Way back in 2002, Colin and I made several trips down to Dawlish Warren where a large orange billed tern had been seen on and off. We went on the off days. It was presumed to be an Elegant Tern, and was later seen in Wales, but there seemed at the time to be a lot of confusion, since the photos of the Welsh bird looked rather different to some of those taken at Dawlish.
Adding to the problems were that Lesser Crested Tern can look very similar, both species have been known to hybridise, so identification of large orange/yellow billed terns has for a long time been a bit of a minefield. I believe that one or two Irish records have been accepted, but all of the British records are still work in progress.
On 7th June, a ringed bird was seen fishing off Hayling Island, and photos allowed the bird to be identified as one of three (bird C) ringed in a Sandwich Tern colony on the Banc d'Arguin in France in 2003, where it has been seen on a regular basis since then. It has also been seen in wintering in South Africa on one occasion. DNA samples were taken at the time, and proved conclusively that all three birds were pure Elegant Terns so this bird was the first British and Irish record which cannot be doubted.
Problem was it wasn't seen again over subsequent days , and checks of the accessible Sandwich Tern colonies came up negative as well, but luckily on the 10th it was pinned down to Pagham Harbour where it was seen to be paired with a Sandwich tern, and showed fairly well for those who could get there in the afternoon.
Despite having had a couple of bad days and nights I was up for the trip and Colin and I went down on Sunday morning, getting there around 10am. Didn't expect to park at Church Norton, and the RSPB car park was full too, but luckily the lay by down to road had been overlooked, so we pulled in and set off on the 1.5 mile walk along the sea wall, and reached the massive crowd in a reasonable time. I scanned the masses and found Phil Ball, having come down with Ian Kendall his usual chauffeur. Tony Hukin was with him, as was Darryl and I soon realised that most of Amwell was here too. They had missed the early sighting when the bird flew out to sea around 7.30am and was presumably out fishing somewhere.
Lots of gulls on the island, Black Heads of course also but around 100 Mediterranean Gulls-never seen so many in breeding plumage in one place before. Terns coming and going all the time, sometimes dropping down onto the closer mud for a rest. Red billed (Common), black billed (Sandwich) and yellow billed (Little) standing side by side was lovely to see, but nothing with an orange bill. Every now and again the birds would go up thanks to the Peregrines flying over but we had to wait over an hour in the building heat before rumours started to filter through the crowd that it was on the island somewhere.
Directions eventually arrived in our group but as usual with Chinese whispers there was a lot of confusion and contradiction but it eventually transpired that it was with a couple of Sandwich Terns at the back end of the island and obscured by vegetation. A couple of times I glimpsed a bird preening,flapping its wings and saw a yellowish bill so was reasonably sure I was on the bird. Luckily it flew on two occasions, if only for a few seconds each time, and most of us got very good scope views despite the range (300+ yards).
I noticed Barry and Bill move off with a few others and assumed that they were leaving but they stopped near the hide and set up their scopes. Some of us realised that views of the terns were likely to be better there and soon joined them. It only took a few moments of scanning with the scope to pick up the Elegant Tern, on the deck and despite the heat haze the views weer pretty good. My scope was commandeered for a while as the building crowd needed directions and it was simpler for them to have a quick peek than try to describe the location. I eventually got it back, and then decided to get some photos. I had the GX8 with me along with the 100-400 lens (for hoped for fly bys) but expecting distant views also had the 500mm F4 Nikkor, and stacked 1.4 and 2x converters so thats what I used. The results were awful thanks to the heat. Heres the best still.
Video was slightly more successful.
It was recorded in 4k but this had to be cropped severely to 520P. At least for a brief moment you get a clear view of the bill.
Unfortunately by midday I was starting to feel a bit rough again, and we decided to quit and headed back to the car. We did consider going for the Red Footed Falcon at Frensham, but thanks to the M3 junction closure traffic was a problem on all the main roads around the M25, so we took a slow but steady scenic route home instead.