The Arc­tic Tern – a timeless nav­i­ga­tor of stamina and en­durance

Bird Watching (UK) - - The Directory -

EARLY MORN­ING SUN­SHINE danced on silky wa­ters in the Sound of Taransay. Tiny waves rip­pled over the shal­lows. Clouds hung mo­tion­less in a blue sky, re­flected in sea-shades of turquoise and aqua­ma­rine. The serene stretch of sand, rated one of the 10 most beau­ti­ful in the world, was de­serted as a light breeze waved mar­ram grasses on the dunes be­hind the beach. Great North­ern Divers drifted far out in the bay, so far it was im­pos­si­ble to imag­ine that this beau­ti­ful black-and-white bird is the same length as a Golden Ea­gle, and heav­ier. Scoter, Eider and so-el­e­gant Red-throated Divers were feed­ing leisurely in the balmy seas of Lusken­tyre, on the west coast of Harris, world-fa­mous for its tweed, whose dye-colours re­flect lo­cal plants and min­er­als of the hills and moors. One of a chain of is­lands of the Outer He­brides or Innis Fada, ‘Long Is­land’, grand­est and most lonely of Scot­land’s out­ly­ing isles, land of sea caves, of lash­ing At­lantic break­ers and rugged hills. The He­brides ar­chi­pel­ago of two hun­dred is­lands (only 15 are in­hab­ited) used to be, in its pre­his­toric mythol­ogy, one long is­land. A Vik­ing leg­end tells how they wanted to take it back with them to the Norse King­doms: they flung a chain around the top isle to pull it back up through the sea to the north, but the land broke up into lit­tle pieces, where they re­main. Over mil­len­nia, sink­ing back into the seas from which they once erupted, the mist-laden is­lands lie alone but for the sound of the sea and the cry of the seabirds. “The lan­guage of birds is very an­cient,’ wrote or­nithol­o­gist Gil­bert White, ‘lit­tle is said, but much is meant and un­der­stood.” Waves sweep milk-white over gran­ite rocks as they have done since pre­his­tory, grey winds scour hills and moors of a now all-but-tree­less ter­rain. Too de­mand­ing for hu­mankind to make it home, these windswept is­lands have be­come the ter­ri­tory of seabirds and waders, a land­ing plat­form for mi­grat­ing birds, and a safe nest­ing place for those who spend sum­mers in the frozen north. Arc­tic Terns were rac­ing over the blue-green wa­ters of the bay, elfin, div­ing like ar­rows into the gen­tle waves, plung­ing for fish. A pair were wind-danc­ing, skip­ping and flick­ing over flat ex­panses of sand and sea – all bright white rump, streak of pale grey wing and flash of red leg. A heart mus­cle en­closed in a wing mus­cle, seem­ingly frag­ile, bird of the wa­ters. Sleek­headed with sharp scar­let bill as long as its head, black-hooded and white-cheeked, Sterna par­adis­aea of

On av­er­age, a sin­gle Arc­tic Tern will fly 1.5 mil­lion miles in its life­time. There is no com­pa­ra­ble mi­gra­tion, or any­thing close to it, in the an­i­mal king­dom

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