Elegant Tern – Dawlish Warren, Devon

At just after 11am on Saturday 18th May a Mega Alert reported that a Lesser Crested Tern had been found at Dawlish Warren. Lesser Crested Tern is a major rarity with only 8 accepted records, the most famous of these being ‘Elsie’ a female Lesser Crested Tern who had returned to the Farne Islands each year between 1984 to 1997. I had seen Elsie in June 1990 and so didn’t need to head down to Devon.

Later that evening Peter telephoned and I could tell from his tone that he was excited about something. He proceeded to explain that Paul Marshall had found the Lesser Crested Tern while guiding a group of novice birdwatchers, they had been looking through the breeding waders at Dawlish Warren NR. Paul finding the Lesser Crested Tern was impressive enough but I could tell from Peter’s excited manner that there was more to come. He explained that Paul had arrived home, downloaded his digital photographs of the bird and was now having strong doubts about the identification, he believed that he may have found Britain’s first Elegant Tern!

I began to feel a waive of panic creeping over me. Shortly afterwards the pager started to report that several observers on site believed that the tern had a white rump and that it may be an Elegant Tern. There was no time for anyone to twitch the bird unless they lived in Devon and the tern was last seen roosting on a sand bar out in the Exe estuary just north of Dawlish Warren NR. The scene was set for a massive twitch the next morning.

The tern, if accepted, would be the first for Britain after 2 in Ireland in 1982 and 1999. Broadly speaking the Elegant Tern breeds in Mexico and winters in Chile and this individual was about 6,000 miles off course having flown across North America and then over the Atlantic!

Peter arranged to go down with Richard Baatsen and because of Richard’s commitments the next day they got there early, in fact they were in the Dawlish Warren NR car park by 2am. I agonised about whether I should go or not but having just arrived back from twitching the Scillies for the Lesser Kestrel I had decided against travelling for the tern on the Sunday morning. I was lucky as it was not seen again and Peter dipped.

Seven weeks later on Monday 8th July my mobile phone bleeped to report a Mega Alert, the Elegant Tern had reappeared at Dawlish Warren! Over the course of Monday afternoon it became apparent that the tern, just like last time, was highly mobile ranging up and down the Exe estuary and also out to sea. This would make an after work twitch highly risky.

My lift sharing arrangements meant that there was no way I would be able to get home much before 6:30pm and this would mean getting to Dawlish for about 8:30pm by which time the light would be beginning to fade. I rang Peter and Dad, Peter rarely checks his pager and the return of the Elegant Tern was news to him. Dad said he would go and I arranged the next day off work. Mum and Dad were up in Oxford staying with Alyson and so it seemed sensible for Dad to stop overnight at our house to break the journey.

I spoke to Peter again after lunch and he said that he wouldn’t be going until the next morning. I had a strong feeling, however, that someone from Gloucester or Swindon would get in contact with him and he wouldn’t be able to resist, despite his work commitments. This was the case and just 15 minutes later he texted me to say that he was going with Nigel immediately.

I arrived home from work at 6:30pm with another text message from Peter saying that he still hadn’t seen it despite being on site for an hour or so. A short while later, however, and Peter rang to say that he’d connected. The tern was last seen on the mudflats opposite Exmouth seafront at 9:20pm. It was very unlikely that I would have seen the Tern had I gone after work as it flew out to sea at 7:45pm, 45 minutes before I would have arrived. The 9:20pm sighting wasn’t received on the pager until well after 9:30pm and it would have been too dark for me to get from the west side of the estuary over to Exmouth in time.

I felt confident about our chances on Tuesday morning, however, particularly with the tern being more likely to hang around in the relatively relaxed days of mid summer. Dad left Oxford at about 7:15pm and pulled up outside at exactly 9pm. We transferred his stuff into my car and not long afterwards I went to bed although Sara and Dad stayed up to watch Big Brother. We set the alarm for 4:30am and by 4:50am we were on the road.

The 86 mile journey was made in heavy rain and we arrived in Exeter service station at around 6:20am. We had a brief cup of tea hoping that the pager might report the tern and help us decide whether to head down the east side of the estuary to Exmouth or the west side towards Dawlish Warren. With no news we decided to head down the west side, Peter had suggested that we watch the estuary from Cockwood and we arrived there at just before 7am.

We were the first people there and so it appeared that most birders had headed straight for Dawlish Warren. Viewing from Cockwood seemed to be as good as anywhere and would save the car parking fee and long walk at Dawlish. The only risk compared to Dawlish was that the tern might be seen fishing out to sea which would be out of view for us at Cockwood. The rain was still fairly heavy and the wind was cold, however, the sight of 20 Sandwich Terns fishing out in the channel kept us occupied. The Elegant Tern had been loosely associating with Sandwich Terns on both visits to Dawlish but there was no sign at the moment.

After a couple of hours I headed back to the car for a fleece and then off to a shop to get us both some sandwiches and a bar of chocolate. The tide was still high and several local birders suggested that as the tide dropped our chances would improve because the Sandwich Terns would congregate on the sand bars and mudflats between Cockwood and Dawlish. Sure enough by about 10am the mudflats were being exposed and a group of more than 50 Sandwich Terns appeared, my heart was pounding as I scanned through them praying for a yellow bill. There was no sign and I had my first doubts that we would see this bird. The tern had first been seen at 10:50am yesterday and in terms of the state of the tide this would be about 11:50am today, so there was still hope.

Midday came and went and the Sandwich Tern flock grew to about 90 birds. They would occasionally take flight but each time they would land quickly and continue preening. There was a chance that the Elegant Tern might join the flock unnoticed and so whenever the group landed I would scan through them quickly with a raised optimism. No luck. There would surely be other Sandwich Terns further up the estuary and so we scanned slowly through the masts of the boats in the channel hoping to see the yellow-billed tern fishing. A brief visit to Powderham, where it had been seen at midday yesterday, produced little. At 1:35pm we had been on site for 6½ hours and we decided that it was unlikely to be found again and we headed home. We pulled into Swift Close at just before 3:30pm. This was the first time I had dipped with Dad since 1994. The tern was not seen again.

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