A blast from the past: Sooty Tern, Ditchford Gravel Pits, May 1980

Pulling up outside John and Ruth Ward’s home in Irchester I found it difficult to decide just how I would feel about seeing it again – this time dead. I refer of course to Northamptonshire’s one and only Sooty Tern and more than thirty-two years had passed since I had last seen this bird, alive, at nearby Ditchford Gravel Pits, in May 1980. So, déjà vu or nostalgia? Undoubtedly both.

If I had been wearing a hat I would have removed it as I stood in reverie before the inornate glass case which is, for the foreseeable future, this bird’s resting place and which takes pride of place on a unit in John & Ruth’s dining room. Expert taxidermy has immortalised the bird’s appearance but sadly not its character following its demise in captivity in November 1980 and the events leading up to that date were unusual, to say the least …

The 1980 Ditchford Sooty Tern, mounted specimen, Irchester, 28th December 2012 (Mike Alibone)
The 1980 Ditchford Sooty Tern, mounted specimen, Irchester, 28th December 2012 (Mike Alibone)

During a routine evening visit to his local patch, the main lake at Ditchford Gravel Pits, on 29th May 1980, John (‘Jake’) Ward was astonished to see a Sooty Tern approaching along the Nene valley from the east. Swiftly joined by the late Dave Young and his wife, Lorraine, who were birding in the vicinity, John watched it flying around briefly before it went to roost on one of the islands in the lake and news of the bird’s presence was broadcast later that evening.

A group of excited observers – the majority local – had assembled before first light the following morning but as the sun rose the tern was, initially, nowhere to be seen. Then someone spotted it on the back edge of an island. It was weak, unable to fly and, distressingly, attracting the attention of a marauding Carrion Crow. On the point of becoming a crow’s breakfast, a swift decision was made to rescue it and, without further ado, as I recall, Jon Eames braved the uncharted depths of the lake and waded out to save it from certain death.

After a 05.45 phone call to the late Cliff Christie, cold and emaciated, it was then taken by motorcade (minus outriders) to Cliff’s bird rehabilitation centre in Middleton Cheney in south Northants. Cliff had built a well-deserved reputation for rehabilitating sick and injured birds and, over the following days and weeks, his expert nursing, along with a diet of cod liver oil and whitebait, had the tern back in good health and ready to be released back into ‘the wild’.

During this period the bird drew many admirers, some travelling from mainland Europe, and it became a bit of a celebrity, the national press and TV news covering its remarkable story of survival. It even made international headlines with the Cape Town Argus devoting a column to it on one occasion.

Amid the publicity, however, a more serious story began to unfold as attempts to repatriate it were repeatedly thwarted by international bureaucracy. It appeared to be of the nominate race fuscata, which is found in the Caribbean and Atlantic and the plan was to fly it to east coast America to release it in either Jamaica or Florida. Because of its now captive status an export licence was obtained from the UK government and, with the appropriate documentation in order – plus the support of Captain John Philips, a British Airways pilot – BA kindly offered to transport it free of charge. So far, so good but the tern’s luck was soon to run out as the plan fell foul of the USA’s strict quarantine laws and rumour had it that it would be killed upon arrival by Jamaican authorities if it was flown directly to that country. It appears that several attempts made to ship it to other countries in the region were also opposed, despite the best efforts of Jenny Blenkinsop, a Birmingham-based BA customer services officer who had taken up the case and championed the bird’s repatriation bid.

Unfortunately the Sooty Tern appeared destined to stay in the UK and it died in captivity on 8th November 1980 after a period in quarantine, with its ‘owner’ still hopeful of successful repatriation. But that was not the end of the story.

Cliff preserved the body before handing it to Mark Winston-Smith, a taxidermist in Snitterfield near Stratford-upon-Avon, to mount it. Encased in glass, the tern remained in the Christie family after Cliff’s death in 2003 and his wife, Joyce’s death in 2011. The specimen was then apparently discovered for sale in Banbury, believed to be as a result of a house clearance (although the details are not clear) and subsequently went into private ownership in Staffordshire. The owner then decided to sell it and contacted the BTO for first refusal. In November, John Marchant from the BTO emailed a handful of birders in Northants (including myself and John & Ruth) to elicit interest in the purchase, a deal was done and the rest – as they say – is history.

It is only fitting that the Sooty Tern has now come back to the finder some thirty-two years after the event. John and Ruth have agreed to pass the specimen to the BTO upon their own demise, which we hope will not be any time soon, of course, and they welcome anyone who wants to see the bird to their home in Irchester so please feel free to contact them.

7 thoughts on “A blast from the past: Sooty Tern, Ditchford Gravel Pits, May 1980

  1. Despite the stupid regulations of the various countries (shame they don’t do the same for invading Crayfish and grey squirrels!!!) this bird had a fascinating journey, great post Mike, really enjoyed reading it thanks.

    1. Thanks, Doug. I must admit to feeling somewhat saddened to see such a splendid bird stuffed and mounted like that. With hindsight, when all else had failed, it would have been better to have released it on the coast in the UK – at least it would have had a fighting chance that way and be no worse off than it was before it arrived at Ditchford.

  2. Hi there Mike,
    A great blast from the past! You forgot to mention that a handful of us from the County, and even some from outside, managed to get there in the evening to see the unbelievable sight of it flying around calling. Myself and Simon Cook made it from Daventry and Simon of course was spawny enough to be at Summerleys when the Bridled Tern appeared for a few minutes! I think i can safely say that nobody else can possibly have both of these closely related Pelagic terns on their County lists. There were scurrilous suggestions made shortly after the bird was taken into care, that an ex-County recorder returned from another “Dipping Holiday” to tick it off in Cliff’s bath!
    A happy New Year to you and all my other birding pals in the County.

    1. Ah, yes, one or two did make it there in the evening but the ‘big’ event giving rise to the story took place the next day! Simon never visited Summer Leys more than about once a year and I can’t believe he jammed in on it!! Happy New Year to you and yours.

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