Birder chases a white-winged tern

I recently went on a bird chase. In birder language, this means that someone else found a rare bird that I wanted to see, so I went to see it as quickly as I could.

The bird was a white-winged tern. It was found by Wellsboro birder Rich Hanlon at Nessmuk Lake in Tioga County on Aug. 10.

The white-winged tern is a Eurasian species that only occasionally id found in North America and had never before been documented in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania already has had a number of rare birds this year, including the United States’ first-ever black-backed oriole and two roseate spoonbills, and this tern is on par with those rarities.

The white-winged tern is very similar to the black tern, which is an uncommon but yearly migrant through Pennsylvania. Hanlon posted many photos that clearly showed the white patches that identify this bird as the rarer species.

I wasn’t the only birder interested in seeing the bird. As soon as the report came in, many birders from around the state began making plans to see it. It was only an hour drive for me, so I was able to make it there the same day.

By the time I got to the lake, there already was a crowd of about 40 birders, and more kept arriving. A group from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca was there. A friend of mine from Harrisburg came soon after. Before sunset, a man who had driven four hours from New Jersey arrived.

For many, including me, it was a life bird, meaning it was the first time we had seen this species. The tern must have known that and gave us great views. It spent most of the time perched on wooden pylons in the water or on a large tree branch that was sticking out of the water.

About every 20 minutes, it would fly around the lake. I saw it catch a few small fish and it also appeared to be catching insects out of the air.

Birding can be very social. Once everyone saw the bird, there was a lot of standing around and talking. For me it was a chance to catch up with friends I don’t see often, and I got to meet some people that I had been in contact with online but had never met. We talked about how far we drove, about other birds that we have chased, both successfully and unsuccessfully, and our predictions for what rare bird would show up next.

Birds can be enjoyed in many ways and chasing rare birds is one of the most exciting activities. It also can be one of the most heartbreaking, but this time we were all successful and, when we left at dusk, everyone was happy.

Brown is an avid local birder and photographer and is a board member of the Lycoming Audubon Society. He may be reached via email at davidebrownpa @gmail.com.

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