Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Elegantly done

There is a clear hierarchy in the world of birding - patch list is worth less than year list is worth less than lifer. Best of all is a lifer which is also a country first.
Elegant tern fits into this category. This normally breeds on the Pacific coast of the US and winters further south into Peru and Chile. There have been two or three putative records of it before in the UK, but it is very difficult to separate in the field from lesser-crested tern and is known to hydridise with other terns, including our own sandwich terns. So, the putative records have been left as that - verdict not proven!
Last week another "putative" popped up on the south coast in the wake of the big storm that brought in the stormies mentioned in my last blog. This one however was seen to have a series of coloured leg rings. Even better, those identified it as "bird c" which had been ringed in France and also present here for a number of years. Even, even better it had been DNA tested and was shown to be a pure elegant tern!! The full story to this can be found in the link below, a great piece of scientific detective work.
Genetics and provenance of elegant terns
The bird skipped around a couple of locations without allowing the masses to connect though. Finally on Saturday it decided to drop into the tern colony at Church Norton near Pagham. It clearly felt at home, hardly surprising seeing as it had already hybridised with a sandwich tern in France. By all accounts Saturday and Sunday were a bit mad as the hordes, including Martin P, descended. Photos showed upwards of a hundred people but the bird was very elusive, moving out to sea or spending large times out of sight on an island in the estuary. This was also at some distance and with heat haze it could take 3 or more hours to get only half decent views.
I played it cool though as prevailing wisdom was that it would stay put! Finally, on Wednesday an opportunity arose. With the awful fire in London closing the A40  I was wfh'ing. The message also went out that there was work being done on the tern island over lunchtime, so no one was around spotting it and the terns would all be displaced. By mid-afternoon though I cracked. I figured that by late afternoon or early evening all the terns would be returning and there wouldn't be too many people around - a factor as parking is limited there and the alternative is a 3 mile round trip walking along the coast!!!!
So, I set off mid- afternoon to head down south. On the way though there was another potential stop. At Frensham, a red-footed falcon has been in residence and showing well. I've surprisingly only seen one before but this year there has been large influx of them and Frensham was virtually on the way.
I made my way to the heath and stood on top of Kings ridge surveying the area. Five other birders were around so we covered a lot with all those eyes. I was in luck - after only about 20 minutes a bird flashed across where we were standing and landed in a tree a couple of hundred yards away. A quick 'scope check and that was the bird, and what a bird it was.

 It is actually in the tree to the right of this photo. As ever with Summer birding, great distance and heat haze do not make for good bedfellows with photography.

These are all horrible photos but hopefully you can see enough of the bird. First thing is those red, or more strictly orange, feet. It also has a beautiful slate-grey back and a very piratical stripe through the eye. It often hunts more like a kestrel, even hovering once, than a hobby, and it kept pouncing down from its perch to the ground to grab prey. Beautiful bird and I would have loved to have stayed a bit longer and got some better shots but this was only the supporting, or hopefully supporting, cast. The tern awaited.
About another hour got me to Church Norton. The car park was about 2/3 full, but that was only 10-12 cars. Literally as I was parking though the phone alert went - it was back!! I grabbed my gear, threw a bottle of water into my rucksack and yomped the few hundred yards to the beach where 6 others birders had their 'scopes pointing out to the island.
I quickly ascertained that it was seen about 10 minutes earlier but was now out of sight in the long-grass. In the photo above we are looking out towards the white house you can see on the horizon. The tern was apparently almost in line with that. Even with a 'scope though all you could see was a large number of gulls and terns wheeling around. We were looking for one with a bloody big orange bill, totally different to everything else around. My mind went to the stories of people waiting hours to see it, and the fact I probably now only had about two or perhaps three hours before it got dark! My luck was again in though. After perhaps 10 minutes one birder got onto it, or he got onto its beak. As it was preening, from one particular angle you had a gap in some tussocks and you could just about glimpse this large orange dagger-like beak. Enough to claim it but not exactly a crippling view. Gradually it started to show a bit better and even flew up landing only about 5 yards away. Good views but now totally out of sight. Another 10 minutes and then the whole colony went up as a crow overflew them. Cue frantic searching before it was located out in the open.
Well, when I say out in the open, about half a mile away!! The photo above is as good as it gets. Its the bird on the right hand side here. For the next few minutes it preened away then lazily flew back into the tussocky grass. Absolutely nailed this time. After another 30 minutes of no show I decided to brave the drive back home so left as the evening shift of birders were arriving. I noticed on birdguides later that evening that no one else connected and it was a no-show for the rest of the evening!
Very happy drive home, even the queues on the M25 were bearable. Not only a lifer but the first definite elegant tern in the UK! Very happy. My life-list is now 356 vs. BOU or 365 vs 400-club rules. That 400 mark is edging closer but a few more years yet I fear. My year list is romping away - that takes me to 235 way ahead of my best ever year and more importantly 18 ahead of Martin!! Should go quiet for a bit now till Autumn kicks in, though you never know whether a cheeky rosefinch might drop in or even that Royal tern in Guernsey might pay us a visit.