Rarity finders: Sooty Tern in Northumberland


On 7 July, after taking an evening nap to recover from the previous night's storm petrel ringing session, I decided to go for a wander around Brownsman island to wake myself up. As one of the team on the Farne Islands, Brownsman has been my home since the beginning of the seabird season. At this time of the year it is home to breeding Puffins, Guillemots, Razorbills, European Shags, Kittiwakes, Northern Fulmars and Arctic Terns. Walking around the island, there is always plenty to see.

As I neared the stony beach at the north end of the island, the roosting Arctic Terns flew up from the rocks, presumably spooked by something. Amongst the shimmer of white wings I saw a dark tern, not something that surprised me: we'd had a couple of Black Terns in the roost for the past couple of nights. However, as I put my binoculars up for a closer look, it looked too big, too dark and, with a change of direction, I saw a white flash on the forehead. I only had a couple of seconds to see this before it flew in front of the sun and I lost it among the other terns. 

Remembering that one had visited the islands a few years ago, my immediate thought was that I had just seen a Bridled Tern. However, I couldn't quite believe it was possible and wanted another look. I scanned the roost for a little while but couldn't see the bird again, so decided to head up to the perfect vantage point: the roof of the basement remains of the old lighthouse, which is now my bedroom.

Scanning through the Arctic Tern roosts with a scope, I quickly came across a Black Tern. I started to doubt what I had seen; maybe the light had made it look different or I was imagining things! One more scan, I decided. This time, there it was, standing on the rocks, surrounded by Arctic Terns. I shouted down to the other rangers and the place exploded with excitement!

Sooty Tern, Farne Islands, Northumberland (Duncan Halpin).

Knowing how similar Bridled and Sooty Terns are, we took a quick look at the Collins Bird Guide and soon confirmed it was in fact a Sooty Tern. Given how rare it is in Britain, and being the second record for the islands after the first in 1966, we were over the moon. This is also a bird that I have observed in the Seychelles, so seeing it here on an island in the North Sea was quite bizarre. We spent the rest of the beautiful sunny evening watching it from the roof as it stood among the Arctic Terns, occasionally flying a lap around the island, regularly giving its distinctive, squeaky call.

The next morning, the bird could not be found anywhere. Despite the efforts of us, as well as those of several people who took trips around the island during the day and an evening boat laid on in the hope the bird would roost again, in transpired that only the four of us, on one memorable July evening, got to see this stunning bird.

Sooty Tern, Farne Islands, Northumberland (Chris Cachia-Zammit).

Written by: Freya Blockley