We awoke in Wooler to rain so made the decision to take it easy for the morning. We had three weeks to look forward to so there was no rush to get out there and besides we had to hit the supermarket to stock up on provisions for the week. Wooler, nestled at the foot of Cheviot, the highest hill in these parts, seemed to be a quiet little town and not much was available on a Sunday morning so it was off to Berwick for the shop. Apart from a couple of long staying birds there had been nothing new of interest reported locally in the morning so we took a very satisfying Sunday lunch at the Tankerville Arms hotel close to the cottage before considering our options for the day. After a rest for a while we then only ventured out once the weather had improved.
Our priority bird for the Northumberland leg of our trip was the American Black Tern that has been resident in the past three summers at the Long Nanny Tern colony between Beadnell and High Newton on the coast and just a dozen miles from the cottage. Long Nanny isn't a tall old lady but rather a tidal inlet of the North Sea that has produced a small estuary with sandy banks and a dune system which many Terns, mainly of the Arctic and Little species, use for their breeding site. The American Black Tern was discovered in the colony of mainly Arctic Terns but it was only realised that it was indeed the American subspecies of the Black Tern last summer when a couple of eagle-eyed birders noticed the pro-American features when reviewing photos taken of the bird. Once the rarer tag had been applied, the bird became the focus for many birders to visit the Tern colony. We already had the American variant on our life list, having seen a juvenile at Longham Lakes in Dorset during October 2019 but it would be good to see an adult and get the year tick to boot.
We had been tempted to visit Long Nanny in 2019 but had been deterred by the ridiculously high parking fees that applied in the only carpark close enough to the Tern colony. The whole area of dunes and coast is managed by the National Trust and we all know that they are sadly huge rip off merchants and enjoy fleecing tourists at every turn. For the similar reasons a visit to the Farne Islands wouldn't be part of our agenda for this holiday. So it was with some reticence that I parted with a princely sum to park in the, unsurprisingly, virtually deserted carpark at High Newton-by-the-sea. Of only two other cars there, one was manned by a Northumberland parking officer who eagerly watched our every move and made sure that I paid the highly inflated going rate. Not for the first time I thought how refreshing it would be to actually welcome visitors to the area instead of trying to ward them off through high charges but that is obviously pie-in-the-sky and fanciful thinking. Pretty much everywhere else in Northumberland offers free or affordable parking, except for those places where the NT governs, and to think I thought the Trust was a charity. But hey, we were on holiday and I guess that if a small fraction of my money made its way into helping out looking after the Terns then it would be worth it.
It had turned into a lovely sunny and warm afternoon so it didn't take too long for me to stop grumbling and we soon relaxed into the tranquil atmosphere of singing Skylarks and Meadow Pipits, and the soft swoosh of breaking waves on the shore behind the dunes. Of course having never been here before we took the longer than it needed to be route and emerged at the inlet by a fine looking wooden footbridge over which the pathway continued onto Beadnell. That was pleasant enough but the warden's hut and the Tern colony was at the other end of the estuary some 800 metres away! Luckily though a path led along the boundary fence so that we didn't have to retrace our steps. From the bridge you could see many of the Terns which were resting on the sandy edge to the inlet. The American Black Tern was amongst the throng and stood out like a sore thumb!
The walk to the hut took us another fifteen minutes with frequent stops to check on the American Black Tern which was still stood on the sand. We also saw our first Eider Ducks of the year and a couple of Little Gulls were dip feeding over the water. The most numerous bird though were Arctic Terns, many hundreds of pairs breed in the colony. We did see some Little Terns, also new for the year, but mostly they were further out on the estuary and our views of them was hampered by heat haze. As we trudged through deep sand to gain the hut, a couple of Sandwich Terns bombed past so we had pretty much ticked everything we had hoped to see even before we'd reached the main viewpoint.
At the hut we acquainted with the volunteers on duty and got the lowdown on the colony. The American Black Tern (ABT) couldn't be seen from the hut, the dunes blocked the view to all but the furthest reaches of the beach. Within a few minutes though the ABT was airborne but frustratingly it flew straight out to sea! That familiar sinking feeling set in and I wondered if my initial record shots were going to be my lot. The warden on duty assured us that the ABT would be back, apparently if on a fishing trip it could be gone for any amount of time. The day before I listened to some birders while watching the Albatross at Bempton telling that they had dipped the Tern because it had flown out to sea and had stayed out all day. We hoped we wouldn't have to come back another time so crossed our fingers and toes. There was plenty to entertain us at we waited. A large number of Arctic Terns nest very close to the hut on the sand within the marram grass but there are more birds flying around. I set myself to capturing some of those returning with fish. The fish are offerings for their mates since no eggs had hatched yet. The fish are always delivered with gusto, the incoming Arctic Terns are noisy fishmongers. It's the noise though that makes a Tern colony, that and the antics of the birds themselves.
