Lundy Warden Dean Jones had one of those miraculous birding moments where finding one rare bird led immediately to the discovery of an even rarer bird, in this instance a Bridled Tern! Here's his write-up of an amazing experience.
Whilst saying goodbye to MS Oldenburg and a small number of visitors who were treated to another day on the island due to Storm Francis, I noticed a small flock of rafting Kittiwake offshore along the east side from the Jetty. Then, just before the ship left Lundy’s waters, three Arctic Skuas whipped in together from the north coaxing all the Kittiwakes into the air. Whilst watching the superb aerial displays of two of these birds as they chased Kittiwakes for their crop contents, I noticed a much smaller gull in the midst of the flock. Unfortunately though I couldn’t quite make out the bird's features through my binoculars, so post-shift I made a bee-line to the Ugly with my scope.
Luckily the presence of the Arctic Skuas did not encourage the gull flock to move away from the island, but rather shifted them slightly north of the Landing Bay where they settled again, around 200m out.
Sifting through the flock, I managed to easily pick out the small gull that I had seen from the Jetty – a bird which was seemingly defending a small patch of floating algae from a number of adjacent first-year Kittiwakes. After a minute of trying to pick out all the features of this bird, I was distracted by a brown tern with a dark head immediately next to the gull (which turned out to be an adult Sabine’s Gull!). It was seemingly sat on the water (very rare for terns to do this, which really threw me initially) or at least perched upon another submerged raft of weed.
As soon as I managed to focus in on this bird I knew I was looking at something unusual and quickly began sketching out its features. After 30 seconds or so of watching the bird on the surface – noting its size (slightly smaller than the Sabine’s Gull), brown-grey back and upper-wing feathers edged light brown/buff, giving the bird a scaly appearance, dark hood reaching from the top of the nape to behind the bird's white forehead, and its very long, dark brown-grey primaries – the bird took to the air and flew SE in a steady, purposeful but elegant manner.
In flight the bird sported very long and sharply pointed wings, which gave it a small-headed and bodied look. The bird’s mantle and upper wing again showed a uniform brown-grey with lighter, buff-brown edging to some of the feathers, with no contrast between the mantle and upper-wing coverts. One noticeable feature as the bird flew away was its dark secondary feathers compared to the rest of the upper wing, giving a subtle impression of an inner wing bar. Primaries were only slightly darker than the rest of the wing, but not overly contrasting. The bird’s rump too was a brown-grey, like that of its back and upper wing, again with no obvious contrast, and led to a clearly forked tail (I didn’t note any pale edges to the outer tail feathers). The bird’s nape was an off-grey, giving it a collared appearance. This then led to a dark brown-grey hood (slightly darker than the rest of the bird) which extended to a white forehead. The bill was uniform black. Unfortunately I didn’t manage to get good views of the underwing as it was flying away from me, but I could still make out all-white underparts.
As I’ve never seen Bridled Tern before, I quickly returned home to consult various ID guides and online articles – but only after enjoying the Sabine’s Gull for a short while longer. Comparing my notes to relevant sources, the white underparts, throat and face ruled out the possibility of juvenile Sooty Tern, while the noticeably forked tailed, uniform brown-grey upperparts, size, jizz and flight ruled out any possible marsh tern species.
If accepted, this will be the second record of Bridled Tern for Lundy (and Devon) following the discovery of the remains of a second-calendar year bird found on the island in 1977.