I stood alone on the shoreline anxious that I was probably on the wrong side of the Solent to see the Caspian Tern. Lucky timing had meant that I was first on the scene but had I misunderstood the directions?
This bird was only the 5th Caspian Tern in Hampshire. It would be my 4th in the UK, after one at Minsmere in May 1987 and an adult and 1st winter together at Ferrybridge in September 1991. Most of the UK birds are likely to be birds that breed in the Baltic perhaps Finland or Sweden. This bird may have been a very late migrant heading north or an early returning non-breeder on its was back to wintering grounds in tropical West Africa, perhaps Mali or Ghana.
An hour earlier I’d been driving home with regular messages coming through WhatsApp as birders organised themselves to search the lower reaches of the Test looking for the Caspian Tern. I was within 100 yards of home when a message came through that the Caspian Tern had been relocated at Eling Tide Mill!
With the adrenalin rushing I continued down Michigan Way and on into Totton and then to Eling. Part of the excitement comes from the thought that I might miss the bird by a few minutes, a stomach churning feeling I’m all too familiar with. It’s not life or death but it sometimes feels like it. There is some element of wanting to see the bird to outdo your peers although it’s also great fun to share the experience with lots of like-minded, and now euphoric, friends. A lot of my excitement also comes from the hope that I may get some good field sketches.
With all of this running through my mind I drove across the tidal bridge adjacent to the Mill and was slightly alarmed that there weren’t any birders. I parked in the free car park on the south side of Bartley Water and walked east checking Bartley Water for a large tern as I went. This took me to where the River Test flows into Southampton Water. Andy Lester, who had relocated the bird, was asked, on the WhatsApp group, to show his position on google maps. When he shared the screenshot I was disappopinted to see that he was on the other side or the river, the eastern side of Southampton Water!
I was now near the water’s edge on the west side overlooking the main river and I had good views over most of it. I set up my telescope near a family who were enjoying a picnic. The weather was hot and sunny and lots of people were out relaxing at the water’s edge enjoying the recent easing of cornonavrous restrictions. I looked a little out of place but I find that I worry about this less and less the older I get.
I messaged Andy Lester to ask whether the tern was on the east or west side and he said that it was in mid-channel resting on mudflats. I could see mudflats from my position on the western shore and so I began to scan. Some of the mudflats looked like they could be hidden from my view and so I was slightly worried. Thankfully, at 3:45pm, I found the Caspian Tern looking settled on a mid-channel island.
Not surprisingly, the huge red bill was the first thing I noticed and it certainly kept my heart rate up. I screenshotted my google maps position onto the Whatsapp group, waited for birders to arrive and started to make some sketches. I hadn’t expected to be sketching again today and I regretted the two red bulls I had drunk earlier. It wasn’t until I got back into sketching that I realised how much coffee and energy drinks make my hands shake. In fact, they were shaking so much I found it impossible to keep the pencil still and my rough outlines required a fair bit of corrective work.
Within five minutes birders started arriving and most of them made a bee line to me for directions. For another 15 minutes it showed well although a little distantly, sleeping occasionally. It loosely associated with several Black-headed Gulls and being as large as a Herring Gull it dwarfed them.
At 4:06pm it took off unexpectedly, circling in front of the huge containers and lifting cranes before drifting further south. The powerful deep wing beats more gull-like than tern. It flew directly away from us and so it was difficult to judge how fast it was moving. The birders who had just arrived frantically asked for directions hoping that they might at least have a distant flight view before it rounded the bend in the river. Several of them got onto it but many didn’t. It continued southwards and wasn’t seen again.
I started the day watching perhaps the smallest tern in the world and ended it watching the largest.