Friday 23 July 2021

My Tern at Farmoor 22nd July 2021

After the thrills and spills chasing off to see the Black browed Albatross in Yorkshire and latterly a lovely Red footed Falcon in Somerset it was back to earth today with a visit to my local Farmoor Reservoir.

The continuing heatwave meant the reservoir's waters were silky smooth under a windless blue sky as I walked the causeway in the early morning, expecting to see very little at this time of the year. A few waders have begun to trickle through and Common Sandpipers, a Little Ringed Plover, a Whimbrel, an Oystercatcher and the inevitable Dunlins have all put in brief appearances in the last few days but this morning there was, as expected, nothing to get excited about.

Common Terns were creating quite a racket as I walked along and I could see that there were up to eight flying around the reservoir, their grating, querulous keeeyaaah calls  coming loud and clear across the still waters. Looking at them it became apparent that a pair had brought their two young with them to the reservoir.

One young tern came very close to me as I stood on the causeway.They look so very different to their parents, lacking the long tail streamers and with wings less pointed which creates an illusion that they are smaller.Their plumage at this early stage of their life is an amalgamation of sandy brown, greys of varying shades and white which they will moult in their winter home in Africa and where they will remain for all of the following year before returning to breed.Their flight however remains typically accomplished and bouyant.

Juvenile Common Tern

In times past there used to be rafts for them to nest on at the reservoir but these are long gone and the terns now  have to find nearby gravel pits and the like on which to raise their young, but once the young  are fledged they and their parents gravitate back to the reservoir where there is more space and good feeding.

Common Terns are supremely elegant in flight and for me encapsulate an impossible dream of an airborne existence crossing oceans and continents, free to go wherever one pleases.Fanciful I know but why not? I always feel their old fashioned name of Sea Swallow is far more appropriate as they are very much like a swallow, possessing as they do  a fragile body and delicate wings, the former slim and lithe, the latter long and pointed and a tail with long outer streamers. Also, just like the swallow they are summer migrants, arriving in late March or early April and departing south in September.

Mark Cocker, the naturalist and writer, wrote the following about these terns

Perhaps the clearest testimony to the inspirational qualities of their aero-dynamism is the number of small private sailing boats named after them.Birds are a constant theme in boat names - probably more than any other life form - and perhaps we should perceive in them the associations of physical and spiritual freedom that we project on to birds and sailing boats alike. Sea Swallow seems to carry the most obvious, fundamental connection between the two

Common Terns from western and southern Europe, including Britain, tend to winter north of the Equator on the West African coast and recoveries of ringed birds suggest British and Irish birds frequent  Ghana, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ivory Coast in winter, while those from further north and east, such as the Baltic, winter further south in Angola and South Africa.

Common Terns are closely similar to Arctic Terns. In fact so similar are the two species that it is only subtle plumage and structural differences that can separate them. The most obvious difference is that the Common Tern has an orange red bill with a dark tip whereas the Arctic Tern has a blood red bill with no dark tip. That is if you can get close enough to see! Both terns possess a plumage that is a reflection of the elements they mainly inhabit, the sea and the sky, being aluminium grey above and white below. Their heads in breeding plumage are solidly capped with black.

Common Terns are in fact not as common as Arctic Terns, the latter outnumbering the former by two to one.However Arctic Terns nest in large coastal colonies in the more northerly parts of Britain whereas Common Terns nest in smaller groups and are seen mainly in the south of Britain, often breeding inland on gravel pits, park lakes and reservoirs where they become a familiar summer sight. A tern raft at my local RSPB Otmoor reserve in Oxfordshire was quickly occupied by Common Terns when it was placed in one of the lagoons there.

Walking back along the causeway I flushed a Grey Heron from the bank and it flew out to pitch on one of the marker buoys in the reservoir. Immediately it was attacked by two irate adult Common Terns, presumably the parents of the two juveniles, that  dived repeatedly at the heron although making absolutely sure they remained out of range of the heron's formidable bill. A juvenile Black headed Gull also fancied joining in and the heron was mercilesssly mobbed until it accepted the inevitable and flew off to find somewhere less exposed, still pursued by the irate terns until they were satisfied it was no longer a threat.

I walked further, to the yacht club cafe and sat on a bench overlooking the small marina where the yacht club moor their boats. It was a tranquil scene at this early hour and would remain so for another hour yet until the first excited children were brought by their parents for their sailing lessons.

The marina, when it is undisturbed, is a favourite place for the terns to come as there are large shoals of small fish swimming here and they are easily caught. Sure enough a tern duly arrived and commenced patrolling the small area of water enclosed in the marina. On each pass it would look down intently and sometimes drop lower as if preparing to dive in but then pull up as whatever it saw fled to safety. However on occasions it would complete the dive, suddenly swerving downwards, side slipping at speed to hit the water with a resounding splash, emerging seconds later with a small fish in its bill.

The hour passed quickly and as the children lined up for their lessons and the boats were prepared, the marina became too busy for the terns comfort and they moved out into the centre of the reservoir. At the other end of the day they will return after the lessons are over and the children have departed.

It was time for a coffee at the cafe and then I too would depart.

An oatmilk decaffe latte Debbie.If you please!

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