Monday 29 July 2013

Return from Egypt - Saunder's Tern breeding on Sinai

I've just got back from a quick trip to Egypt, my fifth trip there. The reason for going in late July this year all started last winter when one of the Egyptian birders, Mohamed Habib, photographed some 'Little Terns' in southwest Sinai. The photographs were circulated courtesy of Fred Jiguet, and although just on the deck, there was enough to suggest that these were no ordinary Little Terns but Saunder's Terns - they showed a nice rectangular facial pattern with the eye within the mask, subdued legs and perhaps fairly extensive dark in the primaries and obvious darkish bill tips. I was pretty stunned when I saw these shots a few months back, as from a WP perspective, no Saunder's Tern records that I'd heard about would really stand up to modern scrutiny.

Mohamed had seen eight birds in July 2012, so roll on to 25th July 2013 and a group of nine of us arrived at the site with Mohamed. After getting onto the sand bar, we were immediately greeted by rather squawky calls, very distinct from the Little Tern calls I'd heard on the beach at Rye a couple of weeks back. In fact, it was obvious that the birds we had just found were on territory. Within minutes, after taking many shots and sound recordings, every single feature of these birds was in line with what you would expect for Saunder's Tern.
Saunder's Tern, adult, Egypt July 2013 - note the squared off forehead patch with the eye solidly behind it, the extensively dark-tipped bill, three black outer primaries with obvious black primary shafts on the underwing
Saunder's Tern, adult, Egypt July 2013 - this photo shows the concolourous mantle, rump and tail nicely. Also note the active primary moult
Saunder's Tern, adult, Egypt July 2013 - leg colour more subdued that Little Tern, this bird being at the brighter end of the spectrum (ranging from olive to dull orange); again note the rectangular forehead patch and the position of the eye within the black, as well as the contrast at rest of the black outer primaries and extensively dark-tipped bill
Saunder's Tern, adult, Egypt July 2013 - showing the concolourous mantle, rump and tail despite the harsh light conditions
Saunder's Tern, adult, Egypt July 2013 - again note the shape of square shape of the forehead patch (compared to Little Tern which tapers off behind the eye), dark-tipped bill and dark under primaries
We walked along the sand bar, and found at least 20-25 pairs (c.50 birds) along with a single chick and two fledged juveniles. Juvenile Saunder's Terns are poorly documented, so hope this bird provides interest - seems to show darker primary-coverts and have much darker primaries than Little Tern but more research and study of individuals obviously needed. Probably safer to call this bird a first-winter given that it seems to have already moulted through some 2nd generation scapulars.

Saunder's Tern, juvenile/1st-winter, Egypt July 2013
So do you have to time your visit for July? Well, obviously not. With two fully fledged, flying juveniles seen it would suggest these birds were probably born in late May/early June. If you read here, it seems that Saunder's Terns may, just like Little Terns, be staggered breeders as we saw one chick that was not at flying stage so had evidently hatched in the last 3 or so weeks. Being on the southwest coast of Sinai, there is a military presence so it's advisable to get in touch with Mohamed before you go as access needs to be granted.

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