The pirogue roared out of Tanji through the surf, the waves breaking over the bow and soaking the two boatmen and us three birders. Half an hour later we were standing on a small, exposed sandbank two kilometres out to sea, waiting for the tide to drop. The gulls and terns disturbed by our arrival were rafting in a big, mixed flock offshore and gathering on the other island, 500 metres to the north. As the tide dropped, the two islands became joined by a sandbank and we were able to do our work – I was counting everything, Clive was reading ring numbers and Dave was taking photos.
As we waited on the northern island, small groups of Sanderlings, Whimbrels, Grey and Ringed Plovers were joined by Turnstones, a few Bar-tailed Godwits and Kentish Plovers, and a single Oystercatcher resting on the tideline. An Osprey, perched on the sandbank with a large fish, was having trouble resisting the attentions of a Reef Heron, small and agile by comparison, which was swooping and lunging repeatedly in its efforts to get the fish.
The gulls and terns settled and became easier to count. There were thousands of Lesser Black-backed Gulls, Royal and Caspian Terns, and among the 250 or so Audouin’s Gulls were ten bearing Spanish and Portuguese colour rings. Mixed flocks of terns included the largest species in the world – Caspian Tern – dwarfing the smallest, the tiny and delicate looking Little Tern. Twenty-five Caspians were on eggs on the northern island and we shortened our visit there to minimise disturbance.
These islands felt like a tropical idyll with the blazing sun, the shimmering sea and the wheeling flocks of birds, but they are under threat from increasing coastal erosion that has already destroyed the vegetation which once gave stability and resistance to the action of the sea. They provide an undisturbed wintering area for one of the world’s largest concentrations of Audouin’s Gulls, and resting and breeding sites for significant concentrations of terns of at least six species. It will be a tragedy if they are lost to the increasing force of the sea.