Home » Goater’s Blog: One good Tern deserves another.

Goater’s Blog: One good Tern deserves another.

Photo copyright Frankzed

Caspian tern Hydroprogne caspia


The 6th July saw the 17th record of Caspian Tern at Minsmere, that well-known RSPB reserve on the Suffolk coast. A weekly round-up of interesting bird sightings in the UK, available from Rare Bird Alert to subscribers, showed that the previous 16 records spanned the years between 1961 and 1996, but with no records at all from the 1970s.

But, as a mad keen teenage birder, I and a couple of mates, saw one there on 2nd August 1973!  Given the absence of accepted records for the 70s, I dug out my old bird notes and submitted the details to the Suffolk county bird recorder, who has passed them on to the British Birds Rarities Committee (BBRC).

BBRC appears to be receiving a number of submissions of old records to consider, as shown by the BBRC Secretary’s correspondence in relation to my report:

“There seems to be a new competition ‘oldest submission with field notes’. I had a 1980 Killdeer from Scilly a few months ago – that will be in the forthcoming report. You smashed that. And there’s an Eastern Black redstart from 1981 where the old slide photo has just come 2nd in the Carl Zeiss photo award! And to cap them all a BBC recording from 1961 of a Great Reed will be in the report!”

I have pretended not to be bothered whether my bird is accepted or not, letting it be known that I merely send it in to make the history of Caspian Tern sightings at Minsmere as complete as possible.  However, deep down I’m pretty desperate for the Committee to view my sighting positively.  This is particularly because during the 1970s Minsmere’s famous but cantankerous warden, Bert Axell, nurtured a particular dislike of young birders such as myself, calling us “the froth around the edges” of the world of ornithology and conservation.  When we excitedly told him that we had been watching a Caspian Tern amongst the Sandwich Terns on the reserve, he told us to go away and not to be silly.  Because of his discouraging attitude, I couldn’t bring myself to join the RSPB for 30 years!

Anyway, I await the Committee’s decision with crossed fingers.

For a keen birder, finding one’s own rare birds is a major goal.  There’s nothing more exciting than watching a bird that has that suite of characteristics which define its identity, ruling out similar but commoner species, and which you have pored over in the books for years.  So when that Caspian Tern, roosting on the Minsmere island with its head turned back on its shoulders, suddenly revealed its enormous red bill as it woke up and faced forward, we teenagers knew exactly what we were looking at and our day was made.

Adult Gull-billed Tern in Flight

Amazingly, I had a similar experience on the Outer Hebrides while working there a couple of weeks ago, on the Machair Life Project.  As I scanned a loch on South Uist for interesting birds, a lone adult Gull-billed Tern flew in and foraged, and roosted for short periods before disappearing high to the south. Now, this is a bird a bit like the much commoner Sandwich Tern, but it is greyer and chunkier, with a shorter forked tail, grey not white, a stubby all black bill with no yellow on its tip, longer black legs, and a black cap with no hint of shagginess.  Lots of lovely, moderately subtle differences – and there it was, performing for a highly appreciative audience of one!  This was the fourth for the Hebrides and the first there since 2003, and my first in the UK.  It may seem a crazy comparison, but our Olympians  describing the effect of winning a medal is not very different from my sense of elation and initial disbelief.  I too, had been working for years towards this goal.  I’ve decided not to wait 39 years before sending this record to BBRC!