On the morning of Saturday 4 February, local birder Andy Marquis discovered that Storm Doris had brought 2 Glaucous Gulls and an Iceland Gull to our local landfill at Chouet. I arrived mid-morning and joined Tony Loaring to search for the birds. The two Glaucous gave themselves up pretty quickly but the Iceland remained elusive. By lunchtime the landfill site had closed, the gull flocks had dispersed and I headed home.
The next morning, I was feeling a little under the weather so, skipping church, I opted instead for a lazy search for the Iceland Gull. Having checked the usual spots, I headed for the north-east tip of the island. One of the Glaucous Gulls had moved to Omptolle, a small island in Miellette Bay, the day before so perhaps the Iceland Gull had found its way there too.
Pulling into the car park at about 12:40, I spotted a tern fairly close in but heading out of the bay. It had to be a Sandwich but I lifted the bins anyway. 'Narrow wings, black cap, black wingtips — wow, they really are black — orange bill ... ORANGE BILL!!'
The bird was heading around the headland so I jumped back in the car and drove through the narrow lanes to the next viewpoint — but no bird. There was surely no way it could have come past already? With excitement now turning to dread, I decided to return to Miellette.
I was relieved to find the bird was still there — and what a bird. It was stunning and it was close. In a daze, I reached for my phone, binoculars, camera and Collins Bird Guide all at once. Even 30 years of birding doesn't prepare you for moments like this. I took a number of record shots first and then typed out a group text message to the local birders. Not knowing which species I was dealing with didn't really matter. I selected my preferred choice from the drop-down list and sent out the message as 'Miellette — Royal Tern — unidentified orange-billed tern in bay, 12:50'.
By the time people started arriving, the bird had disappeared. There was some frantic searching along the coast in both directions until, 20 minutes later, it reappeared in the bay. It was a magical moment. By Guernsey standards, this was a big twitch — nearly double figures(!) — and we were able simply to enjoy the experience, knowing that the photographers present were capturing some fantastic images. It was a first-winter bird and, based on its large size and strong bill, was surely a Royal.
It disappeared and reappeared once more and then left the bay again. By now, many birders had seen it but a few key individuals were yet to connect. As the afternoon drew on, I relocated to nearby Petils Bay where I hoped I could intercept the bird as it headed round to Miellette. After an hour, it passed by heading north in the low winter sun so I called ahead to Wayne Turner in the assembled group. By all accounts, I should have been able to hear the loud cheer from where I was.
Perhaps surprisingly, and to the relief of those who had missed out the previous day, the bird was re-found on Guernsey's west coast on Monday morning. Then, after a blank day, it was relocated on Guernsey's east coast today (Wednesday) where we also discovered it was ringed on the right leg. Birds are ringed at several colonies on the Eastern Seaboard of the US yet, according to the BTO, African Royal Terns are also ringed in The Gambia and Senegal. The bird has a preference for sheltered bays and, armed with that knowledge, we'll be out looking for it in the hope of reading the ring (or collecting a feather/faecal sample) in the coming days.
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