Star ‘tern’ – Cumbrian seabird spotted in South Africa

Annabel Rushton

Thursday 7 March 2019

A rare species of important seabird – a Sandwich tern, hatched in Cumbria last year, has been photographed recently in South Africa. The sighting has delighted staff and volunteers from the RSPB, Natural England and Cumbria Wildlife Trust, who work in partnership with support from a team at Lancaster University, to conserve these special birds in the county.


The individual tern in question was ringed at the RSPB Hodbarrow nature reserve in Millom last year as part of a study into their movements. Several young terns at Hodbarrow and Cumbria Wildlife Trust’s Foulney Island Nature Reserve were ringed last breeding season with coded, coloured rings. This is a scientific method whereby birds are fitted with light-weight, coloured, individual identification rings on their legs that can be read from a distance, to help monitor their movements without the need to re-catch them. These birds spend the winter in Africa, returning to Europe to breed, so the rings provide important information about where they go.


Bart Donato, Lead Advisor for Natural England in Cumbria, who ringed some of the tern chicks said: “When I opened an email to find out that one of our Sandwich terns, ring number C66, was in South Africa, 45km East of Cape Town, I was blown away. It is a stretch of coast more often associated with right whales, great white sharks and penguins! This bird was ringed right here in Cumbria on 28 June 2018 - it amazes me that the vulnerable little chicks we see at Hodbarrow go on to make these incredible journeys.


“Colour ringing has the advantage over conventional ringing in that you don’t need to recapture the birds or find them dead to learn about their lives - all you need is a pair of binoculars and a pen and paper or a camera to record the ring. When we started this project two years ago we knew nothing about where the terns went once they left the colony. Now thanks to previous reports from North Wales and now South Africa we are starting to build an understanding of their lives.”


Staff and volunteers from the partnership are now encouraging the public to keep an eye out for ringed terns returning to the UK in March and April and report any sightings. This year the first of the young-adult terns should return to this country from their adolescence in Africa, to start the next phase of their lives, but where they go to will only be known if sightings of them are reported. The Cumbrian Sandwich terns have orange or dark blue rings with a three-character code that starts with a 'C' followed by two digits. If they are spotted, then the information about where and when, and the ring number should be sent to All sightings are valuable.


For any other ringed birds that people see, the best place to report them is the British Trust for Ornithology’s website here: Key information to note for colour ringed birds are the species involved, the code on the ring and the colour of the ring(s).


Mhairi Maclauchlan, Warden at RSPB Hodbarrow said: “In 2018 we had a record-breaking number of 1,950 pairs of Sandwich terns at Hodbarrow and they raised 525 chicks. To get information about where some of them head to is fantastic as it helps us to not only identify their movements, but work with others on their conservation around the world. Generally, tern populations like many seabirds, are sadly struggling. Their preference for nesting and resting on beaches means they often get disturbed by human recreation which reduces their chances of survival. And of course, their long migrations mean they are also susceptible to stormy weather and predation affecting them too, so any reports of them returning to the UK are very welcome.”


For more information about the wildlife of RSPB Hodbarrow, visit

Tagged with: Topic: Sandwich tern Topic: Hodbarrow