7 Jun 2022

7 Jun 22 - The Least Tern Twitch

As part of the #30DaysWild, I wrote a quick Blog Post covering the Least Tern twitch to the Portrane Little Tern colony, just North of Dublin, Ireland. This is the first of the longer Blog Posts covering the Least Tern Twitch & the rest of the Irish trip. News broke on the evening of 3 Jun 22 that the first Irish record Least Tern had reappeared in the Portrane Little Tern colony, after hanging around the colony in Spring 2021. I decided against twitching it in 2021, given my cautious approach to C19 status, but was happy to try now it was back.

There is only one accepted UK record which I wasn't able to see in Spring 1990 when there were a lot of other superb goodies turning up at the same time, including the Isle of Wight Alpine Accentor, the Lundy Ancient Murrelet & the St Mary's Tree Swallow. At the time, I was about two months away from starting a 20 month Round the World trip. I was spending a lot of time planning the trip and working hard to close down a big project at work: which was also helping to maximise overtime given I was about to pack up work. In the end, I didn't have the time to get to Rye Harbour to see what was being treated as the American subspecies of Little Tern. It did turn up again for the next three years, but I was either abroad or skint once I got back.

I decided to hold off racing over to Ireland immediately and decided to wait & see if it settled down. The following day it was confirmed that it had already spent just over a week around the colony. When it was still present on 6 Jun, I started looking into the logistics of a trip. The best option for me was to take the car over on the Pembroke to Rosslare ferry as a mini break, which was £238 return for me & the car. This had proved to be a low hassle route for the Egyptian Vulture Twitch. This time I wanted to come back on a daytime crossing in the hope of some Cetaceans & Seabirds. To be fair, that was the plan on the previous trip, but the weather resulted in my daytime crossing being cancelled & I opted for the next evening ferry instead. I popped out & bought food to allow me to self-cater, along with a large camping water container, as I always run low on water when I'm away. I have a car kettle which allows regular refills of hot drinks, which helps to reduce costs whilst travelling.
Portrane Beach: The Little Tern colony was one mile North of this point
Portrane Beach: The Least and Little Terns were resting about 30 metres from us on the beach when not on nest duties
Portrane Beach: The Little Tern colony was in this fenced off area. Unfortunately the previous evening, a Fox had destroyed five Little Tern and one Ringed Plover nests that were outside the netting. The volunteers reckoned they had enough time to renest and were creating some stony areas to try luring them inside the fencing
By early evening I was heading off for Pembroke Dock and arrived in good time for the 02:45 departure the following morning. Armed with a sleeping bag & pillow, I managed to get some broken sleep on the ferry before the announcement that we were arriving on time & they hoped to have us disembarking around 06:45. It was about a three hour drive up to Portrane which would have been quicker, except my Sat Nav decided it was faster to do through, rather than around Dublin. Despite being the capital city, the traffic and roads were still a lot more pleasant than driving through many of the big UK cities. I arrived at Portrane about 10:00. After a one mile walk up the beach with another Irish Birder, we reached the three other Irish Birders who were already watching the Least Tern.
Least Tern: The initial views were unidentifiable. I was told it was the middle Tern
Least Tern: Even when it woke up, it wasn't much easier to identify, given I couldn't compare it with the Little Terns who were still asleep
Least Tern: It looks very similar to the Little Tern behind it, but it has a yellower bill with a reduced black tip, yellower legs, is marginally smaller, slimmer and paler on the upperparts and has a grey (not white) rump & tail. The most obvious feature was the loud disyllabic call which was very distinct from the call of the Little Terns. Virtually all the Little Terns were colour-ringed which also helped to pick it out from the Little Terns sitting away from the colony
At one point, all the Terns were spooked & flew around before returning a few minutes later.
Least Tern: This is my best flight photo showing the grey rump
Least Tern: A final flight photo of the Least Tern
Little Tern: A flight photo of a Little Tern showing the white rump & tail
Little Tern: A final flight photo of a Little Tern
Once back on the beach, it decided to display to one of the Little Terns, before settling down to roost again.
Least Tern: Displaying to one of the Little Terns (back Tern)
Least Tern: Displaying over, it settled down on the right hand side to rest
Little Tern: A comparison photo of a Little Tern showing the typically larger black tip to an orangey bill & darker legs
Ringed Plover: There were a few breeding within the Little Tern colony
By now, I had spent the best part of three hours watching the Terns. However, all the Terns had been spooked again and I hadn't seen the Least Tern for about a half hour. It was very low tide and perhaps it was feeding several hundred metres away at the water's edge. It seemed a good idea to head back to the car to get some food & plan the rest of my time in Ireland. Initially, I had planned to look for the endemic Cryptic Wood Whites. But I didn't have any detailed sites in Ireland, other than a vague name of a site near Waterford. That was left as an option for the following afternoon depending on the weather: which turned out to be poor Butterfly weather.
Gallowglass: Ireland has some great roadside art. This is a Gallowglass at Ballaghaderreen. Gallowglass were elite mid 13th to late 16th century mercenary Norse-Gaelic clans warriors
I therefore, decided to head up to The Mullet to have another look for the American Black Duck on Cross Lough. I had seen it in flight back on the Egyptian Vulture trip, but was keen to get some better views. I was also keen to return to the area as it resembles the Uist Islands, which are my favourite part of Scotland. The weather was planned to get worse during the afternoon, but was surprisingly reasonable for the last hour of light at Cross Lough. Unfortunately, I couldn't find the American Black Duck. It was only on the following day that I figured out how to look at the Southern end of the Lough and perhaps that was where it had been.
The N5: This is the main non-dual carriageway road between Roscommon & Foxford. These roads are fantastic to drive as a Brit used to busy UK roads. Despite being a main road, it was pleasantly empty of cars allowing me to safely stop & take this photo. Many main roads in Ireland have an inside lane to allow slow traffic to pull into to allow them to be overtaken
Despite not seeing the American Black Duck, it had been a good day. I had seen my 550th species of BOU/IRBC species for the British & Irish List, with 8 species seen in Ireland. When I started getting serious with Birding in the late 70s, getting to 400 species in my lifetime looked to be a big challenge, given very few had achieved that target at that point. How times & expectations have changed over that period. It was time for to get the sleeping bag out & get some well-deserved & long overdue kip in the Focus hotel.