Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Unbridled. Success!

Bridled Tern, courtesy of trip photographer, Josh Jones
Three days of sunshine and dry air meant there was only one thing for it. Make hay while the sun shines. Well, not quite. But mow all the lawns at least.
This is a gargantuan task made far easier when the grass is completely dry.

So there I was, chasing the geese up and down, not a care in the world, oblivious to all else, when I look up and see the postie on the back lawn waving a parcel in the air. I hoped he'd not been standing there too long.
Then I hear, from my inside pocket, beep, beep, beep.
Now there are many contraptions these days which bleep at you, but this triple beep meant only one thing. I'd failed to hear the mad wailing of my pager going into mega mode. I rummaged through my pockets for my pager, expecting it to reveal the presence of a bird I'd probably already seen. After all, I've already had five ticks this year, a ridiculous number, and to ask for another on the back of June's outrageous Swift double would be just greedy.
And there it was. The message:

MEGA N'berland BRIDLED TERN ad Farne Islands on Inner Farne at 2:45pm

If you've read my blog before, this may ring a bell, for at the end of my post about the magnificent Pacific Swift (see here) I wrote these prophetic words:

It's been a good year so far. Four (lifers) already and there's still the autumn to come. But before that I'm hoping for a Bridled Tern, preferably somewhere near.

It wasn't particularly close, but this had to be good, for Inner Farne is part of a small group of islets offshore between Bamburgh and Seahouses. I've visited Inner Farne twice before, many years ago, and well remember the throng of seabirds which line the cliffs, the puffins standing in serried ranks on the walls of old buildings, flying in with mouthfuls of sand eels, the arctic terns bouncing around and pecking at the heads of visitors to usher them away from their eggs or chicks which sat in the grass just beside the footpath. Last time I visited the islands I had seen my first ever Roseate Terns.
Fond memories indeed.

Back to the present, and that colony of Arctic Terns made this Bridled a likely sticker. There have been several Bridled Terns since I began twitching, but none has lingered long enough to be seen by many, not for over 20 years. Although it has always been a much more likely bird to catch up with, in modern times this bird has in fact been almost as difficult to connect with as the two monster swifts of recent weeks.

I looked at my phone. Four missed calls! I need a better mower, one where I can plug my gadgets into the dashboard!
Then it rings again. Josh Jones. "There's a Bridled Tern on The Farnes". ... "But it's flown off now."

As far as I knew it had been there for about a quarter of an hour before moving off. Was this enough to jump straight in the car and start the long journey North? I could probably be there around 7pm. But then would I be able to get a boat? Would it be a wasted journey?
A few years back there would have been no erring. I would have been straight in the car. But I am less impulsive now, more considered (slightly). I resolved to wait for further news. If the bird did return today, it would surely be very likely to be there tomorrow as well, particularly as a visitor to the island had reportedly seen "that bird" the day before.
I climbed back on the ride-on with renewed energy, glancing at my pager every few minutes.

3:32 No further sign by 3:18

4:53  Still no further sign by 4:30

5:12  a boat is planned from Seahouses at 6:30pm this evng in search of the Bridled Tern

Just imagine if I'd impulsively set off. I'd already have been driving for over two hours on negative news, only to receive the news that the boat would be leaving about half an hour before I'd be arriving. What a great decision to carry on mowing the lawns.

With that job done, I began moving the electric fence which pens in the lambs. Every week they get a new area of succulent grass to feast upon. Sue came home and helped me move the fence when...

6:25  BRIDLED TERN ad again 6:18pm Farne Islands on Inner Farne showing well.

If only I'd left on that first message. Who knows. I might have made that 6:30 boat!

My phone leapt into action, which rather complicated the task of moving the sheep fence. It wasn't long before I had a car full of passengers. At 10:30pm I was to drive to Wansford, just off the A1 to pick up Josh (trip photographer), another old friend who shall remain nameless and possibly another (turned out to be David Campbell aka Devilbirder). Then up to Doncaster to pick up Will Soar.

I hastily rearranged work, thanks to a very kind and understanding boss (thanks Sue) and made my preparations for an overnight journey.

Staying awake overnight is not as easy as it used to be, but the prospect of a lifer at the end of it keeps the energy levels up, as well as catching up with friends (as long as they don't all fall asleep on you! (David and Will!!))

