Sunday, 15 September 2013

Elegant Tern

I took a trip down the Shannon Estuary to north Kerry yesterday with Tony Mee to search for the 'Orange-billed' Tern found the previous day by Davey Farrar.  We eventually caught up with the bird when we got news from Davey that he and a group English birders had found it roosting at the edge of Bunnaclugga Bay, just east of Letter Strand.  We got partial views of it at the roost but were subsequently treated to some spectacular action from it as it fished in the bay, dodging the attentions of an Arctic Skua at one stage.

Initial observations indicated that the bird most closely resembled Elegant Tern, ruling out other 'Orange-billed' Tern types such as Royal Tern and Lesser Crested Tern.  However the identification is complicated by the possibility of it being one of the hybrids produced by a long staying Elegant Tern at a Sandwich Tern colony in France, which I understand may be visually indistinguishable from Elegant Tern.


Elegant Tern ©Tom Tarpey
As can be seen from the photos above and below the bird has a pure white rump and tail coverts, which would appear to rule out Lesser Crested Tern in this case. 

Elegant Tern ©Tom Tarpey
The bird's bill was quite long and noticeably down curved, with the gonydeal angle located nearer the base of the bill. The bill appeared to be orange in colour at the base, gradually fading slightly to a yellower tone near the tip.  These features are visible to some extent in the photos below and also in the excellent shots taken by Ian Jones (see Kerry Birding Blog).

Elegant Tern ©Tom Tarpey
The bird looked to be about the size of a Sandwich Tern.  See photos above and below.  
Elegant Tern with Sandwich Tern ©Tom Tarpey
The bird also showed one other interesting feature; the soles of its feet and part of its hind legs were orange in colour.  See photos below and third from top above. I couldn't determine for sure if this feature is diagnostic, though I did find some images of Elegant Terns with this feature. It appears that juvenile Elegant Terns initially have orange legs and feet and that the colour eventually changes to black over time. 

 There has been five previous accepted records of Elegant Tern in Ireland, the first being in Co. Down in 1982.  If accepted this will be the sixth record for Ireland and the second for Co. Kerry.

Elegant Tern ©Tom Tarpey

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