No expense spared in pursuit of the whiskered tern

July 23, 1993|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,"Seabirds," Peter HarrisonStaff Writer

KITTS HUMMOCK, DEL. — C KITTS HUMMOCK, Del. -- Two miles past a stone house and acres of green corn, 'round a field of sunflowers and a grove of oaks, the road at the Ted Harvey Conservation Area rises above the shoreline, exposing the eye to a sweep of marsh and sea and sky.

It is here, on the Delaware Bay southeast of Dover, that they have come in search of the bird.

From Vermont and Arkansas, Illinois and Arizona, they have flown and driven through the night to arrive with scopes and binoculars, lawn chairs and coolers, for a chance to see the whiskered tern, a rare white-cheeked marsh bird, native to Europe, and spotted along the Delaware-Jersey shore for the first time ever in North America.

"When I heard this bird was here . . .," says Leif Anderson, sitting spread-eagle on a turquoise towel, a spotting scope between his legs, "I left Pittsburgh at 10 at night and I was here at 7 in the morning, right here on this hill."

"This is my fifth trip down here," adds Bill Mueller, a bearded, 59-year-old engineer from Far Hills, N.J. "My timing has been rotten."

Since the whiskered tern, so named for the white streaks on its cheeks, was first spotted July 12 at Cape May, N.J.,the Audubon hot lines and bird alerts have been flashing the news of this trans-Atlantic visitor, who usually summers in Spain and France. Hundreds of bird watchers have flocked to the Cape May observatory and the Harvey conservation area, where the whiskered tern was last seen Tuesday.

Yesterday, the birders began gathering on a hill in the conservation area before dawn. This slip of sand and dirt, bordered by leafy fragmitis and red-stemmed pokeberries, affords a 180-degree view of mud flats, salt grass and marshy water where the bird might relax or recreate along with snowy egrets, glossy ibises and long-billed dowitchers.

Seated in a lawn chair, under a rainbow-colored parasol, Marie Plante peers through her scope to a wooden, fencelike structure rising from the water several hundred feet off shore. At her feet are two books, the North American and European guides to birds. She and Judy Bromely, both of Bethesda, have driven here, hoping to add a first sighting to their "life list" of birds they have sighted and identified.

"We've given up on the whiskered tern," says Ms. Plante, a retired employee of the Audubon Naturalist Society. "We're hoping for the white-winged [black] tern because that would be a first for us."

Like its whiskered relation, the white-winged black tern, also of Europe, has been spotted in the marsh, which it has frequented in the past. Along with a black tern, an American marsh bird, the three birds are the only members of this type in the world. So to see the trio in one swoop would be a birding bonanza.

Dwight R. Lee has his sights on the whiskered tern. A spry 77-year-old, Mr. Lee left Tucson Tuesday night and flew the red-eye to Atlanta, where he caught an early flight Wednesday to Philadelphia. There, he rented a car and drove to Logan Lane.

"Now that's a hard-core birder," says Ms. Bromley from heperch.

"Hard-core or stupid," replies Mr. Lee. "It's been six months sincI've had anything to chase."

This is his second trip to Logan Lane. He flew in last Friday, stayed the weekend, and returned to Tucson Sunday, his life list of 784 birds unchanged. When the call came Tuesday that the whiskered tern had been sighted again, he packed his bags.

A retired technical writer for Western Electric, Mr. Lee is that breed of birder known as a "chaser."

Two years back, in early June, he chased a Northern Lapwing in New Brunswick, Canada, then flew to Key West, Fla., for a Bahamian mockingbird.

"If it wasn't for that whiskered tern, I wouldn't be here now," says Mr. Lee, standing alongside his Questar, the Rolls Royce of bird scopes, which magnifies its prey 64 times.

"Bank Swallow," a voice calls out, and binoculars shift to the sky and a flash of feathers streaking over the water.

The birders come -- as many as 50 in the middle of the day. They stay for hours.

"You wouldn't find anyone coming miles to see a tufted titmouse," Mr. Lee says, in an effort to explain the importance of ++ the day.

"White-winged tern's up," shouts Mr. Pratt, his right eye to the scope as the bird rises from the marsh. "He's flying. There's the white tail. Impeccable. Impeccable."

WHISKERED TERN

#

LENGTH: 10 inches

WINGSPAN: 27 inches

COLORING:

Bill and legs: Dull red

Head: Breeding birds have distinctive white facial stripe, black cap

Body: Gray and white

, Tall: Gray, edged with white

HABITAT: Inland freshwater areas; occasionally found on coast, rarely at sea

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