Aleutian Tern – undisputed high-light of this 2019/2020 Australia trip
For the final birding excursion of our current Australia trip we decided to head back to the tern roost near Old Bar, two hours north of Newcastle. Missing the Roseate Tern on our previous visit was disappointing – it would have provided a good Hunter ‘tick’ – although I have seen them in Australia before. But the really crushing blow was to miss-out on seeing the small group of wintering Aleutian Tern – only discovered here in 2017. These highly pelagic birds, more closely related to Bridled & Sooty Tern than to the nearest confusable species Common Tern (Australian race), breed in colonies on coasts and islands in Alaska and easternmost Siberian, including the Aleutian Islands. They are long-distant migrants, wintering in Australasia and Oceania. Incredibly one wandering bird was seen on the Farne Islands in 1979 – the only Western Palearctic record.
It was 37 degrees as we headed up the beach towards the roost. The tide was low and there were perhaps a hundred mixed terns on the sand-bar when we arrived. The only other observer had been there for a couple of hours but seen nothing of particular interest. Soon after we’d started scanning we picked up an unusual looking bird bathing and preening. It seemed to have some of the characteristics we were looking for but it wasn’t ‘a classic’ and it soon departed – we let it go. After another hour a bird flew in to join the couple of Common Tern that were already present – this bird looked very promising. A careful check of the id features (white of the fore-head reaching behind the eye, brownish cap, dark trailing edge to the inner under-wing, dagger-like bill profile, pale fringes to the tertials, etc) confirmed that it was indeed an Aleutian Tern! Photos of the original bird seem to confirm its identity as well. Numbers at this site have dropped significantly this year (down from nearly twenty in 2018/19), so I count myself doubly fortune to have seen them at all – who knows how long these ocean wanderers will continue to vacation along this stretch of the NSW coast?
Another shot showing crucial under-wing pattern
Postscript: In order to obtain these photos I had to wade across the inlet which separated me from the birds, in the process of doing so I forgot my iPhone was in my shorts pocket. Oddly enough it didn’t work too well after that. You can’t put a price on a good tern photo!