May 23rd   Leave a comment

The gannets won’t have been complaining today – a gale blowing up the Forth in complete contrast to the flat calm a couple of days ago. It was one of those days when it takes seconds to get to Fife Ness but hours to get back. The puffins must feel the same, except they have to bring their fishy loads back against the wind, making it even harder. It was hard to see anything unless you could get some shelter – like the swallows at Kilminning flying between the trees where the air was almost still. I sat in the lee of the dunes at the north end of Balcomie Beach and looked at the terns. There was a flock of at least 120 roosting on the rocks at high tide. 100 arctic terns, 20 common and a couple of sandwich terns. I watched a very dark billed common tern for a while trying to make it a roseate tern to complete the set but the dark roseate-like bill – left over from the winter – was all it had. The common and the arctic terns were nicely mixed together so it was a good identification practice all round. The bill colour difference is obvious for most birds, but as my hopeful roseate showed it is not absolute. Anyway, common terns have red bills with a distinct dark tip, and arctic terns have a darker, more blood red bill which only occasionally darkens towards the tip, and not as a distinctly darker end. The shape of the bill is a more absolute feature – longer, thinner and more decurved for common. Another feature I could see well today was the leg length. Arctic terns have shorter legs than common terns so they always look like they could only really manage a shuffle if they ever had to walk anywhere (and why would you if you could fly like an arctic tern). I sat for half an hour as the tide came in and bumped the terns from rock to rock. They ended up twenty meters away and closer still when something disturbed them and they flew in a shrieking, swirling mass to circle round before landing on the rocks again a little bit closer each time. It was a proper wildlife experience – a load of terns letting me sit with them for a while in a little piece of sheltered shore. It made the laboured cycle back worthwhile.

Common tern on the left and arctic on the right in the photo above and below. You can see the difference in bill colour and structure and leg length well in these two photos
Arctic tern. Look at those ridiculously short legs – barely big enough to put a ring on.

Posted May 23, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

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