We watched as one of the volunteers had to run to an advanced post close to the estuary to deter a group of walkers, and their dogs, who had ignored the signs prohibiting access to the beach. The wardening of a Tern colony is vital, without the folk who give up their time to look after our birds the whole colony would soon be disturbed, the birds would vacate the site and we'd all miss out on the sight and sound of the breeding colony. I felt better for handing over the parking fee knowing that so many were working hard on my behalf to protect such beautiful birds. I'd like to think that the Terns themselves are pleased to be given the help to raise their own families. Not all of the relationships between the Arctic Terns are so amiable though and we watched many squabbles between neighbouring pairs, some of which were taken into the air above our heads.
Arctic Terns have to rest sometimes and use wooden posts and the hut roof for temporary respite. Earlier in the year we saw a small party of Arctic Terns at Farmoor, identifying them there is always a bit tricky when views are distant over a reservoir. Here however, when they are just feet away there is no difficulty at all, all discerning features are easily seen. Besides there are no Common Terns nesting at Long Nanny so little chance for confusion. The warden told me that earlier in the season, the American Black Tern had also taken to sitting on the shed roof, how I'd have loved a repeat of that. But at least we had the Arctics to admire while the Black Tern remained at sea.
I spotted it first, buzzing around the furthest dune grass like a manic black bee. The American Black Tern had somehow snuck back into the colony unseen but was now flying around and giving good but fairly distant views to the handful of us that had stood expectedly waiting for it to return. I checked my watch, it had only been gone for thirty minutes so I doubted that it had actually flown out to sea at all. The juvenile ABT that we saw in Dorset three years ago was a fairly sedate flier as it hawked insects, in contrast this adult bird was positively hyper as it charged around every which way it could. It was easy to follow though. After a few minutes it dropped down onto an unseen section of beach.
Another species of Tern breeds at Long Nanny, there is a small colony of Little Terns that nest almost at the edge of the water towards the mouth of the inlet. They were very distant and even scope views were destroyed by the heat haze on this warm afternoon. Luckily for us though occasionally one of the Little Terns would fly back from a fishing trip and pass right by the hut. They were hard to spot as they flew in though, they are half the size of the Arctic Terns, and whizz past so I failed in my efforts to get photos of them. There are easier places to photograph Little Terns.
The American Black Tern was mobile again although to begin with it only flew around its favoured part of the colony so it remained distant from the viewpoint. It then flew out to the sea again and I watched it as it passed the furthest waves that were breaking on the shore. It seemed as if it had gone out to sea for sure this time but just a few minutes later it suddenly appeared to our right and then passed right past us at the hut. It was flying downwind in a northerly direction so I had to be quick to capture the bird as it rattled past at speed. Appraising the differences between this American version of the Black Tern compared to our familiar European type wasn't that easy in the field but basically this bird has a jet black body which is uniformly the same as the head, in the European bird the head is darker. Also the underwings of the American bird are very pale, almost white as opposed to the dusky grey appearance of the European one. There are other subtle differences between the two and it is much better dealt with in this Birdguides article than I can summarise. I've actually never taken many decent shots of adult European Black Terns, not as close as this American was anyway.
The best was still to come, the ABT started making several circuits of the whole colony and frequently passed overhead as it flew past the viewpoint in both directions. This was exciting stuff and terrific to watch and we both felt extremely privileged to be watching our second rare seabird from a different part of the planet in two days. Of course, strictly speaking the ABT isn't a seabird but rather a marsh tern, a bird of inland marshes and wetlands but this particular bird had obviously decided on being a seafarer and life in an Arctic Tern colony, far removed from the species normal habitat. It took me a while to adjust and get my sights in when photographing the Tern, mainly because it moved so quickly, and my earlier analogy of it being like a feverish black bee seemed very apt, the ABT certainly buzzed around the colony like one.
By the time the ABT had settled down into the colony again, I was feeling as if I'd had a decent work out in a Gym (not that you'd be likely to find me in one of those very often, if ever, unless there's a bar available). The constant swivelling and aiming the camera high overhead had taken its toll. I had to sit down for a bit.
The ABT didn't reappear so half an hour we called it a day and began the walk back to the car, this time choosing the correct and shorter route. Skylarks abound in the dunes and one would erupt into song every few yards. It was also nice to see them at eye level rather than from underneath as they hovered hundreds of feet above. Many were already feeding young at the nest as these photos testify.
Meadow Pipits were present in good numbers. One sang heartily from the ground although the resulting image could tell a different story, "Oi, you!".
The final birds of the day were encountered at the carpark which was still virtually empty and I wondered how much more cash the NT would raise if they reduced the parking fee a bit. Four Song Thrushes were feeding on the grassy edges to the carpark, not rare birds but we seldom encounter them at home anymore. We had a terrific visit to Long Nanny and even without the American Black Tern it would have been well worth it. But just as with the Albatross at Bempton the day before, it's the special bird that makes a place really special. I hope to see the ABT again one day and hope it continues to summer in Northumberland for many years to come.
Year List additions;
221) American Black Tern, 222) Little Tern, 223) Eider