One good tern deserves another.

Arctic tern

One of my favourite places in Wales is Cemlyn Bay, on the north coast of Anglesey. It is a brackish lagoon separated from the sea by a curving shingle spit. Within the lagoon are a couple of islands on which very large numbers of terns raise their young every year. Commonest is the sandwich tern, with large numbers of common and arctic terns as well; it has held roseate terns in the past and occasional birds are seen every year, although they do not now breed.

Several roseates were reported earlier this summer, which encouraged me to plan a visit for later in the year; I had never knowingly seen one before. Then in July an elegant tern took up residence within the colony; this is a very rare visitor to the UK and is normally found on the western coast of northern and central America. I decided to bring forward my visit to try to catch both species together.

Tern identification has never been my strongpoint. Sandwich terns are pretty unmistakeable but I tend to lump most arctic and commons (let alone roseates) – unless seen very well – as “comics”. However, Cemlyn Bay is one place in the UK where with a little bit of time and patience one can get to grips with this tricky ID problem. From the safety of the shingle ridge it is possible to get excellent views of the terns on the islands even without a telescope.

A sandwich tern on steroids……..

It wasn’t difficult to locate the elegant tern. It has a massive bill the colour of a banana and over a period of a couple of weeks it had established a “territory” centred on one of the unoccupied roseate tern nesting shelters. It would perch there and display to any passing sandwich tern. It is basically a sandwich tern on steroids and in my opinion has been badly mis-named. It is large and chunky, with a backward-pointing crest, but ‘elegant’? Sorry but no!

The roseate terns were another matter altogether. One of the Wildlife Trust wardens pointed one out and yes…… I could see it. But would I be able to pick one out in a crowd (of other terns)? Probably not. Every so often a “dread” would take place : the whole colony took flight and swirled around overhead for a couple of minutes before returning. On a couple of occasions the dread occurred when a hunting peregrine flew through the colony but often there was no apparent reason for it. On my first evening there it happened over and over again. I’m not sure if anybody knows why they do it but they do, and after one of them the roseate tern disappeared.

A dread…….

I was under no time constraints and particularly enjoyed the delightful approachability of the arctic terns. They would alight just a few yards away on the shingle without batting an eyelid, or fly from the colony past the observer to the sea at a similar distance. Fledglings lay prone on the ridge waiting to be fed and their parents would bring them sandeels no matter how close you were. It must be one of the best birding (and bird photography) experiences in the British Isles. Everybody should visit Cemlyn at least once!

Roseate tern (or is it…..?)
Spot the difference…….

During the afternoon, as the tide receded, more and more terns rested on the beach, sometimes no more than ten yards away. It gave me the chance to examine them in detail. I picked out one individual with a black bill, one of the most noticeable features of a roseate tern. The more I looked, the more black bills I found, perhaps half a dozen of them altogether. Were they ALL roseates? Another birder examined them with a telescope and confidently told me that they were; I wasn’t convinced. Another said they were, in fact, first-summer arctics – despite the fact that they normally spend their entire first year in the Antarctic and are scarce in the UK. The secret is in the colour of their legs – roseates have (relatively) long bright red legs while those of the arctics are very dark red or black and very short.

Examining the images at home I picked out one which looked good for a roseate, and sent it for confirmation to the tern wardens. They agreed. But there’s a snag; the tail streamers on a roseate are exceptionally long and this bird’s just aren’t. So there’s one final possibility. On the Skerries, an offshore tern colony just a few miles away, very occasionally a roseate tern has mated with a common and reared young. So could this be a hybrid? We will probably never know.

N.B. Apologies for the terrible pun in the post title, and to many of you whose interest in the minuteae of tern identification is………err………limited…..! But I’m sure you’ll agree, they’re stunning little birds.

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What a little hero!

Arctic tern - the Skerries
Arctic tern – the Skerries

There’s no doubt about it – terns are among my favourite birds. In Wales, the place to be for the tern-watcher is the Isle of Anglesey, and it was here that I headed late last week. There are a number of colonies on the island, and – with the exception of the little tern – all the British species can, with good fortune, be found there.  Common terns are present near Menai Bridge, and they are a delightful sight above the sheltered waters of the Straits between the two bridges. There a number of mixed colonies elsewhere. Perhaps the most well-known is at Cemlyn, on the north coast, where sandwich tern is in the majority together with common and arctics. This is also an ancestral breeding site of the very rare roseate tern, and very occasional birds may still be seen there, including – to my delight – last Friday, when I visited.   Not that I would have picked it out amongst the throng of other terns without the assistance of the Wildlife Trust wardens!

The tern island par excellence is/are the  Skerries, with its lighthouse and colony of several thousand arctic and common terns. For the last few years a roseate tern has paired with a common tern on the island as well and produced hybrid young. During spring and summer the colony is wardened by the RSPB, and it was thanks to them that I was able to visit the island on Friday evening on their regular supply vessel. Visiting a tern colony really is an experience. Arctic terns are stunningly beautiful little birds and can be exceptionally approachable. With their bright red beaks and legs a bird can recall a woman decked out in red lipstick and boots. But move one inch too close and that bird can become a tiny raging little monster, metaphorically spitting blood. They have no hesitation in striking a human intruder on the head so wearing a hat is a necessity.

On a previous visit in June 2010 I found that a telephoto lens was unnecessary as the birds were so close. I stuck to my standard zoom, and told myself at first to be selective when pressing the shutter; still thinking ‘film’ I suppose. After a while I remembered that I had just one hour on the island and how desperate it would be to get back to the mainland with nothing, so I relaxed a little. I got some great images of angry terns in flight at the wide-angle end of the zoom; and one of these featured in the book and exhibition Wales at Waters Edge.

On last week’s visit conditions were slightly different. Weather conditions were excellent but much of the closest section of the colony was in the shadow of the lighthouse. It was about two weeks earlier than my previous visit and the birds seemed slightly less territorial than I remembered. Every few minutes, it seemed, the whole colony rose up together and swept across the island before quickly returning.  I stuck the Tamron long zoom on my 5d3 and concentrated on close-ups of individual birds, and – despite  the incredible experience of being there – my photographic efforts felt strangely uninspired. The warden asked us all if we could be ready to leave in five minutes, so I swapped lenses and packed my gear away. Turning around,  I saw a perfectly-lit bird perched on a rock with a sand-eel in its beak – a cracking image if only I had seen it earlier! Unless…………..

To my surprise it continued to pose for me as I re-fitted the long zoom and took a few images. What a little hero!