Elegant Terns…are they really occurring in Europe?

An ‘orange-billed’ tern currently in Ireland shows characters of Elegant Tern and has again raised the spectre of doubt about whether these are pure vagrant Elegant Terns or….something else.  An assumed returning Elegant Tern was present in a tern colony in France in the 80s and was thought to be the perpetrator of confusing hybrids and coupled with the possibilities of offspring from  known Lessser-crested x Sandwich Terns in Europe, it has caused headaches for adjudication panels throughout Europe, given that Elegant Terns are a rare visitor to the eastern seabord of the US. The fact that the UK has had more claims of Elegant Terns than they should have for this west coast species only adds to the issue of whether such claims are hybrids, especially when these claims involve individuals that actually bear an uncanny resemblance to real Elegant Terns…

Pix of the current Irish bird are here:

https://twitter.com/KerryBirdNews/status/378629525350789120/photo/1

http://www.surfbirds.com/gallery/display.php?gallery=gallery9

I just returned from California where I saw several thousand Elegant Terns, and given the similar time of year thought I would post a few for comparison. I haven’t had time to go through these and do ant research to determine if my ageing is correct, but I am sure someone will correct me, but for now, hope these will be a reference for comparison.

Adult/2nd-w Elegant Tern, Monterey, CA, Sept 2013 (Julian Hough)

Adult/2nd-w Elegant Tern, Monterey, CA, Sept 2013 (Julian Hough)

Adult-w Elegant Tern, Monterey, CA, Sept 2013 (Julian Hough). Pure white tail feathers with outers relatively long.

Adult-w Elegant Tern, Monterey, CA, Sept 2013 (Julian Hough). Pure white tail feathers with outers relatively long.

Adult-w Elegant Tern, Monterey, CA, Sept 2013 (Julian Hough). Same bird as above..note long legs for a tern and note splotches of color visible at close range.

Adult-w Elegant Tern, Monterey, CA, Sept 2013 (Julian Hough). Same bird as above..note long legs for a tern and note splotches of color visible at close range.

First-s moulting to 2nd-w (?)  Elegant Tern, Monterey, CA, Sept 2013 (Julian Hough). Inner primaries replaced contrasting with worn outers and retains darker secondary bar.

First-s moulting to 2nd-w (?) Elegant Tern, Monterey, CA, Sept 2013 (Julian Hough). Inner primaries replaced contrasting with worn outers and retains darker secondary bar.

First-s moulting to 2nd-w (?)  Elegant Tern, Monterey, CA, Sept 2013 (Julian Hough). Note bill color and shape and shape of hood.

First-s moulting to 2nd-w (?) Elegant Tern, Monterey, CA, Sept 2013 (Julian Hough). Note bill color and shape and shape of hood.

First-s moulting to 2nd-w (?)  Elegant Tern, Monterey, CA, Sept 2013 (Julian Hough). Dark webs to tail feather hints at a bird moulting to 2nd-w plumage.

First-s moulting to 2nd-w (?) Elegant Tern, Monterey, CA, Sept 2013 (Julian Hough). Dark webs to tail feather hints at a bird moulting to 2nd-w plumage. Pale whitish tips to outer rects noticeable.

Juvenile/first-w Elegant Tern, Monterey, CA, Sept 2013 (Julian Hough). Dark, but fresh primaries, dark tertial centres age this bird. Note long legs and short bill that is assumed to be still growing. Bill color variable in many birds depending on age and sex.

Juvenile/first-w Elegant Tern, Monterey, CA, Sept 2013 (Julian Hough). Dark, but fresh primaries, dark tertial centres age this bird. Note long legs and short bill that is assumed to be still growing. Bill color variable in many birds depending on age and sex.

First-s moulting to Elegant Terns, Moss Landing, CA, Sept 2013 (Julian Hough).

Elegant Terns, Moss Landing, CA, Sept 2013 (Julian Hough).

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3 Responses to “Elegant Terns…are they really occurring in Europe?”

  1. Paul Moore Says:

    Hi Julian, you’ve made note of the long legs on these Elegants yet one of the early posts by someone else in the Birdforum thread on the Kerry Elegant says the legs on it are too long for an Elegant. I assume the legs should be long on an Elegant, (they certainly seem to be) or is this also some kind of bizarre variable feature?. BTW nice dark centred tertials on that juv/1st W Elegant, no suggestion of sandvicensis influence there then 🙂 . Regards Paul Moore Co Cork, Ireland

    • julianhough Says:

      Paul,

      Elegant’s always look to have slightly long-looking legs, but I don’t know if they could be described as “too long”. Bill shape, color and length are variable with some birds (females?) being more uniformly orangeish in color rather than reddish. A lot of the juvs were very short-billed looking. The very worn outer primaries of adults at this time of year give them a distinctly bi-colored look. Are there any good shots of the Kerry bird that show if there are any dark markings in the tail? The CA birds had very worn outer rects which gave them a peculiar short-tailed look in flight, exaggerated by the sometimes obvious long bills.

  2. Paul Moore Says:

    Hi Julian, link to pics here. Index down a bit on the left if it doesn’t come straight up http://murfswildlife.blogspot.ie/search/label/Elegant%20Tern
    all the best
    Paul

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