So it was that at some time after 3am we pulled up in the car park at Seahouses and looked out longingly toward the line of low islets offshore. There was already plenty of light in the sky and the unnamed birder set up his telescope in the vague hope of picking up the Bridled Tern in flight at ridiculous distance. The rest of us put our heads down for a while.

It's been a while since I took a sunrise photo.
By 5am the car park was getting fuller and distant friends were busy regaling each other with stories of twitches from old times or idle twitter gossip from more recent times. By 5.30 the crowd was edging nervously toward the ticket booking kiosks. I was near the front and people kept putting money in my hand to buy them a ticket. Fortunately Will Soar was ahead of me (he is small and good at finding his way to the front!) so I passed the money forward and told him how many tickets to buy, trying to remember whose money it was. It wasn't long before Will emerged from the throng waving a green ticket aloft. Nine happy boat passengers.
It's a bit of a tired blur, but at some point during this early morning confusion we had received news from the island rangers that the bird was still present in the tern roost on the rocks by the jetty. A guarded excitement swept through the crowd.

We filed down the jetty and onto the boat for the short and perfectly flat crossing across to Inner Farne. As we chugged ever closer to the rocks the sea became full of auks, guillemots, razorbills and, everybody's favourite, puffins. They bobbed on the surface, diving for cover as the boat passed or scampering away across the surface of the water.

We rounded the tip of the island and binoculars were raised expectantly. As we approached the jetty, there stood the four rangers surrounded by a throng of Arctic Terns. They weren't all looking through their binoculars. They weren't jumping up and down excitedly. They weren't pointing. And nobody on board was able to pick out the bird, either wheeling around in the air or perched on the rocks.
It looked as if we would be in for a tense wait. One of the rangers came down to the boat and announced that the bird was still there, on the rocks. We patiently filed off the boat in an orderly fashion and ambled up the jetty (NOT!). I was near the front, perilously close to the edge. I raised my binoculars and was relieved to almost instantly set my eyes on the bird, nestled down on the rocks, partially obscured.

Not such a heart-pounding bird as the Pacific Swift or the White-throated Needletail, it has to be said, but a beautiful and elegant bird indeed.
It soon took to the air and circled round with the masses of Arctic Terns, settling back down every now and again before taking to the air. A couple of times it disappeared over the brow of the hill, only to reappear a minute or so later.
Now, I'm a bit rubbish at picking out bird calls, especially when the air is full of screeching Arctic Terns and Eiders oooo and aaargh from the sea. But the Bridled Tern had a surprisingly gull-like call which even my half deaf old ears could recognise.
A couple of times the Bridled Tern came right over the small crowd amassed on the jetty
before it disappeared over the hill for one last time.
We had been treated to ten minutes of rarity elegance. More time would have been nicer, and the photographers would have liked better light, but we were a very happy bunch of birders. For the second time in a week we had found ourselves enjoying excellent views of a very rare bird in a wonderful location.

A happy bunch of birders prepare to leave the island.
While we waited, hoping for a reappearance of the tern, everybody took advantage of the opportunity to watch the puffins and arctic terns at such close quarters. Unfortunately we weren't allowed up onto the main part of the island. Quite rightly access is strictly limited to keep a balance between allowing the public to see such a spectacle and protecting the breeding birds of the island.
Anyway, the rangers did a great job and I'm sure every birder who has made the journey over would like to thank them for making arrangements for us to land on the jetty and for keeping everybody so well informed as to the presence of the bird.
Their helpfulness and hospitality were refreshing. The rangers maintain an excellent photoblog. It's well worth a visit. I'm sure there'll be some mouthwatering photos of the Bridled Tern on it, as well as many pictures of the islands' other resident seabirds.

Thanks must also go to the boat operators. They went out of their way to get birders to the island and must have grown a little weary of their phones constantly on the go. I know that one of them, whose phone ran out of battery, was calling people back right up till midnight to help them out, even though he was getting up to take another boatload out early in the morning.

A celebratory drink and bun for one lucky birder.
The bridled tern was both more elegant and more good looking.
And so it was that, by way of a cooked breakfast in Seahouses (they were slightly overwhelmed by the sudden and unexpected rush in trade!) we headed back south. I rolled back onto the farm at half past two in the afternoon and in no time at all I was fast asleep on the sofa, dreaming of the next bird.

It's been a good year so far. Six (lifers) already and there's still the autumn to come. But before that I'm hoping for a Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, preferably somewhere near.

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