25 Jul 2018

25 Jul 18 - Sooty On The Sands

On 7 Jul 18, the RBA team send out a message that a Sooty Tern had been seen on one of the Farne Islands in the late evening. The last twitchable Sooty Tern had been in 2005 when one was moving in & out of a Tern colony at Cemlyn Bay on Anglesea, as well as, visiting the offshore Skerries Islands & County Down. Its erratic movements & other things going on at the time meant I had been unable to go for that one. Had this new sighting been on the mainland & there had been a chance of getting there for dawn, then it might have been worth a punt. However, it was a long distance to consider going on that news, so I waited to see if there were any updates the following day, as rare Terns are notorious for using Tern colonies as one night bed & breakfast locations. Not surprisingly, there were no sightings on either the following or subsequent days, until another brief sighting on 19 Jul 18 at the Farne Islands & then briefly on the nearby coastline. Other commitments stopped me travelling for the following day, but then were no sightings in Northumberland that day anyway. However, it was seen at dusk in the Arctic Tern colony at the Ythan estuary to the North of Aberdeen that evening. True to form it wasn't seen the following morning, but it reappeared on 23 Jul & was still there the following day. After moving some of other commitments around that evening, I was free to head up overnight on 24 Jul. I realised I wouldn't be able to get there for first light, but for the past two days it had been hanging around the estuary, as well as, regularly flying out to sea to feed, before reappearing. It was a slow drive North thanks to 50 mph restrictions for most of the M6 from Birmingham to Manchester, followed by a long delay due to a closed section of motorway. Due to the time lost from this, I eventually hit the wall around Perth & pulled over for some sleep, so I didn't end up reaching the estuary till about 10:00 that morning. Still the good news was it had been seen coming & going in the estuary that morning. The bad news was it had flown downstream & out to sea. So, it was a case of hoping it would reappear in time. I had been expecting a reasonable number of other Birders looking. Perhaps they had already come & left. But there were now only a few locals who had seen it earlier in the week, a Welsh Birder Rob & me looking. After an hour, Rob decided to head a few hundred metres up the estuary to a tin hut which provided a view over the upper estuary. I said I would stay opposite the main Arctic Tern roost in case it dropped in there.
Sooty Tern: Despite being the best part of 100 metres to the Arctic Tern roost on the north side of the estuary, the dark wings allowed it to be easily picked out
Sooty Tern: Although the body size was similar to an Arctic Tern, it was noticeably longer-winged
Fortunately, after about an hour of waiting, I picked it up flying over the Arctic Tern roost on the North bank before dropping into the roost. A quick call to Rob & he & the other locals were also onto it. Great I could try to get a few photos.
Sooty Tern: They have noticeably long tail streamers which are emphasised by the dark grey colouration
Sooty Tern: I struggled to get any worthwhile photos on the sand & this was about as good as I managed
Within a few minutes, something spooked the Arctic Terns & it also flew up, went down channel before turning & making a fairly close pass of my location as it headed up channel, before dropping into the roost again.
Arctic Terns: This was only about half of the Arctic Tern party on the beach
I stuck around for another hour or so, before deciding to head off for some food & to figure out a plan for the rest of the day. I didn't think I was going to get much better photos, especially as I had decent photos of Sooty Terns from Ascension Island as part of the Odyssey cruise. It turns out that I had been pretty lucky to have only had an hour of searching before I saw it. It is still around as I write this Post on 30 Jul, however, on two of the intervening days there were no sightings at all. So, it is clearly not an easy individual to catch up with.
Sooty Tern
Sooty Tern
It was great to have caught up with this major UK rarity which was also a bonus Western Palearctic Tick. I had hoped I might have a chance of seeing one on the Atlantic Odyssey as we were approaching Cape Verde or the subsequent West African Pelagic to see it within the Western Palearctic, but no joy. My last Sooty Terns were a feeding party at sea on the Odyssey about 15 minutes before we reached the Equator, but they were out of view by the time we hit the Equator. This was still two days before we reached the Western Palearctic boundary.