Sunday, 28 August 2016

A Royal Flush

24th August 2016
The routine for twitching birds in Ireland is pretty well rehearsed now. Trouble is, the last four times I've done it have ended in failure, dipping the bird.
I waited for a mate from Norfolk then left my house at 8.30pm for the drive westwards towards Holyhead port, picking up another two birding friends along the way.
The ferry departs at 02:30 and you can get a 24 hour ticket which is quite reasonable if you share the cost. I prefer to do it this way as it means I can just chuck all my stuff in the car and go.

It always seems slightly crazy that two companies run ferries on this route yet they choose to have virtually identical schedules, resulting in chaos at the port. Queues were particularly long tonight - we later found out that the road to Holyhead had been closed earlier in the day causing many vehicles to have to switch ferries. We hadn't pre-booked the ferry and it took a full ten minutes for the woman at the ticket booth to issue us a ticket. By this time the cones had been put across and we had an uncomfortable wait while it appeared everybody had forgotten all about us.

We finally received the go ahead and by three in the morning we were steaming out into the Irish Sea. We had secured some reasonably cosy seats in the old restaurant area with enough space to stretch out. Our wallets never stretch to a cabin, not for a three hour crossing. Besides, I was far too hyperactive to sleep much.
The crossing was dead smooth and I did manage to grab almost an hour's sleep, despite Neil's snoring, before we were driving off the other end into Dublin City... well, I say driving, it was more of a crawl as all the lorries from BOTH ferries got off before us.

By 7.30am we had news that the Royal Tern was still there. We were through Dublin and doing unmentionable speeds across Ireland towards the west coast. It was just before we reached Limerick that news came through the bird had been pushed off the beach by the rising tide - we always knew this was a likely scenario. We were a bit gutted, but there was still a fair chance the bird would reappear as the tide dropped again. Fortunately it was frequenting exactly the same area as an Elegant Tern I had seen three years ago, so we knew the places to check out.

The Elegant Tern has stuck it out for eleven days - that's about ten more days than any Royal Tern has ever stuck around for! I had previously had two near misses with Royal Tern but others making the journey were up to seven or eight attempts! Royal Terns have a nasty habit of spending the evening on a beach and buggering off out to sea overnight. You need to be close by when they're found.

As the day wore on we began to lose hope. Us twitchers are by nature a pretty determined and persistent bunch. We must, I guess, be fairly optimistic too, or we wouldn't try, but I always like to retain a healthy dose of pessimism. That way you get more pleasant surprises than ugly let-downs.
There were basically two parts of Beale Strand where the Royal Tern had chosen to hang out, but we knew of a further two parts of the estuary further east where terns liked to hang out, both at the end of very minor roads. So that was four places to keep checking. At least it kept us moving.

As we walked the length of Littor Stand for the third time we were now considering whether to leave in the next hour to get back for the evening ferry or whether to give it all day and catch the overnight. We were all still quite chipper all things considered. There would be another chance at Royal Tern. Maybe we'd need several more chances but in the end we would catch up with one, probably.
It was now three in the afternoon.

Then Dan got a call. IT'S THERE. West Beach.
We scuttled back to the car and covered the couple of miles along narrow country lanes at alarming speed. As we screeched into the car park we could see a line of twitchers on the beach. We left the car in the middle of the car park, grabbed our optics and ran off down the slipway and across the wide, sandy beach. My summer footwear was not well suited to running and bouncing between the salty puddles but right now it didn't matter.
Twitchers lined up on Beale Strand. I had to cut half the picture as Dan decided to moon the camera!

There were maybe twenty twitchers lined up, scopes pointing toward a group of gulls and terns on the sand at the water's edge. The worst thing that could happen now would be that they all fly up and I fail to pick up the Royal Tern as they all disappear into the distance. Though unlikely, this sort of thing does happen, so I aimed for someone else's scope for that first, vital view.
And there it was. A giant tern with a large orange/yellow carrot for a bill.

It was, of course, never in doubt that we would see the bird!

The poor thing had an injured leg, confirming that it was the same bird which had been seen a few days before further up the coast. It sat on the beach, occasionally lifting up to shift position in the flock. Often it was on its own. The line of twitchers edged forward for closer views. At one point the bird flew right along in front of us. That giant bill almost seemed to weigh down its head as those long, slender wings and surprisingly slow wingbeats took it gliding past us.

We shared about half an hour with the bird before it seemed right to leave it be. If we left now, we should be able to make the evening ferry.

And that's what happened. I managed another one hour's sleep on the ferry (would have been more but we had three very loud natterers sat near us) and rolled back onto the farm a few minutes before five in the morning. 32 hours. 2 nights. 2 hours sleep. 2 boats. 900 miles driving. 1 Royal Tern.
The list now stands on 517.

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