry about what the weather would be like on the coast at Church Norton. Would the fog be thicker there and the tern if it was still there, consequently invisible on the island?

There was nothing to do but try to control my worries, press on and hope. At first the Motorway was just as fog bound as the A34 but as I passed Portsmouth the fog lifted and the Motorway was clear again but now another anxiety beset me, the night sky was visibly lightening, earlier than I had estimated. Would I be too late? It was 3.30 am and I had another fifteen minutes driving before I got to the car park at Church Norton.

Turning off the winding road to Selsey and onto the narrow lane leading to Church Norton I drove to the end of the lane and turned the blind corner into the car park with some trepidation about what I would find. I was right to be anxious as the car park was already totally filled with cars. Birders cars. It was my own fault. Of course a first for Britain was bound to attract huge attention and it was obvious that many birders had slept overnight in the car park.

There was no space to be had anywhere that I could see and I had to turn the car around and go back to the entrance. I checked again, just in case and right by the entrance saw that there was the possibility of getting the car tucked in close to the hedge and where it would not obstruct other arriving vehicles.

Once parked I was out of the car in a trice. Donning a fleece over my polo shirt, I slung my camera bag over my shoulders and grabbed my scope and bins. Other birders who had just arrived or woken up were standing around in that pre-dawn daze that is so familiar to us twitchers and comes after a long, often tiring drive from who knows where. It was up to them what they did but for me there was no time to lose and I had but one thing in mind and that was to get to the shingle bank that overlooks Pagham Harbour and Tern Island, on which the terns were nesting, as quickly as possible.

I completed the short walk from the car park to the shingle bank in a couple of minutes and joined a line of about fifty other birders ranged along the bank, all with scopes pointing optimistically, across the lagoon, at a currently nigh on invisible Tern Island due to the darkness. Although you could hardly see the birds you could certainly hear them. The distinctive excitable kirrrick calls of the Sandwich Terns forming a constant background noise and combining with the peevish cries of Black Headed Gulls and yodelling voices of a few Mediterranean Gulls.

I trained my scope on the vague outline of Tern Island and slowly, as the dawn's light strengthened, the white bodies of Sandwich Terns and Black headed Gulls became discernible. We were all training our scopes on the spot where the Royal Tern had last been seen yesterday evening.Would it be there?

It was still impossible to discern anything other than amorphous shapes but slowly they grew into defined outlines of terns and gulls and the spot where we were looking appeared to be the heart of the small Sandwich Tern colony. I was still struggling with the light and the birds constant movements but someone off to my left had younger, sharper and less tired eyes than mine and spoke up. 'I'm pretty sure I can see it. A brief period of silence then ensued. Then he spoke again. Yes, that's definitely it.' Having announced this he was promptly deluged with enquiries about specific directions and refreshingly, instead of the usual garbled, imprecise guidance that often comes in such circumstances, he proceeded, for which I am ever grateful, to give understandable, precise pointers as to where the tern was on the island, which was far from easy considering the mass of birds, posts and other landmarks required to direct us. The directions heavily relied on fence posts of which there were plenty and it took some time to ascertain exactly which post we needed to look at on the island. There were also other pointers to be considered such as individual Black headed Gulls out of the many present, involved in various activities, such as walking past or preening by the tern. Then the Royal Tern would move and we would have to go through the whole rigmarole again but more and more people were seeing the tern now, so directions came thick and fast.

I, along with others, still could not locate it but all the while the light was improving and then I saw the Royal Tern. Its white forehead now clearly visible in the stronger light and from this my eyes were guided down to its long orange red bill. Oh yes!  It was 4.24am and I had connected with the Royal Tern.

It remained in the general area of the centre of the Sandwich Tern colony but was moving almost constantly as a result of being mildly chivvied by the testosterone fuelled male Sandwich Terns which, despite being smaller, threatened it with outstretched, yellow tipped, black bills. It flew briefly, only to settle closer to us on a muddy strand slowly being covered by the rising tide. There was a comical episode where a person to my right was keeping up a running commentary of its flying and where and what it was doing while flying over the island. I can only assume it was a Sandwich Tern he was looking at as we were all looking at the Royal Tern currently standing on the mud!

