Monday, 27 March 2017

A Royal Visit to Guernsey

Since the arrival of the enigmatic 1st winter Royal Tern (soon to be American Royal Tern) in early February on my home island of Guernsey I had looked into the various options of getting back to twitch it. Sadly however, there are no "last minute" deals to the Channel Islands, in fact it's quite the opposite with last minute flights approaching or even exceeding £400 return, meaning there was no chance of making the dream a reality, I gave up hope.

I was however planning to make a visit to the island in March (return flight £110) to visit family and friends...

With the Tern still present a week later, often accompanied by the wintering Sandwich Terns, was it a real possibility I could twitch it in over a months time?

With nothing to lose, and a glimmer of hope, my wife and I booked flights for mid-March to visit family. As the weeks passed by, many days would go by without the tern being seen and hope was all but lost when all of a sudden another sighting! This wasn't really surprising as the island is quite underwatched (especially during the week) and the bird was highly mobile, moving from one end of the island to the other in a matter of hours.

The week before my departure and excitement was brewing, it really looked like I was going to have my cake and eat it - combining a much overdue family visit with a top European rarity.

I arrived on the island on Thursday late afternoon. Picked up by my Dad, I persuaded him to take the scenic route back home so I could scan a few bays en route. We started at the Shingle bank, L'Eree and worked our way up the west coast finishing at Grandes Havres. The light was fading, no luck but tomorrow was the big chance.

Friday morning I woke early, this was it, I had the morning to nail this tern before my wife arrived on a flight in the afternoon and we had family engagements. I'd arranged to spend the morning with a local birding mate (@wayneturner4) to look for it. He'd spent several hours on Thursday morning trying to locate it before my arrival but sadly to no avail. It had been seen twice in the week but frustratingly at opposites ends of the island so we really had nothing to go on. We started at the North end of the island, checking out its favourite haunts, then again, then once more before heading down the west coast checking all the bays. Nothing.

Taking a break from the Tern hunt, we had a quick whiz round the headland at Pleinmont. With nothing but a stream of Meadow Pipits and a couple of hunting Peregrines we retraced our steps and did the whole islands west and north coast again. It was now 11:30, 5.5hrs since we'd set off, and we pulled into Pembroke Carpark. We scanned the bay once more, but this time, distantly right out in the bay I picked up a couple of terns, more importantly one of them looked to have dark in the wings! I grabbed my scope and sure enough, a distant large tern with some dark in the wings, feeding with a sandwich tern. It was it! Fantastic, I'd seen it. However it then headed around the headland feeding with the other tern. We jumped in the car and drove to where we thought we'd overtake it and pick it up on the next headland or in one of the bays. We got there, scanned left, scanned right, nothing! We waited, nothing! Had it gone through already? Had it doubled back? We'll never know as another hour and a half of searching was fruitless, though we did see a Short-eared Owl fly over our heads and out to sea.

Was that it? Was that my Royal Tern experience? A distant large tern, I couldn't see the bill, could barely make out anything apart from it was larger than the Sandwich tern and had dark in the wings. I was happy, but at the same time devastated. Such a great bird, such a shit view! My time was up for the day, but hope was not all lost, I had two and a half more days, an understanding wife and family who like to go for coastal walks...

The next morning I got up and had nothing planned for the early part of the morning. My parent's dog needed a walk and so we headed the 10 mins round the coast to Fort Doyle. Halfway there I realised I'd left my camera at home, but this wasn't birding, this was a dog walk, so didn't turn round. We got out of the car, the wind was a howling easterly and the sea was foaming at the surface. We walked 50m from the car before I saw a group of Sandwich Terns in the bay, battling against the wind and flying towards me. There it was, just like that, the stunning Royal Tern - carrot-beak and all! It was all over the place as it flew round the bay, blasted by the wind. I didn't have my camera so I just enjoyed the views. I ran back to the car to get my scope and try and Phonescope it, but by the time I'd found some shelter from the wind all I could find were Sandwich Terns. It had gone again, just like yesterday but at least I'd had great views! Satisfied, we continued our walk before going home.

About 10:30 I got a call from @guernseyguppy who'd had the Royal Tern again and it was heading south from Bordeaux. The next stop from there is Belle Greve Bay, the beach just 30 secounds walk from my parents house. My sister and nephews were due round in an hour so with nothing to lose I grabbed my camera and shot out the door. A few seconds later I was on the beach, a quick scan and there it was! I fired off a few shots and was glad to have something "on film" of my own. It had been feeding in the shallows but was flying south. The sun was in an awful position and if I wanted to get any decent shots of it I'd have to be seaward side of it...
First record shot of the Royal Tern
I sprinted off down the beach, waded through the water and clambered onto some rocks (hoping the tide was on it's way out!). I could see it distantly and hoped it would turn back and come back towards me, feeding once more in the shallows that would now be between me and the shore, with the light on my side, and hopefully within the next twenty minutes before I was due back for visiting family.

Thankfully, it did exactly what I planned and performed stunningly right next to me, sometimes too close to fit the whole bird in the picture, and even catching a fish. My photos aren't perfect but put that down to adrenaline shake and excitement. An American Royal Tern, to myself, on the beach I grew up on. Awesome!

Royal Tern between me and the shore

1 comment:

  1. That was obviously the way it was always meant to be, Dave. Chuffed for you. Top birding moment.

    Wayne Turner