A lovely old bird called Elsie

(An extract from my birdwatching diary “Crippling Views”)

Saturday, June 25, 1988

Birdline organises another weekend for me. Look for the orange arrows:

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This Saturday, it’s a vagrant duck from North America, a drake Surf Scoter, that has been found offshore at Holme next the Sea  in north Norfolk. A very well-behaved bird, it has been seen every single day of the week, and should be a cinch. Should be:

xxxxxxx surf_scoter_1655

I go with Paul, Robin and Sue. It’s a beautiful summer’s day, blue skies, a bright sun and a typically bracing east coast wind. After an uneventful three hour trip, we park in a layby at the side of the road at the western end of the Holme reserve. As soon as we get out of the car, I see a most peculiar bird. It’s a large tern, flying steadily eastwards along the beach. About the size of a Sandwich Tern, it has a straw yellow bill. I am paralysed, I can’t remember what colour bill a Sandwich Tern has. For a few moments, I think that I’ve got everything exactly backwards, so that all Sandwich Terns have a yellow bill with a black tip. But that’s not the right way round. Sandwich Terns have a black bill with a yellow tip! I force myself to look at the bird for the duration of the flypast, but it’s very difficult to take in a great deal, because I’m so panic stricken:

Sterne voyageuse (Sterna bengalensis)

I think of shouting to Paul, but he’s three miles away, year ticking Redshank. I don’t have the courage to yell to another group of nearby birdwatchers, because deep down, I have a terrible suspicion that I have got it all wrong, that I will be calling out to them just for a Sandwich Tern. I keep looking. The bird is fairly round winged, with fairly dark upper parts to both its wings and back. It has a noticeably white trailing edge to its wings, a little like a Laughing Gull, and for a tern, it seems big, almost the size and bulk of a gull. I walk thirty or forty yards, trying to dismiss the bird as an aberration, the product of a rarity crazed mind. I even consider the idea that I just got out of the car, tired from the driving, and somehow misidentified a Little Tern. There are quite a lot of them over the beach, and mental blocks through fatigue are not that unusual. Then suddenly, the bird reappears:

xxxxxxx LCT 3

It is in company with  two Sandwich Terns and I can easily pick it out, totally different from its two companions:

This time, I shout to Paul and tell him to get on to the last bird. He manages to pick it out and agrees with me on two things. Firstly, that it is different to the Sandwich Terns, and secondly, that it has a straw yellow bill.  We have an exciting discussion about it and Paul puts forward the idea that it is a Lesser Crested Tern, a very rare vagrant to Britain, but one which has been seen a few times of late, due in part, it is thought, to a single lost bird which wanders the east coast of Britain, looking eagerly for its Libyan homeland. I haven’t a clue. I’ve never even heard of a Lesser Crested Tern. I thought that Gaddafi had abolished birds as being too flippant. I don’t even have a book with Lesser Crested Tern in it:

xxxx LCT 2

When I get back to Nottingham, I spend many a happy hour, trying to get information on the mystery bird. What convinces me though, is an illustration that I find in an old Indian birdwatching book, where the most salient points are the yellow beak, the dark mantle and the brightest of white trailing edges. They ought to know. They see them a damned sight more often than I do. And what finally proves it to me totally is an announcement a couple of days later that a Lesser Crested Tern has recently been present, on and off, at Cley next the Sea, just a few miles down the coast to the east. Seduced by the promise of eternal fame, I send a letter to the Norfolk Bird Recorder, and also to the Reserve Warden at Holme.

