Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Elegant Tern, Church Norton, Pagham Harbour

Britains first confirmed Elegant tern was found at Hayling Island in Hampshire on Friday. Orange billed terns such as this can be difficult to identify, and just to confuse matters further, they do have an unfortunate habit of hybridising. However this particular individual has previously been in France where it was ringed, and DNA samples taken at the time have proved that this bird is a pure elegant tern, making it an opportunity too good to miss.

For the first day or so it  was very hit and miss, and it didn't inspire me to go, being seen at two or three different places in the Hayling Island area and never staying anywhere for very long. However by Saturday afternoon it had been pinned down and was apparently spending a lot of time at a small tern colony at Church Norton on Pagham Harbour, a place I know quite well, because a couple of years ago a Hudsonian whimbrel was frequenting exactly the same spot.

I decided to call in today "on my way to work", and I arrived at Church Norton at about 7am. I'd woken up at 1am unable to sleep and decided to give it a go. At least the traffic would be quieter if I travelled at that time of day I reasoned.  The bird had been seen flying out to sea at about 5:30, presumably to fish, and had not returned when I arrived. However after an anxious wait, it reappeared at about 8:15 but immediately disappeared into the middle of the tern colony where it was completely obscured by long grass and plants.

Over the next 90 minutes or so it showed only very occasionally, usually just flying up for a second and then dropping down again and always landing completely out of view. You had to be looking permanently through the scope at the spot where it had landed to have any chance of seeing it when it flew, it was that brief.

Eventually though, somebody picked it up on the deck in amongst the colony where it could be seen displaying to the Sandwich terns. Nice to see it display of course, but even now it was only a distant and partially obscured head view.

I was running short of time, needing to be at a job just north of London in the afternoon. I'd expected it to show much better than this, but I consoled myself with the thought "at least I've seen it", a line which us birders often roll out to hide our diappointment.  Still, it was only 10:00 and I had nowehere else to go, so  I decided to hang on as long as I could, just in case it decided to perform a little better. Thank goodness I did.

Finally at about 10:30 it flew up and around the island and then landed on a sand bank with Sandwich terns at about half the distance it had been. What a view it was now! Funny how these days we seem to define a good view by the quality of photographs we can get, but honestly it was a cracking view, whatever the photos here may tell you. A good old fashioned, pre-digital great view!

Through the scope I could clearly see its crest and the bling on its leg. It walked into the water an splashed around for a bit and then walked higher up the bank for a preen. After about 10 minutes it flew up and landed back in the colony and was lost to sight again. My cue to go! A local who birds this site everyday said it was the best view he had had of the bird, so I figured that it was unlikely to show much better than that in the short time I had left.

I love these orange-billed terns. It reminded me very much of the royal tern I saw at Llandudno in 2009, albeit in less exciting circumstances.

I counted at least 101 Mediterranean gulls on the island, which was a record for me!

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