Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Another mad dash to Dorset! 7th October 2019

American Black Tern (Chlidonias niger surinamensis), Longham Lakes, Dorset, 07/10/2019
This is becoming a habit! Finish work early, jump in the car, drive through horrendous rain and arrive in Dorset ready to twitch another year list addition. We did it last Tuesday when we journeyed to Christchurch to see a lovely Grey Phalarope and on Monday we were at it again when we travelled to the outskirts of Bournemouth and to Longham Lakes where a juvenile Black Tern had been in residence since Saturday. After perusal of photographs taken of the bird an eagle eyed birder realised that this was no ordinary Black Tern, of which we'd seen almost a hundred already this year, but an American Black Tern the much rarer cousin from the other side of the Atlantic! Only a dozen of the transatlantic visitors had been seen in the UK before including one at Farmoor in 2009 which we had spectacularly dipped at the time. Specifically though the American Black Tern is merely assigned subspecific status but regardless of that for my year listing purposes it would count in much the same way that American Wigeon has and therefore would be a year tick (and indeed a life tick as well). 

So after another testing drive down the partially flooded and very busy A34, M3 and M27 we arrived on a gloomy and rainy afternoon. We found our way to the south lake where the Tern was reported to be and stared into the murk. We could just about make out another birder stood on the far side in the north western corner which is where I knew the Tern would be. I scanned through fogged up binoculars and after a few minutes saw the American Black Tern flying slowly along close to the opposite bank. Of course at the distance and in the conditions it could have been any old sort of Black Tern but as far as I knew the American was the only Black Tern present at the lakes. We made our way around to the other side walking between the two gravel pits via a grassy bank. A Green Woodpecker, as they always seem to do, erupted from the ground ahead and flew quickly away showing us just its bright greeny yellow rump and a few Chiffchaffs called loudly from the bank side trees.

We turned back towards the south lake braving the dreich conditions which was no slanted directly into our faces and spotted the American Black Tern, the 269th species of the Old Caley year, flying just metres off of the reed covered bank. I watched the Tern and noticed a much slower flight compared to our usual Black Terns. The American bird, a juvenile, flew close to the waters surface and hovered frequently before dipping down to snatch an insect. I'm used to seeing Black Terns fly swiftly across Farmoor and there they usually fly at a few metres above the water before dipping to the surface. This American Black Tern kept much closer to the surface and appeared to travel much more slowly. Mind you that slower flight could have been down to the fact that it was flying into the stiff moisture laden breeze.

Mrs Caley and I reached one of the Fishermans platforms where conveniently there was a seat. The bin bag that I'd used to protect my camera from the elements now doubled up as a dry cover on which Mrs Caley could sit on while I geared up ready for the Terns next pass. The main noticeable difference was that the American Black Tern had dusky flanks and underwings, and uniformly coloured wings and back.  The Tern was keeping close into the bank and when it passed it was no more than five metres away which actually made focussing on it a bit tricky. The camera doesn't't like greyish birds against a grey watery background much and I recalled previous difficulties when trying to photograph juvenile Black Terns at Farmoor. I waited for the Tern to return to its starting point right in the north west corner of the lake and awaited its flypast. The drizzly rain wasn't helping and I had to use an ISO setting of over 1000 to get a quick enough shutter speed in order to get some detail from the images.

The American Black Tern, the third of its family after the European Black Terns and a White-winged Black Tern that we'd seen this year would fly from one end of the western side of the lake to the other before returning and starting the flight all over again. You get to thinking whether all the effort that the bird goes through is worth it since the insect prey gathered seems to be so meagre but the Tern never broke away from its feeding once so it must just be a means to an end.

I wanted a couple of shots of the bird twisting in the air, harder to capture but showing off its wings and tail spread so was more than happy to gain a couple.

The other birder had left before we got to the fishing platform so we were completely alone, unsurprising given the conditions, I mean who else would be daft enough to stand out in foul weather watching and photographing a little and lost bird. As it happens, actually quite a few according to similar stories aired on Twitter later that day. It was a treat though to watch such an agile and dainty bird.

After forty-five minutes of watching the Tern it suddenly flew up quite high and disappeared over the distant trees to the south and we wondered if it had decided to leave. However and just as we had decided to go ourselves it flew back in, dropping down from height. Its return coincided with a squall of heavier rain so maybe it had thought better of flying off into such weather. Visibility reduced to a minimum again so we hot-tailed it back to the car, not quickly enough of course because we were soaked by the time we made it back to the parking area.

We are leaving for a holiday in Cornwall on Wednesday and will probably drive closely past Longham Lakes on our way to a days birding on Portland so we could have taken the risk and left trying for the Tern until then. But I know that if I had then it would surely have disappeared before that whereas now I'd made the effort to see it already the bird would now remain for many more days or even weeks! Typically it was still there on Tuesday and by all accounts showing brilliantly in bright sunshine. But birding in inclement weather brings its own memories.

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