Tom and I have just returned from a wonderful few days in the southern Hebridean isle of Islay. Islay abounds in fantastic birdlife (which you can read much more about in the essay by our good friend Gordon Yates in our Inspired by Islay book). On this visit, we encountered several of my favourite Islay birds (choughs, hen harriers) but it was also very sad to see numbers of guillemots who had fallen prey to the recent (and very concerning) outbreak of avian flu. Without a doubt, though, the birdy highlight of our trip was a close encounter with a couple of Arctic terns on the shores of Loch Indaal.
We started to be divebombed by a pair (who were protecting their nest) as we walked along the shore. We turned round pretty quickly so as not to disturb them . . .
. . . but during these few moments, Tom managed to shoot some great pictures of this gloriously elegant bird.
Arctic terns really are amazing in every way: breeding in the Arctic (and Scotland) during the summer, and spending their winters in the Antarctic, they have the longest migration of any bird, taking an annual round trip that ranges between 44,000 and 59,000 miles.
They are long-lived birds, surviving for up to 29 years.
There are several types of tern, and it can be difficult to distinguish between them. We knew this was an Arctic tern not only because we had to duck to avoid it (dive-bombing behaviour is characteristic) but from its long tail streamers (longer than a common tern), the blood-red bill (without a black spot at the tip) and the depth of transparency of the wings. What a truly spectacular bird!
As well as the current problems with avian flu, Arctic terns are badly threatened by the declining sandeel populations that are a consequence of climate change (and overfishing)
I remember really being prompted to think about the combined threats that Arctic terns (and other Scottish seabirds) face because of the brilliant Bird Yarns project spearheaded by the equally brilliant Deirdre Nelson. Deirdre and her team knitted flocks of terns that travelled all over Scotland, and eventually to the Arctic with the World Wildlife Fund. This was some years ago: such problems are only worsening.
We encountered our Islay terns on what turned out to be the UK’s hottest day on record. Definitely a moment for reflection . .
. . about beautiful and fragile avian lives. . . .
. . .the threats caused by wasteful and extractive human activities. . .
. . .and the hope that we can tern things around.