The Surf Scoter, of course, after all this, is long gone. We spend the rest of the day looking for it, but without any luck at all. The Common Scoters are exactly that, but among the hundreds of sea duck, there is no bright white head:

We also see a lot of Little Terns, who succeed in sowing the seeds of doubt, but who, at the same time, solve quite a few problems. They fly down the same track as the putative Lesser Crested Tern, but with a completely different flight action. They flutter like butterflies. They don’t fly purposefully like the mystery bird:

And anyway, I saw it in the company of Sandwich Terns, so I have a good idea of its size, and it’s a lot bigger than a Little Tern. It’s a different bird, in actual fact. A thrilling end to a memorable day is provided as we motor south to Kings Lynn, on the way back. Look for the orange arrow:

lynn

Just beyond the ring road, we see a large raptor quartering the fields to our left:

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx Montagu's_Harrier

It crosses the road above our heads, continues the quartering, and finally disappears behind the line of trees on the horizon. It is a male Montagu’s Harrier, perhaps the North Wootton bird, but more likely, from a site not yet revealed to the Verminous Company of Egg Thieves. It is fairly isolated out here though. Let’s hope that the Montagu’s Harrier family spend their summer undisturbed, raise their babies and leave peacefully. Flying back if possible, not over Malta or any other world centre of illegal hunting:

xxxxx  montagus_Harrier_Serengeti_

 

I sent in my claim of a Lesser Crested Tern to the British Bird Rarities Committee, but after a year or two of careful consideration, they rejected it,  even though the Birdwatching Committee in Norfolk seemed reasonably satisfied with it. So, a few years later, I drove to Spurn Head in Yorkshire to see another, or conceivably the same returning, Lesser Crested Tern. Look for Nottingham in the bottom left and the orange arrow:

spurn

I went there on two separate occasions, and finished up driving nearly 500 miles in total. After almost two days standing in “The Place”, “The Bird” did not deign to tern up (sick). On the second day, I was there at seven in the morning, and I was then the last to leave at eight o’clock in the evening. Another birdwatcher arriving alone at half past eight then found the bird exactly where it was supposed to be standing and I’d missed it. That started to make it personal.

A little while later, I drove to the north Norfolk coast where foolhardy twitchers were wading across a tidal creek to Scolt Head Island, their telescopes and tripods held above their heads like the Marines in Vietnam. They were looking for a Lesser Crested Tern which had been seen in the Sandwich Tern colony. Look for the orange arrow: 

scolt

I decided, though, to stay on the mainland, not drown and keep my eyes open for the bird flying down the coast to fish. Three wasted hours. No chance!

It was by now way beyond personal. Around this time a Lesser Crested Tern had been hybridising with Sandwich Terns in a tern colony on the Farne Islands, some three or four miles off the coast of Northumberland, some 200 miles to the north of Nottingham. Eventually, everybody realised that all the many records of Lesser Crested Tern on the English East Coast were most probably this one returning individual, being seen over and over again by different people.  Because the initials of a Lesser Crested Tern are “LCT”, the bird was now being called “Elsie”. I decided to bite the bullet  and drive up to the Farne Islands. As the bird was nesting, it should be a cinch. Should be.

Look for the orange arrows :

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I failed to see it. So I decided to try again, and at very long last, I saw Elsie’s straw yellow bill sticking jauntily out of a crowd of black billed Sandwich Terns, all sitting on their eggs.

And I watched this good tern, this most excellent tern, for a very long time. A very long time. And then, half an hour later, I came back for seconds. And yes, I had already seen a bird just like Elsie, with her unmistakable bill, somewhere else, a long time previously, but the details escaped me for the moment.
Afterwards, I worked out that the nearest colonies of Lesser Crested Tern were on the coast of Libya. To see one, I had driven to Holme (210 miles for the round trip), Spurn Head twice (500 miles for two round trips), Scolt Head Island (250 miles for the round trip) and the Farne Islands(880 miles for two round trips). How far is it to Libya by car?

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5 Comments

Filed under History, Personal, Science, Twitching, Wildlife and Nature

5 responses to “A lovely old bird called Elsie

  1. Some of those pictures of the Tern reminded me of the old BR InterCity logo. Beautiful creatures and a very personal write up

  2. Yes, terns are very beautiful birds although I’m not so sure that Elsie was worth driving not far short of 2,000 miles to see. On the other hand, when you’re young, you have to waste your time and money on something before middle age grabs you. Thanks a lot for your interest, by the way.

  3. This is my neck of the woods, I shall
    Endeavour to be more observant of our feathered friends in future. Maybe, just maybe I’ll see something exotic. A lovely post.

  4. Beautiful shots and interesting writeup ☺

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