The Lone Kayaker Loves…Terns


I wasn’t expecting to be admiring more than a selection of naval hardware and a handful of ferries  when I paddled out under the Tamar Bridge from Saltash for a trip down the last section of the tidal Tamar to where it exits into Plymouth sound.

It was sunnier and warmer than I had expected so shed a layer as I made my way past Devonport dockyard and dodged the ferries at Torpoint. The last of the ebbing tide spat me out into the Sound at Devil’s Point, and I made my way towards the sandy beach at Drake’s Island.


I was very pleased to hear the animated ‘kirrick’ calls of Sandwich Terns as I approached the island, and drifted very close to a juvenile tern sitting on a rock. I  could tell it was a ‘this year’s’ youngster because of its squeaky call. This call , together with the replies from the parent birds , draws attention to and characterises family groups of Sandwich Terns migrating west through Devon and Cornwall. They don’t nest down here- I think the nearest colony is Brownsea Island in Poole harbour.


The young tern’s parents were fishing in the clear water beside Drake’s Island and every so often dived into the sea with a splosh, emerging with a sandeel or sprat.

Sandwich Tern adult

There was a whole crowd more out on the mooring buoys just off the island. I have never seen so many here….it must have been fifteen plus (although I only visit a couple of times a year). There was a lot of movement with birds coming and going and being disturbed by gulls, and constant squeaky calls of demanding juveniles. The calls of the youngsters are more or less incessant and I frequently hear it, with the parents replies, as family groups pass along the coast, often miles out to sea.  It goes on for months as I have heard it in the Mediterranean in October and November as they migrate through. It must drive the parents bonkers because it sound a bit whiny.


The juveniles have dark markings on the wings and body and lack the yellow-tipped bill of the adults.

juvenile Sandwich Tern

At this time of year the adults have already changed into their non-breeding plumage with white foreheads. When they pass through this way in the Spring en route to their breeding grounds they look even smarter with entirely black ‘beret’ hats.

Sandwich Tern non-breeding
Sandwich Terns breeding plumage

Feeling secure on their little artificial island they didn’t bat an eyelid as a Cruiser slipped past in front of Plymouth Hoe.


Neither was the local seal too phased by the show of military muscle.

Drake’s Island Seal

Terns are one of my favourite seabirds for a number of reasons. Their arrival in the Spring heralds the start of summer in the same style as the swallows in the barns around the county. Coincidentally Terns are called Sea Swallows because they both share a long forked tail.

They also have a very tough time finding somewhere safe to breed because they make their nests on the ground, frequently a beach. In southern England this really means a nature reserve because there is hardly a patch of sand or shingle that is not stampeded by people or dogs or both (or kayakers). And then there is the issue of hungry gulls and crows with their own broods to feed….

In my simplistic opinion any bird that successfully rears a family from a nest on the ground in the UK deserves a medal. (and in the case of terns, so do the volunteers  who help to protect them).

Sandwich Terns are the most frequent members of the tern family that I encounter during my coastal kayak trips. Much less common is the Common Tern.

Juvenile Common Tern

Arctic Terns are the next most frequent, usually far out to sea, and Little and Black Terns I have only seen a handful of times from my kayak.

Arctic Tern
Arctic Tern ( NOT far out to sea)
Black Tern


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