First sooty tern spotted in Argyll

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A seabird species that was first spotted in Scotland in 1939 and not again until 1989 has flown over Argyll.

For Machrihanish Seabird Observatory warden Eddie Maguire it was just another ‘mind-numbing morning’ on Friday June 2 when at 11.04am a black and white seabird appeared about 150 metres to the north.

Eddie Maguire with his trusty camera. 25_c26MBS002

Mr Maguire said: ‘It was some 20m or so above the sea and approaching the Point about 100m from the observatory.

‘From its very direct flight, my initial impression was that it was a pale morph skua. When I looked at it more closely it was obviously a black and white tern that suspiciously, had an alarming, for me, ‘non-European’ look about it.

‘This was an extremely neat looking bird with very dark/black upperparts including a complete black cap engulfing the eye.

‘It had a clean-white forehead with narrow black loral stripes extending from the black cap to the gape, clean-white underparts, a longish thin tail and a very precise undeviating flight with steady wingbeats, very skua-like.

‘I grabbed the camera and rattled off a dozen or so shots.

‘As the tern vanished to the south I looked at the images on the camera screen and was stunned when I realised, incredibly, that I had photographed a fly-by vagrant sooty tern Onychoprion fuscata on my patch.’

The sooty tern is an equatorial bird but there is an Atlantic species which is found in the Caribbean.

Jim Dickson, the Argyll recorder for rare birds for the Scottish Ornithologist’s Club, based near Lochgilphead, was told of the aerial visitor.

Mr Dickson described the appearance of this species in Argyll as: ‘Quite an astonishing record for the west of Scotland and an excellent UK record.’

If accepted by the British Birds Rarities Committee this will be a new species for Argyll and only the third Scottish occurrence.

Scotland’s first was found dead at Myatt Hill, near Denny, in late May 1939, and is now at the National Museums of Scotland.

The only other record was a one-day bird on  July 14 1989, on the Isle of May, Fife.

The most recently accepted British record was an adult bird found at Rhosneigr, Anglesey, on July 5 2005.

The Machrihanish Seabird Observatory (MSBO) was established on Uisaed Point, pronounced ‘Ousitch,’ in September 1993 and is open daily from March to November; visitors are welcome and can obtain assistance with identification, information about recent sightings and details of more long-term studies.

Machrihanish Seabird Observatory. 25_c26MBSO01

The Point is a classic, and at times an awe-inspiring promontory to witness migration and inshore movements of scarce and rare seabirds.

Particularly in the autumn when strong to gale-force onshore winds accompanied by poor visibility and/or squalls, especially hailstones, can displace birds from the Atlantic inshore to western Scotland.

Mr Maguire added: ‘On September 15 1992, a remarkable movement of Leach’s Petrels occurred during a north-west gale; observers, including myself, logged a celebrated total of 466 birds passing south in 5hrs – still a Scottish record.

‘However, no one could have forecast that the rarest seabird to visit MSBO would do so on a truly, almost calm, sunny day.’