‘First-summer’ Arctic Tern

An Arctic Tern at Hollowell Reservoir provides the opportunity to study a plumage rarely seen in the UK in summer.

Found by Gary Pullan during the morning of 20th June, a first- (or possibly second) summer Arctic Tern was still present there yesterday, allowing Jon Cook to capture some clearly instructive images of a bird which would normally be expected to spend the northern summer south of the Equator. A tiny proportion is, however, known to accompany adults when they move north in spring, although they are likely to wander and do not usually appear in breeding colonies.

Any tern with a white forehead and a predominantly dark bill, seen in late spring/early summer, is likely to draw attention, as it stands out from the typical fully black-capped, red-billed Common and Arctic Terns normally encountered on spring passage or, in the case of Common Tern, breeding in the county. Identifying it to species is one thing and ageing it correctly is another.

Jon’s excellent series of photos nicely illustrate its identity, which is straightforward, given good views in the field. In the first image, against the light the translucent primaries are clearly visible, immediately putting the bird in the Arctic camp before any full assessment of the plumage detail.

First-summer Arctic Tern, Hollowell Res, 22nd June 2020 (Jon Cook)

A check of the upperside of the primaries also adds to this identification, as they are ‘clean’ and uniform, lacking the darker, unmoulted outer primaries of both first- and second-summer Common Tern.

First-summer Arctic Tern, Hollowell Res, 22nd June 2020 (Jon Cook)
First-summer Arctic Tern, Hollowell Res, 22nd June 2020 (Jon Cook)

There is a darker bar on the leading edge of the wing coverts, which looks more prominent in some photos than others. First-summer Common Tern would also show this but in combination with darker (not white) secondaries.

First-summer Arctic Tern, Hollowell Res, 22nd June 2020 (Jon Cook)

The overall ‘neat’ proportions also look right for Arctic Tern, although in some photos the bill looks rather long but this is probably accentuated by the white forehead.

Leg colour is said to be variable – see, for instance, Terns of Europe and North America (Larsson & Malling Olsen, 1995) and this bird has a definite redness associated with its legs.

First-summer Arctic Tern, Hollowell Res, 22nd June 2020 (Jon Cook)

Bill colour of second-summer is said to be red like that of an adult but with a dark tip to the upper mandible and a darker base. The images above appear to depict an all dark bill but the one below, from Adrian Borley, taken on 20th in different light conditions, appears to show some redness in the bill’s centre, as well as some brown tones to the dark crown. The underparts are a mixture of grey and white. The last two features are said by Larsson & Malling Olsen (1995) to be indicitave of second summer birds.

First-summer Arctic Tern, Hollowell Res, 20th June 2020 (Adrian Borley)

The Hollowell bird appears to show features of both first- and second-summer. Any further comments on its age would be welcomed.

Caspian Tern at Stanford Reservoir

Northamptonshire’s 6th Caspian Tern shows briefly before heading east.

It was Chris Hubbard’s lucky day as patch persistence paid off this morning with the arrival – and hurried departure – of a Caspian Tern at Stanford Res. Initially glimpsed flying toward the dam, it reappeared almost immediately, flying east over the inlet at around 08.25. Chris was able to grab a series of shots in the 10-15 seconds it was in view before it headed off and away. It was not seen subsequently.

Caspian Tern, Stanford Res, 31st May 2020 (Chris Hubbard)

Caspian Tern, Stanford Res, 31st May 2020 (Chris Hubbard)

Caspian Tern, Stanford Res, 31st May 2020 (Chris Hubbard)

This one follows hot on the heels of the county’s fifth (here), which was seen just under three years ago at Summer Leys LNR on 1st July 2017 before relocating to Clifford Hill GP later the same day. This particular colour-ringed individual ranged widely within the UK, visiting Carmarthenshire, Avon, West Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Buckinghamshire.

Prior to this, previous records were:

1967: Pitsford Res, 2 on 12th July                                                                                                                                              1968: Stanford Res, one on 3rd June                                                                                                                                    1998: Ditchford GP/Stanwick GP/Earls Barton GP, one on 1st August                                                                      2003: Stanwick GP/ Earls Barton GP, one between 16th and 20th July

Caspian Tern

Full marks to Jon Lyles for finding Northamptonshire’s 5th Caspian Tern, loitering on ‘the slips’ at Summer Leys this morning. It was discovered around 10.40 and remained settled there until midday, when it took to the air and headed off north-east.

Caspian Tern, Summer Leys LNR, 1st July 2017 (Mike Alibone)

Caspian Tern, Summer Leys LNR, 1st July 2017 (Clive Bowley)

Caspian Tern, Summer Leys LNR, 1st July 2017 (Clive Bowley)

Gone? Unlikely. Caspian Terns have a habit of flying off – sometimes visiting sites many miles away – before returning hours later. Luckily, this one conformed and it was back and showing in the Wader Bay from 13.30 until 14.10, when it was off again. This time it appeared to fly south but it was seen shortly afterward heading west over nearby Hardwater Lake at 14.35. As luck would have it, it was relocated at Clifford Hill GP around 16.30, remaining there until at least 19.00 and putting on a good show as it flew up and down the River Nene close to the Weston Mill sluice. Twenty minutes later it had gone, heading off high to the west.

This bird had a red ring on its left leg and may have been ringed in Sweden.

Caspian Tern, as well as being a national rarity, remains a true rarity in Northants with just four previous records as follows:

1967: Pitsford Res, 2 on 12th July                                                                                                                                                      1968: Stanford Res, one on 3rd June                                                                                                                                      1998: Ditchford GP/Stanwick GP/Earls Barton GP, one on 1st August                                                                        2003: Stanwick GP/ Earls Barton GP, one between 16th and 20th July

Many thanks to Clive Bowley for supplying images.

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.