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Ringed "Elegant" Tern in Rooi Els

Dane Paijmans(2017-03-16)

If you haven't been keeping up to date with Trevor Hardakers Rare Bird News Report (Facebook Group, Google Group) then the recent Elegant Tern (Thalasseus elegans) sightings may come as a surprise, and it is likely you have already missed out on a chance to view these two individuals. As one of the birds seen at Rooi Els, Western Cape was colour ringed, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at some of the details discovered.

Sightings were reported as follows; two possible Elegant Terns were sighted and photographed at Rooi Els River mouth by Kevin Drummond-Hay on March 2nd. One of the birds was colour ringed (Right leg: metal over white; left leg: green over yellow) while the other did not have rings. The non-ringed individual remained at the Rooi Els River mouth while the ringed individual moved across False Bay and was seen again by Howard Langley in Buffels Bay on March 5th. Thanks to Julien Gernigon at the French Ringing Scheme in Paris, we were able to trace the ringed birds origins to France (Metal Ring: FT67249)

These sightings are very interesting as the home range occupied by Elegant Terns is fairly restricted to the west coast (Pacific Ocean side) of the Americas. There has been a long standing debate about a possible population in western Europe however. This population has been documented since the 70's and as the birds looked very similar to Elegant Terns they were believed to be either hybrid/backcrosses of orange-billed Royal Tern or actual Elegant Terns. In an attempt to end this argument once and for all DNA from a number of individuals was analysed with the use of multilocus barcoding. This Study confirmed that some of the birds were in fact Elegant Terns although due to certain phenotypical traits some tern experts still remain unconvinced.

This background in important to understand as the ringed individual seen recently was one of the birds sampled during the genetic study. This individual was initially ringed on July 3rd, 2003 in Banc d'Arguin, France by Julien Gernigon. After being ringed this bird was seen many times; predominantly in its breeding ground in Banc d'Arguin but also Spain. In March 2005 it was reported in South Africa for the first time by Tony Tree at Kromme Estuary, Eastern Cape. At the time it was reported as a hybrid (Elegant x Sandwich Tern) due to the pink colouring underneath (true Elegant Terns are white). This less 'classic' appearance has lead to additional debate even after the genetic results were published. To read more on this individual please click here and read bird C's description.

The SAFRING database has only 2 other reports of Elegant Terns, neither of which were ringed in South Africa. This means that any additional reports are very important and if you are able to sight any ringed individuals, whether colour rings or metal, please contact us as SAFRING with the details (email or online). We at SAFRING really appreciate all the effort of ringers and the general public, and would like to thank everyone that has taken part in ringing and resighting in Southern Africa. The photos shown in the image accompanied belong to Julien Gernigon and Howard Langley.

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