Now the Royal Tern was much closer to us I could see its huge orange red bill, white forehead and shaggy black crown to good effect. It stood alongside other off duty Sandwich Terns, demonstrating its larger, bulkier size. Its black legs were clearly visible with a metal ring on the right leg. Even in the dull light the long and slightly down curved bill shone orange red. It bathed in the rising seawater of the incoming tide and then indulged in a short preening session before wandering with rapid, precise steps along the muddy shoreline to stand in front of a Black headed Gull and its half grown chick.

The Royal Tern stood here for a couple of minutes and then took to the air once more, following another two Sandwich Terns across the rapidly filling tidal lagoon, across the huge shingle bank guarding the lagoon and out to sea. The time was 4.37am when it departed and I had been watching it for twelve minutes.

I hoped its absence was just temporary and it had gone fishing, as, undoubtedly, did the many other birders arriving just too late to see it and who disconsolately set up their scopes pointing them at Tern Island in the forlorn hope rather than optimism that it would return. With the inevitable denouement after the Royal Tern's departure I now found the time to occupy myself with the other residents of Tern Island, currently providing a source of constant activity and noise. 

Apart from the compact colony of Sandwich Terns there were many Black headed Gulls breeding with them but they were more widely scattered in the vegetation across the small island, many with brown fluffy chicks of various ages, the larger ones bouncing up and down from within the vegetation, looking comical  as they tried out their half formed wings. The occasional Mediterranean Gull flew over us, ghost white in the dull light of early morning, their strange yelping, quizzical calling distinct above the cries of the other birds. Little Terns were also breeding on the island and I counted at least five pairs in amongst the Sea Kale growing on the shingle and keeping well away from the larger, raucous Sandwich Terns and Black headed Gulls. They are such elegant and engaging little birds, everything about them is attenuated, from bill and wings to tail, amalgamating into a precise angular shape as their dainty white and grey feathered forms cleaved the air.

The forecast was horribly inaccurate and instead of the predicted mild conditions it was quite cold and a mizzle of soft rain drops threatened on the wind that was blowing at our backs. It was unpleasant and everyone, bar me, was wrapped up in sensible clothing. I do not know why I decided on shorts and a polo shirt and thanked my stars that I had at least managed to bring a fleece. Tiredness brings to me an increased sensitivity to the cold and after another half an hour of watching Tern Island in case the Royal Tern put in a surprise return, I left the shingle bank and my fellow birders and sought the sanctuary and warmth of my car. I could wait there in comfort for any news of the tern's re-appearance.

Sat in the car I finished my flask of tea, put my head back and promptly fell fast asleep, happy  in the knowledge that, unlike many of the birders still mounting a cold vigil on the shingle, I had achieved what I set out to do. I awoke to find the time was now 6.30am. I dozed on and off and listened to the radio for another two hours but there was to be no further alert about the tern coming back and at 8.30am I reluctantly decided it was all over and left the car park, wending my cautious way back down a narrow lane made hazardous with randomly parked birder's cars in every possible space available. I decided to head for home but not before refreshing myself with a skinny latte and a pastry from Enticotts, wonder bakers of nearby Selsey.

My grateful thanks to Andrew House for the use of his images of the American Royal Tern taken, as you may guess, yesterday, when the weather was much better and also to Owen Mitchell of 'Birding the Selsey Peninsula' see here


Subsequent to its early departure from Pagham Harbour, later that day the American Royal Tern, to the disappointment of the many still holding out hope at Church Norton, was found to have moved southwest along the coast  to Dorset and was seen flying over the RSPB's Reserve at Lodmoor at 8pm and then later that evening it was found perched on a buoy at nearby Ferrybridge in Portland Harbour, before flying off at 10.15pm. This movement southwestwards is very similar to what happened with the Elegant Tern last year. 

The American Royal Tern was seen very briefly off Weymouth at 5.30am on the morning of 21st June but then disappeared. I wonder if the American Royal Tern, like the Elegant Tern last year will find its way to the Sandwich Tern colony on Brownsea Island? Or will it return to Guernsey and the northern coast of France?

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