Sunday 9 June 2024

Seven Tern Delight

4am, Sunday morning, I woke with a start and then couldn't get back to sleep. Blackbirds were singing loudly outside, in a murky Yorkshire dawn, as light crept round the sides of the blind and through the thin curtains.

I tried to dismiss thoughts of twitching the Northumberland Bridled Tern which had lingered temptingly on Coquet Island for the past week, but the allure ate away at my tired brain. Even if I dipped the Bridled Tern, the prospect of Roseate Terns among an incredible seabird spectacle just seemed a sensible option at that unearthly hour. I mulled this over as I dozed and then slunk out of bed at 5am. 


Just under two hours of empty roads later, I pulled into High Hauxley car park at the foot of the dunes. A couple of birders were already present and as I approached, a kind birder offered me a look through his scope - this was promising! I squinted through with tired eyes and there was the Bridled Tern, happily preening among the Puffins! Class. Coquet Island lies about a mile offshore, so the views were distant to say the least, but with good visibility and full zoom, the views were reasonable. After a while, many of the terns flushed, and the Bridled took off too, floating around above the island. In flight it looked large and rangey, with long slender wings and long neck and tail, giving perhaps a different jizz to what I had imagined. Against the dark grassy top of the island, the bird looked decidedly dusky grey-brown, with plenty of pale in the outertail. The bird tried to land several times, but was chased away time and again either by an Arctic Tern, or a Puffin. Eventually, it landed at the top of some stone steps, where it seemed to avoid the attentions of its feisty neighbours. After a while, I turned my attention to the nestboxes put out specifically for the island's Roseate Tern colony. Several were loafing on top of the boxes, whilst more were floating angelically above the colony, shining bright-white in the morning sunshine with impossibly-long tail streamers. It felt quite emotional to see the remnants of England's only Roseate colony, which has been ravaged hard by avian flu. The 100 pair strong colony had been decimated, so it was a relied to see at least several pairs in residence. Let's hope the flu has gone. I watched these elegant birds for several minutes, noting a number of Sandwich Terns cruising past and a few Common Terns among the hordes of Arctics. 


The lure of a seventh tern species a short drive north was too much, and having had my fill of the Bridled Tern, I snaked my way up the coast road. Thanks to some good gen from a fellow Bridled twitcher, I knew where to head once arriving at the Newton Stead car park. A wooden hut lies about a kilometre north looking out over the rivermouth, known as Long Nanny. There were four birders present, one of which was Damian Money who I have followed on X/Twitter for ages, so it was great to have a chat with him.

To my astonishment, right in front of the hut are breeding Arctic Terns, literally a few metres away. This was just amazing - one of my favourite birds right there. 

 And, tucked away, nestling behind some marram, was a dusky shadow, which soon stood up to call excitedly at an arriving Arctic Tern; the female American Black Tern, in all her cinerous glory. I had no idea this bird, which has hung out here the last few summers showed this well and this close. This year, 'Nige' has proved himself to be a herself, as she has paired up with a male Arctic Tern, and to everybody's amazement, has laid a clutch of eggs, although there is one train of thought that she has adopted the eggs from a lost female Arctic. Nobody knows yet whether they will hatch, but if they do, it will be really interesting to see what the young look like! The frenetic activity of the Arctic colony was exhillarating to watch and the American Black Tern played her part, frequently taking off to join the throng of Arctics, to ward off a passing gull or crow, or to defend her eggs from intruding Arctic Tern neighbours. Her gape was bright orange-red, contrasting with her black head and bill, almost Black Guillemot like. A really beautiful bird.

 Scanning towards the river, I noticed quite a few Little Terns hung out in a fenced area, and large numbers of Arctic Terns and a few Common Terns gathered on the sandbanks and beach. This really was an unexpected delight and would have been exceptional without the mega rare Yank visitor. 


So, it had been a seven tern morning, something I probably won't witness again in a while. I drifted back through the dunes, enjoying flurries of Northern Marsh Orchids, amid Burnet Rose and sprays of Bloody Cranesbill, with the shrill calls of the terns fading into the distance. I bumped into Johnny Mac with a tour group, and wished him well, before heading back south.

I don't twitch very far these days, and certainly not out of Yorkshire, so this morning was a real treat. 


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