Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Frankenstein's Tern

There's something rather unfeasible about a Caspian Tern. It looks like it's been put together from various other parts in a rather crude manner. I'm sure that back in the mists of time, in some dark Transylvanian castle in the midst of a violent thunderstorm there was some Frankenstein creator who was piecing together various body part trying to create a super tern. "Egor, bring me the head and neck of a Greater Black-backed, the body of a Common Gull, the wings of a Skimmer and a carrot for a beak!". A crash of thunder - "it lives, it lives!" etc.

Anyway, despite their rather unbalanced look, they are highly sought after by birders, partly because of how hard they are to twitch. They're seen each year in the country but usually as fly-throughs or short stays on some muddy lake before heading off just as the hoards of twitchers arrive. To my knowledge there hasn't been one in the county or indeed anywhere near it so it's always been one of these birds that I follow on RBA from afar. Well, on Wednesday one turned up in a roost at Cheshire which was interesting but nothing more. The next evening it was there too which was unusual but still not tempting. However, on Friday it was located during the day at Rudyard Lake in Staffordshire which was just about within my twitching range. It spent the rest of the day there before returning to its usual roost site for the evening. This pattern was repeated over the weekend though there was no chance of a twitch on my part as I was down in Gosport visiting family of my VLW who'd kindly invited us to a naval ball there. 

He'd been in the navy all his life and lives and breathes sailing. They've got a lovely house by the sea there and it was fantastic to open the curtains in the morning and to be able to look out over the Solent towards the Isle of Wight. I even indulged in a spot sea watching from the comfort of the bed! On the way back we popped in to Southampton Common to look for the Red-veined Darters on the boating pond there though there was no sign of them in rather breezy conditions so I guess that they've probably moved on. As I drove back on Sunday I thought about whether I would have the energy to twitch the Caspian Tern the next day after what had been a rather tiring weekend. I decided that I should probably have a quiet day at home and then if it was still around on Tuesday I would go for it.

This resolve lasted all of one hour the next morning. The financial markets (with which my work is involved) were turgid and uninteresting, my co-worker in Denmark was away and the Tern was reported as showing first thing. I couldn't resist! I threw my gear into the car and headed off to the Midlands. According to the Sat Nav it should take a little over two hours but even going on the M6 Toll (where one can speed to one's hearts content) the last part of the journey once one got off the motorway was frustratingly slow. What's more, after the initial report at 7:15 that morning there was ominous radio silence regarding the Tern and I stared to entertain some doubts. Fortunately towards the end of the trip there was the reassuring sound of a positive RBA text coming through and I could relax. Finally after more than two hours and twenty minutes I arrived at the rather pot-holed track that lead to the car park. A quick five minute walk down the path and I found the gang of twitchers all watching something in the air in the distance. A twitcher's worst nightmare - the target bird had just flown up and was down at the other end of the lake with a bunch of Black-headed Gulls. Fortunately that carrot beak was useful for picking it out and I managed to find it in the air before it landed out of sight behind a spit. At least I'd seen it but it had been a long drive for thirty seconds of distant flight views.

No one else of the dozen or so birders there had seen it land apart from me so I started to get ready to slog down to the other end to see if I could find it when suddenly someone picked it out flying back towards us. Hoorah! It landed back where apparently it had been all morning on the dried up lake bed near the inlet stream. There it stayed happily loafing for the next hour that I was there whilst I busied myself taking photos and video and munching on my lunch.

All jokes about its proportions aside, it was a gorgeous great hulk of a tern with an unfeasibly huge bill, a bull neck to support it and long large wings. It dwarfed the surrounding Black-headed Gulls and in flight had a large ponderous flight with only a marginally notched tail. It was apparently a first summer bird which accounted for the reduced black markings on it's head.

Frankenstein's Caspian Tern

Here is some video footage of it for good measure.

Some video of the beast

Whilst I was there Roger Carrington, whom I'd met last autumn down at Cornwall, turned up. This was fairly local for him but apparently he'd been abroad and had been sweating it until today when he got back. We had a bit of a chat before he hurried off to catch up with what had been going on at his local patch.

After a while I'd had my fill and with the prospect of a long drive back I headed back to the car. On the drive back I went through a torrential downpour which, when it reached the Tern must have pushed it off because it was last reported at Rudyard Lake at 2:15 pm when it headed off North. It was seen that evening at the usual roost though apparently it left before dark, flying high to the North East. At the time of writing this the next day there is no sign of it so that it looks like, just as for the Pacific Golden Plover, I've managed to see the bird on its last day. I don't know if there is some kind of extra kudos for doing this. It's like my friend at college who was cruising for a first in Mathematics at Oxford University but then did no work at all in his final term so he just managed to get the lowest first in his entire year, very cool! Anyway, I am just delighted to have managed to see (and to have seen well) what is normally such an untwitchable species.

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