After my failed attempt to see the Devon Elegant Tern there was plenty of discussion on the internet over the identity of the growing number of orange-billed terns that had been seen since May.
Paul Marshall’s original Dawlish Tern (18th May) was followed by a tern which moved between Belgium (7th June), Holland (9th-10th June) and then Norfolk (20th June) and then finally the 2nd Dawlish bird (8th July). Many people were fairly sure that the 1st Dawlish bird was different to the Norfolk/European bird, but they also believed that the 1st Dawlish bird was indeed an Elegant Tern but that the Norfolk bird was possibly a hybrid and maybe best left unidentified. The 2nd Dawlish bird met with more controversy with opinions varying from ‘it is definitely the same bird which was first seen 7 weeks ago at Dawlish’ to ‘it is the Norfolk bird’. Several mediocre video grabs were taken but these didn’t really help. Peter had seen the bird but I could tell that he wasn’t entirely convinced that it was the same bird that Paul Marshall had seen 7 weeks previously.
On Thursday 18th July, 9 days after I had dipped the 2nd Dawlish bird, David, Sue and I were driving away from the office when, as normal, I began to check my pager for the messages which had been collecting in the car during the day. Any Mega Alerts would have already been received to my mobile on my desk at work. We hadn’t even got to the first set of traffic lights before I read that the Elegant Tern had returned to Dawlish for the 3rd time. I couldn’t help letting out a strangled cry and then had to explain to David and Sue what was going on.
We were going to the Bowkers for the weekend and so I began to make plans as to how I could get to Dawlish the next day. Unfortunately, David had Friday afternoon off and so I would need to drive Sue and myself to and from work, this would make it difficult to get to Dawlish at all the next day. My plan, however, was to get to Dawlish for 5am on Friday morning with David taking Sue to work as normal, I could see the tern, hopefully before 8am, get to work by 11am and then take Sue home after work. This was not ideal because it would mean a very early start and most probably almost no sleep, secondly I didn’t want to take any more time off work after various agreed absences recently. Thirdly it could get very awkward if the bird was around but I hadn’t seen it by, say 9am.
The 45 minute trip back to Ringwood gave me time to devise a second plan and this plan was as follows. David would take Sue to work as normal, I would get to work very early, work through my lunch and if the Tern was still present then I would leave at around 2:30pm. This would mean Sue would need to get the bus home and I said I would pay for her fare. This plan would also avoid the danger of a wasted morning trip to Dawlish should the tern repeat it’s track record of disappearing overnight. That evening I spoke to Richard Baatsen who seemed convinced that the bird he had seen with Peter and Nigel was the Norfolk bird and a hybrid but suggested that I went to see it anyway but that I shouldn’t expect it to be accepted as an Elegant Tern.
I was at my desk at 7:15am and began periodically glancing at my pager to check whether it had been seen and by 9am I had confirmation that it had. Frustratingly it had been seen well at Cockwood which is where I would have been had I gone. I made arrangements with Jeremy to leave early.
There were no further sightings between 8:20am and lunchtime and so I was getting a little anxious when I popped out to the Bank to pay a credit card bill. While in the queue the pager reported that the tern had been seen again at Dawlish Warren from the hide at 12:44pm. I spoke to Peter who was now getting anxious that this 3rd tern might be the original Elegant Tern while his 2nd tern might be the odd Norfolk bird!
I set off from work at 2:30pm with news that the tern had flown out to sea at 1:10pm and had not been seen since. My second trip to Dawlish inside a fortnight was less anxious than you might expect because the tern was not showing although I decided to drive as quickly as possible just in case it reappeared. I got to Poole at 3:10pm and then carried on towards Dorchester. The traffic was heavy around Weymouth and Bridport with it being the first day of the School holidays.
I got to Exeter at 4:50pm and I hadn’t had a bleep (indicating a Devon/Cornwall message) since Bridport. While stuck in rush hour Exeter traffic, however, the pager bleeped to confirm that the Elegant Tern was back on the mud viewable from the hide between 4:30pm and 4:53pm at least. The next 20 minutes were agonising as the traffic inched along. I got onto the Dawlish road but then had to stop again in Starcross where the road narrows. I eventually got to Cockwood at 5:15pm and jumped out of the car to join the 3 other birders who were watching from the railway crossing. I was anxious for any type of view, even a poor one.
They got me onto the bird although at this stage its head was turned and I couldn’t see its bill. Within a minute or so it turned to reveal a large orange bill! What a relief! For the next few minutes I had reasonable although distant views of the bird preening.
Before long the birds took off and I had it briefly in flight before it was lost in the melee. I walked along the edge of the estuary to try and get closer to the tern flock but without luck and at 6:20pm the pager reported that the Tern had flown out to sea.
Despite waiting until 9pm for better views I did not see the tern again. It had flown off out of the estuary at 6:05pm and was not seen again until 8:20pm when it was watched 10 miles to the south in Tor Bay at Broadsands. The Elegant Tern was seen again on and off until Sunday 21st July. What was probably the same bird was then relocated at Porthmadog, North Wales where it lingered from Tuesday 23rd to Friday 26th July.
The growing numbers of orange-billed Terns in Northern Europe had all been photographed or videoed, however, in virtually every image the bill appeared a different shape or colour, the crest looked longer or shorter and the plumage tones varied considerably.
Despite this, in the end, it was accepted that all the sightings related to the same bird.