In all other respects it was a perfect Sunday afternoon twitch. Just a thirty minute drive east under fluffy clouds swimming in a summer blue sky. Just a short stroll from the car park to reservoir. Just a gentle flick of the binoculars to my eyes for an effortless connection with the target bird. It was a White-winged Black Tern: first found yesterday at Minsmere RSPB, and rediscovered this morning thirty odd miles (as the car drives, not as the tern flies!) southwest at Alton Water. Not a lifer, not even a county tick for dad or myself, but Sunday afternoons are not made for excitement, just gentle post-roast entertainment. And this marsh terns is entertaining: as elegant as a demoiselle damselfly, on languid wingbeats it corkscrews through the air and flings itself into the shallow water, emerging wet with a sliver of a fish between its mandibles. Other terns are adverts for grey: this one is an ambassador for crisp white and velvet black. Closer inspection reveals it is moulting out of its summer plumage: a winter white forehead interrupts the smoothness of its all black body. Daily its black will be fragmented by more and more white until it looks like a typical tern, but right now, it’s certainly quite something.
It was perfect actually. All too perfect. I’ve rubbed up against just enough life to be a certified pessimist, but when things go well we tend to forget that a kick in the face is just around the corner. In the scheme of things you can file this under the petty worry of the petit bourgeoisie, but it stills smarts as all bad luck does. The tern was doing laps of this corner of the reservoir and it was heading back around for another exceedingly close flypast. I slipped the lens cap off, flicked the camera on, focused on the bird, pressed the shutter and… nothing. I panned with the bird as it flew past, still pressing the shutter for no end result. CHR fault flashed up in the corner. Cue lip chewing, fiddling with batteries, memory cards, settings and menus, and all the while keeping an eye on the tern. I couldn’t find a fix whilst the bird still kept flying past, at times down to ten foot from the bankside. It was when it flopped into the water and stuck its wings up, showing off those unique, diagnostic black underwing coverts, did I give up. That would’ve been a truly special photograph and I was resisting the urge to boot my camera in after it.
The birding impulse is strong in me, stronger to stand and watch than to stand and pan and shoot and store in digital files until the next hard drive lets me down. So I watched it. And then I watched a storm roll in from the north over the reservoir: lead grey clouds boiling, smothering out the sky, rain falling in curtains over the middle of the reservoir and lightening crawling from cloud to cloud instead of shooting down. As it cleared up again the tern reappeared, having decamped with the rest of the birds to avoid the weather. Black on white on grey, with white-capped waves now rolling into the reservoir’s dam. This time, the temperature had plummeted from earlier: the wind had got up and summer clothes no longer seemed like a good idea: time to leave.