Sunday 11 June 2017

Events take an inelegant turn

The bitter experience of recent years should have taught me that three things are guaranteed to bring inconveniently timed news of a rare bird: my wife's 'birthday weekend'; a trip to Brownsea; and the arrival of visitors at our house.
The Elegant Tern wing-stretching at Church Norton - apologies for all photos which are badly affected by extreme distance and heat haze!
To illustrate this, on my wife's birthday weekend a few years ago we went west to Devon, only to find that a Black-eared Wheatear turned up in the New Forest just to the east of home. I still haven't seen one. Trips to Brownsea over the years have provoked sightings of White-throated Sparrow in Hampshire and Semipalmated Sandpiper elsewhere in Dorset - though I managed to catch up with both eventually. And I have lost count of the number of rarities which have frustratingly appeared whilst we have been entertaining friends or family.
The Elegant Tern in flight with the smaller Sandwich Tern - the rings on the legs can be seen here
Mid-June often produces something hideously rare, so it was with an air of foreboding that I agreed to visit Brownsea yesterday, just before Claire's birthday, in the company of visiting friends from Cornwall: the full hat-trick of compromising circumstances. Inevitably, within hours of our arrival, events took an inelegant turn when new broke of, well, an Elegant Tern. This bird had a made couple of fitful appearances in Hampshire during the course of last week, but had just been re-found amongst the tern colony at Church Norton in Pagham Harbour.
The Elegant Tern in flight showed a dark wedge in the primaries and a hint of a dark secondary bar
We were due to meet another friend who is visiting from Australia for an evening meal in Poole and I knew that this gathering really could not be missed without grave consequences. With luck and a fair wind, however, I calculated that I could get to Church Norton and back to Poole in good time for the dinner. But only if I left immediately.
A view of the underside of the wing
To cut a brief, tense exchange littered with sub-text even shorter, permission was reluctantly granted for me to perform this act of caddish abandonment. In mitigation, I had been pressing Claire hard for confirmation of whether this was in fact her 'birthday weekend' - it's a movable feast, you see (well, movable by her anyway) and I know that the official birthday weekend when it eventually falls involves a strict 'no-twitching' curfew. Fortunately, she had confirmed earlier that morning that this was not in fact the official 'birthday weekend'. I had therefore given notice of the possibility that the Elegant Tern would reappear, requiring my undivided attention.
Elegant Tern shows a white rump (the similar Lesser Crested Tern has a grey rump)
In further mitigation, the friends from Cornwall visited us as recently as May (ignoring my advice to avoid visiting me in May) and were staying with us primarily to see the mutual friend from Australia. With impeccable twitcher's logic I rationalised that we were really just therefore providing accommodation, so this was a 'secondary' visit, from which absconding was morally justifiable. Several of the well adjusted chaps I got chatting to at Church Norton agreed, though, on reflection, perhaps the ones who had abandoned children's birthday parties, weddings and funerals to see the Elegant Tern are not the best benchmarks of social acceptability...
This photo gives some impression of the extreme length of the Elegant Tern's orange bill
Anyway, the journey to Pagham Harbour was not going to be easy, as to get to Brownsea we had driven to Studland, parked there and taken the foot ferry over to Sandbanks before boarding the yellow boat to the island. I had to complete this journey in reverse before crossing the mouth of Poole Harbour for the third time of the day and being on my way to Sussex.
The Elegant Tern was dropping in with the breeding terns - others of this species have hybridised with Sandwich Terns in French and Spanish breeding colonies
The boat leaving Brownsea was delayed waiting for a massive Condor ferry to pass through the harbour mouth, so I just missed the Sandbanks Ferry back to Studland. They run every 20 minutes, so I caught the next one and sprinted to the car to try to make the return journey on the same ferry - I was successful, but needn't have rushed as it sat there for 15 tortuous minutes longer than usual, apparently waiting for a large freighter to enter the harbour, before trundling north towards Sandbanks.
Four species of Tern in this photo - Elegant (top left), Little (barely visible bottom left), Sandwich (to the right of the Little Tern) and Common Tern (top right)
With the fifth boat journey of the day complete, I hit the road proper. Traffic was mercifully light, and, on the advice of Steve Smith, who was about 20 minutes ahead of me, I gambled on finding a parking space near Church Norton, thus avoiding what would otherwise have been a long walk from Sidlesham Ferry Pool. I was successful, and as I headed for the edge of Pagham Harbour where the Tern had been seen, James Lowen passed me still in his car, also hunting down a convenient parking place. At this point there had been no sign of the Tern for over an hour. We both feared it had gone back out to sea but I told him where to park and headed off to catch up with Steve in any case.
One of my better flight shots of the Elegant Tern - against not terribly stiff competition!
I would be on a deadline, and calculated that I had until 1630 before I needed to head back to Poole for dinner. It was now 1445. 'This has 'dip' written all over it' I thought as I approached the line of birders scanning the tern colony. When I was three paces behind them, I recognised Barry Wright from Kent and heard him say 'there it is, it's just appeared on the spit'. And there it was, on the spit. Too easy! I scoped it, snapped it and phoned James to chivvy him along in case the flighty Tern did another bunk. A couple of expletives later he was behind me, fumbling with scope and camera as I had minutes before. After some good scope views and bad photos, I headed off and was back in Poole in good time for the evening celebrations.
A Little Tern gave a close fly-past at Church Norton
Any large, orange-billed tern in the UK is a serious rarity, but they can be notoriously difficult to identify. Fortunately, the Church Norton bird had been colour-ringed and DNA tested when it hooked up with a tern colony in France, so there could be no doubt about its identity on this occasion. A truly remarkable record, as Elegant Tern comes from the Pacific coast of California and Mexico. I was fortunate that it chose Church Norton to appear, as with the exception of Brownsea, there are not that many large tern colonies close enough to enable me to get to see it in the time I had available.
Little Tern hovering before a dive


  1. Hi Peter
    On behalf of the twitching community, please confirm Claire's Official Birthday weekend. Please ask Claire (if she is still speaking to you) & let us know asap

    1. Will do. We are still communicating, albeit via the children.