Forster’s Tern on the Stour estuary, Essex – 20th Nov

I have been wondering where new birds to see might come from this winter, and it more or less has to be something new to fire my imagination currently. Then, yesterday as if to illustrate that rarities will always turn up, an Atlantic storm named Angus blew in this thing of beauty.

On getting home late afternoon from a working Saturday, the day’s highlight on RBA was a vagrant north American Forster’s Tern 130 miles from Oxford. This is the first in Britain since 2003, though the species has been a regular winter visitor to Ireland in the 13-year interim. The usual wintering grounds for this marsh dwelling Tern are southern coasts of the USA and Mexico. I decided that if still present in the morning I would probably go for the lifer.

Upon beholding an image (see here) on Sunday morning my mind was made up. What a subtle, understated gem! A first-winter bird it is slightly larger than a Common Tern with a black bill, dull orange legs and most strikingly a black ear covert patch beneath a pale grey crown. It had been observed between 1 and 4pm from Mistley Quay (TM117321) on the Stour estuary, and reports all stated “showing well”.

I arrived in Mistley at just after 2pm to find a long line of parked cars to one side of the town’s landmark 18th century church towers. A man I parked next to advised me to walk past that monument to the quay where the FT had last been seen around 45 minutes previously. There was quite a concentration of birders there (pictured above), as I had expected for what was the day’s top English draw. This being a mega second ever for Essex, county listers were of course out in force. People told me the FT followed a routine of flying west along the estuary then back east, and everyone present expected it to come round again soon.

The quay edge was topped by a steel mesh fence that is a local bone of contention (see here). Having had my fill of such obstructions when observing the Easington Siberian Accentor last month, I walked past restricted access signs under apparent threat of prosecution to where a small group were also seeking a clearer view. Nobody stopped us. Amongst them was fellow Oxon birder Terry Sherlock. I usually expect to run into one or more of the county’s finest on these occasions, and learned that Andy had also been and gone earlier.

It was now a matter of waiting patiently for the Forster’s Tern to do another circuit. Time passed and on checking RBA Terry found the bird had not been reported from further east, while a “no further sign” had been posted from Mistley. It always irritates me when people see fit to do the latter because they cannot be bothered to stick things out. And as someone nearby commented: “At this time of year, when the Tern does come along we won’t have to work out which one it is!”

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Forster’s Tern from Mistley Quay

So we continued to watch and wait. A high tide roost of Black-tailed Godwit just offshore offered a pleasing diversion, while Turnstone, Shelduck and Goldeneye provided further interest out on the estuary. After around an hour on site myself the Forster’s Tern was called approaching from the east, then it proceeded to do what had been described earlier, circling the area before the quay and plunge diving for fish at intervals. The diagnostics from yesterday’s RBA gallery image are just about discernible in my own photo above. See here for a second quality picture from yesterday.

This fly past provided good views for all the assembled birders who then quickly dispersed back to the warmth of their vehicles. As I walked to my car more people were still arriving and also watching the estuary from points further west. This is my own 330th bird in Britain that has provided an attractive and satisfying first addition for my winter national season.

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Velvet Scoters at Willen Lake, Bucks – 12th Nov

On this damp and grey day of the new dark season the occurrence of some scarce wildfowl in a Milton Keynes public park offered a suitable diversion. Having risen late following successive evening shifts, my attention was caught on RBA by two Velvet Scoter just 40 miles or so from home in neighbouring Bucks. Such a bijou twitchette would fill the remaining hours of daylight nicely and so I jumped at the opportunity.

I have observed this sea duck twice previously, on the Solent near Titchfield Haven, Hants (Mar 2010) and at Oxford’s Farmoor Reservoir (Dec 2013). More than 20 were reported this morning around the south-east English coast in Norfolk, Suffolk, Kent and Sussex, with three more at two inland sites. Essentially marine in winter, these Baltic and tundra breeders are rare inland in Britain, usually turning up during freezing weather. The instructions on RBA said in the SW corner of Willen Lake, viewable from the perimeter path near the pub. What they didn’t make clear is there are two lakes here, a southern one (SP877397) being home to a water sports complex, while the northern one is more naturalised.

I reasoned that the Scoters would more likely be in the less disturbed location, but upon checking out the north lake first the information board showed the pub was by the south one. The busier option it was then but in my first scan around every black silhouette was a Coot. Then I noticed two birders further around the perimeter path and went to join them. They pointed out the area where they had last seen the two first winter male Velvet Scoter, but it was several minutes before we relocated them close to the structure pictured below left.

Mist was rising above the lake’s surface in steady drizzle and the light was deteriorating fast. As so often when meeting birders in the field I seemed to recognise these two but could not place from where. After my companions left, the two Scoters continued to drift right, diving all the while and getting closer and closer. These sooty brown ducks have a stocky, rather large-headed profile with a thick lower neck and long wedge-shaped bill. Their pale cheek patches always stood out but the white secondaries remained hidden. I was only going to capture little blurs in the conditions, but as always these images (below) show how the birds were seen.

In an hour or so on site this was the best of my three Velvet Scoter experiences to date, and the afternoon was duly filled with a satisfying encounter. After October’s five British list additions my national birding had gone rather flat, though as darkness set in some good early winter birds have swelled my Oxon year list: White-fronted Goose, Scaup, Whooper Swan and Hen Harrier. Most recently Pink-footed Goose was a county list addition and I have now bettered 2015’s total. If there were new national or county birds to go and see every day I would never lack for motivation, but life and birding unfortunately ain’t like that!

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Misty Velvet Scoter (bottom right). The other one has dived to its left