It looked like a Roseate Tern but it was distant. I’d taken another trip to Titchfield Haven hoping to find one of the two Roseate’s seen in the week. Excitedly I began to pick through the ID features.
An hour before, as I was stood in the reserve centre queue a male Sparrowhawk landed on the footpath next to the visitor centre. When he noticed me and the other queing birders he froze, watching intently, menancing yellow eyes fixed on us. When a blackbird watches you he has to tilt his head to the side, you can’t see both of his eyes properly at the same time. The piercing sparrowhawk eyes, however, were fully forward facing, bearing down on us, demonstrating the different eye position of predator and prey and a chilling sight though binoculars.
I set up in the Meon Shore hide and it was immediately obvious that there were more Common Terns on show than last Monday but on first scan no Roseate Terns. There was the normal constant buzz of acitivty, the sand bar at the back was covered in gulls and terns as well as mayweed and trefoil. They were more skittish than last week and on at least three occasions a marauding Lesser Black-back sent the whole flock wheeling into the air.
A Common Tern was using a raised platform and probably incubating a second brood. I noticed a Cormorant starting to investigate, he climbed reptile-like onto the platform. The tern took to the air and for a long five minutes the tern swooped and dive bombed the Cormorant who took a retaliatory lunge at the tern each time and in the few seconds between each dive he investigated the nest area around his feet. At one stage he briefly grabbed hold of the tern by the wing. Given the effort and danger you’d assume that the tern was protecting eggs or chicks.
The Cormorant threw something out into the water, it may have been a dead chick but I couldn’t be sure. I kept looking look away but I couldn’t help looking back again. The Cormorant never quite had enough time, in between the tern dives, to do any further damage and after an excrutiating length of time he gave up and slipped off the platform allowing the tern to settle again.
A Little Ringed Plover appared briefly on the causeway and as high tide approached the number of terns increased further. I estimated around 85 Common Terns including 11 juveniles, 10 Sandwich Terns and on about my tenth scan of the terns I picked out what looked like an adult Roseate Tern.
It appeared slightly smaller than the Common Terns and the tail streamers were noticeably longer then the wings which showed a characteristic white inner edge and in most lights it showed a lovely rosy flush to the chest. The underparts were a pure white and the mantle was also paler than the Common Terns. The legs were a much brighter red and it was wearing a metal ring on its left leg. A little while later I found a second Roseate Tern, unringed this time.
The two main Roseate Tern colonies in Britain and Ireland are at Coquet Island in Northumberland (129 pairs) and Rockabill in Dublin (1500-2000 pairs). I contacted Tom Cadwallender from the Roseate Tern team on Coquet Island and the following is in my words but based on the facts from Tom.
The new metal rings were introduced in 2018 and have a 4-digit alphanumeric number. They are designed to be read in the field but not at the distance that the causeway is from the Meon Shore hide. They are used at Coquet and Rockabill. On Coquet Island the chicks are ringed (in the nest) on the left leg and the colony size is still manageable enough for the team to ring every single chick. At Rockabill Island near Dublin the chicks are ringed on the right leg but given the much larger colony the wardens aren’t able to ring them all. Chicks ringed in 2019 stay in Ghana for their first summer and so any ringed birds will be young from 2018.
With all of this information it is possible to say with some certainty that the ringed bird I saw was ringed as a chick on Coquet Island in 2018 and the other unringed adult is almost certainly from the Rockabill, Dublin population.
It is probably too early for these adults to have finished breeding as the first chicks only fledged on 10th July and so it is probable that they are either, as Tom put it, taking a break or it could be that their broods have been lost or predated already. It has been another good year on Coquet Island with the highest post 1970 total of 129 pairs, when Tom started working on the team in 1991 there were just 20 pairs.