Swimming with Terns | Rye Harbour Nature Reserve

Swimming with Terns

Monday, 3rd June 2024

Swimming with Terns
Sandwich Tern © Barry Yates

By David Bentley

Volunteer and member of the Friends of Rye Harbour Nature Reserve

If the temperature hits 'scorchio' this summer I'll be on my bike down to Rye Harbour Nature Reserve, on to the beach and straight into the sea.

The beach at Rye Harbour
The beach at Rye Harbour © Barry Yates

If you go for a sea-swim you might be lucky and get exceptional views of one, two, or maybe even three species of tern. Terns are like gulls who've had a makeover weekend at a luxury spa. They are confidently 'beach ready' and undoubtedly beautiful birds. They don't want your seaside bag of chips, but if they did, they'd elegantly woo them from you, so that you'd gladly serve them up on a plate, offering sauce and vinegar.

While you swim, the shaggy-capped Sandwich Tern might pass determinedly overhead, alerting you with its rasping ‘squeaky garden gate’ call. These large, long-winged terns can fly ten miles or more in search of food, so may well be heading off on a seaside excursion to Dungeness.

Sandwich Tern
Sandwich Tern © Dave Kilbey

The Common Terns have an orangey-red, black tipped bill, a greyish body and tail streamers appropriate for these so-called 'sea swallows'. They're extremely classy, common breeders at Rye Harbour.

Common Tern
Common Tern © Barry Yates

But, the real prize - and sadly an increasingly rare one - is to have Little Terns diving around you as you tread water. They like to feed just off shore by the Rye Harbour shingle. So, if you swim out a few metres, an hour or two either side of high tide, you may be in for a real treat. These teeny-tiny white specks hover low over the water and plummet like little white darts hoping to catch tiny fish and other marine creatures. Swimming with Little Terns is like being on stage at the Royal Opera House surrounded by the most beautiful, delicate fairy-ballerinas. They hardly look like they could puncture the surface of the water when they dive, so slight are their bodies. They seem impossibly unsuited to a life at sea, but by the time your summer holiday is over they will have started the long journey back to their wintering grounds in Africa.

Little Tern
Little Tern © Hugh Clark FRPS

The fortunes of these three species of seabird is of great concern and fluctuates depending on availability of food, disturbance and predation, but let's hope that 'swimming with terns' can realistically be on your bucket (and spade) list for many years to come.

This post is also available on Sussex Wildlife Trust website

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