Sterna caspia
Water & Lowestoft 2001

by Andrew Easton

ON THE AFTERNOON OF June 16, 2001 the pager services reported a Caspian Tern was currently roosting at Buckenham Marshes RSPB reserve, Norfolk having flown over Strumpshaw Fen earlier in the day. This species is not an infrequent visitor to this area of Norfolk with Hickling Broad and Breydon Water often favoured.

We suspected it would probably roost on Breydon Water but as it was a rather quiet day Robert Holmes, Robert Wilton and myself decided to head the short distance to Buckenham rather than wait at Breydon to see if it would grace the estuary with its presence. A bonus bird enroute was a Little Owl Athene noctua perched on a give way road sign near Beighton. Phoning to check for more recent news on the tern we found it had moved along the Yare Valley to the Cantley Sugar Beet Factory lagoons, quite covenient as we were practically in Cantley at the time.

Access to Cantley BF is normally restricted to permit holders only, but when a rarity turns up general access is usually allowed with the money raised going to local charities. We arrived at the lagoons to find a small group of birders who told us that the bird had again flown, this time back towards the Buckenham/Strumpshaw area, but that it was still on view albeit distantly at great height. Scanning with binoculars produced a small dot circling against an impressive backdrop of a gathering thunderstorm. Switching to 'scopes we were treated to the sight of it soaring with wings fully outstretched, the short tail fully spread and the huge bill obvious, even at this distance. In this silhouetted view it looked more like a Pterodactyl than a bird! Shortly afterwards it dropped rapidly towards the ground.

We then perused the waders and ducks on the lagoons for a while but with the deep purple clouds looking increasingly threatening we wandered back to the car. As the bird had obviously headed towards the Buckenham area we decided to go there rather than Breydon. John Harris who was already at Cantley when we arrived decided to wait a bit longer and said he would give us a call if it came back. RW found he had a missed call on his mobile just as we exited the security gate he phoned back and was told that the tern had just arrived back on the lagoons, Doh!!! Once again we arrived at the lagoons just in time to see it disappearing, this time over the fields to the north east of Cantley.

We phoned James Brown to let him know that it had left Cantley and was heading in the general direction of Breydon Water. We headed for the high tide roost outside the first hide at Breydon and could see JB standing on the south bank looking across towards us, he then phoned us to say the Caspian Tern was roosting in front of us with the gulls. Despite gloomy light conditions Tim Brown managed to get some video footage of the bird and a couple of grabs from this are reproduced below.

Caspian TernIt spent much of its time here asleep, but the rising tide did force it to take to the wing a few times to move to shallower water much to the delight of its admirers. Personally speaking the distant view of it soaring against the thunderclouds at Cantley was the highlight.

The following day, the 17th, it roosted on the Burgh Castle mudflats in the Lounge Lizard area before flying off west towards Cantley at around 11:30. It was back on Breydon by mid-afternoon before flying off high to the east at 16:45.

Capian Tern with Black-headed GullsThe picture to the right gives a good idea of the birds bulk in comparison to the Black-headed Gulls L. ridibundus, that flanked it. In July 2001 there were two fly-by reports. The first concerned a northbound bird at Ness Point on the morning of the 20th (followed by further sightings along the Norfolk coast the same day). The second flew south on the 26th at 16:10 during the first day of the Lowestoft Seafront Air Festival. Unfortunately, it eluded some of the Lounge Lizards, including myself, who were watching the Blue Eagles helicopter display team at the time. We did see Mediterranean Gull Larus melanocephalus, though would much rather have seen the Caspian Tern!

The only previous record for Lowestoft also came from Ness Point, and was of a single bird flying north on April 29th, 1988. We eagerly look forward to the next one!.