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Paul Young narrates this dramatic and evocative series following the lives of two female Arctic terns and their epic migration across the globe.
Monday to Friday 27 November - 01 December 2006 3.45-4.00pm

Narrated by Paul Young, this 5-part series follows two female Arctic terns over a single year, combining a rich soundscape (largely recorded on location by wildlife sound recordist, Chris Watson), with a powerful narration, to produce an absorbing and powerful series following the lives of our young birds.
The Sea Swallow is the story of two Arctic Terns, one born on the Farne Islands off the coast of Northumberland, the other in Iceland, and the challenges they face as they embark on their staggering annual migration across the globe, from their northern breeding grounds to their wintering quarters in Antarctica and back again.

No migratory bird sees as much sunlight as the Arctic tern nor embarks on such a long migration; an annual trip of more than 30,000 kilometres (or 18,000 miles) across the globe. Arctic terns have a lifespan of about 20 years, and in that time some individuals will have travelled over 200,000 miles – equivalent to flying from the earth to the moon!

Together the evocative and immersive soundtrack and the powerful narration make for a very exciting and dramatic story of life at sea as experienced by one our most amazing and beautiful aerial migrants; the Arctic Tern, or “Sea Swallow” as they are affectionately called.

An Arctic Tern. © RSPB
The Sea Swallow (Picture © RSPB)

Programme 1: Monday 27 November, 3.45pm - 4pm

The warden on the Farne Islands off the coast of Northumberland, and the Eider farmer in Iceland both eagerly await the arrival of the Arctic terns. When the birds finally arrive, they have little time to rest before finding their mates, building their nests and preparing to raise a family.Shags and Guillemots

Arctic terns are monogamous, but there’s no evidence to suggest that they stay with their mates either during their migration or on their wintering grounds in the Antarctic, so once they have arrived back on their breeding grounds – the place where they were born – then the males begin their courtship of the females; often bringing them gifts of fish.

In Iceland, the Arctic terns share their beach with nesting eider ducks which are farmed for their eider down; the feathers which the females pluck from their own breasts to line the nest.

 Listen again to episode 1

Programme 2: Tuesday 28 November, 3.45pm - 4pm

It’s June and on the Farne Islands, the tern colony is a hive of activity as common terns, sandwich terns, roseate terns and our Arctic terns, are busy incubating their eggs, and tending to the newly hatched chicks.

Arctic terns are extremely territorial during the breeding season, and the island warden, common seals (which also use these shores), and other birds do well to stay clear of the nesting birds, with their shrill cries and sharp, stabbing beaks.

A common seal upUndeterred however, a lesser black blacked gull makes a raid on the colony, stealing one egg and crushing another in the nest of our female tern. Fortunately, because she has been incubating the eggs for less than 10 days, she has time to lay another clutch.

But not all these chicks survive either. In Iceland, our female tern also faces a tragic loss, when an Arctic Fox ambushes one of her chicks.

 Listen again to episode 2

Programme 3 Wednesday 29 November, 3.45pm - 4pm

The young tern chicks have had their first flying lesson and are now learning to catch fish. Young chicks are vulnerable, and tragedy strikes on the Farne islands when the colony is raided once again.

In mid-August the terns set off on the first stage of their epic migration south to Antarctica. Despite their delicate appearance these birds are superbly adapted for the long flight south. Arctic Terns from both Iceland and the Farne islands stop to rest and feed off the west coast of Ghana, where our Icelandic female has a fatal encounter.Kittiwakes on a nest in the Farne Islands

From here, the birds fly south to the tip of South Africa, where southern right whales breach in the waves below them. Some of the Icelandic terns are thought to stay in this area, but our Farne Island tern flies on, south to the southern ocean.

 Listen again to episode 3

Programme 4 Thursday 30 November, 3.45pm - 4pm

It’s late October and wave after wave of Arctic terns are migrating south to Antarctica from their breeding grounds in the northern hemisphere.

After leaving South Africa the weather changes, and a terrible storm at sea takes many birds victim. Our Farne island tern survives however, and finally reaches her destination; the food rich waters of the southern ocean.

Puffins on teh Farne IslandThe terns drift eastwards along the edge of the pack ice and roost in flocks along the limit of the ice. Here they have easy access to the vast swarms of shrimp-like marine creatures called krill, on which they feed. All around them, they can hear the sounds of the wind and the ice, and the beautiful whistles of Weddell seals as males call to attract a mate.

They watch leopard seals hunt Adelie penguins, and endure a terrible snow storm. In January our females begins to moult her feathers, and in early March she sets off on the first leg of her long migration back to the Farne islands.

 Listen again to episode 4

Programme 5: Friday 1 December, 3.45pm - 4pm

As our female Arctic tern sets out on her long journey north from the Antarctic to the Farne Islands, she watches a pack of killer whales hunt and kill a leopard seal in the waves below.

She flies on – taking advantage of the good weather – until close to home, she’s overcome by terrible storm and strong winds, and together with her little flock, she is blown off course.Farne Island cliffs

The terns land at Grafham Water in Cambridgeshire, where they rest and feed, before embarking on their journey home once again.

Finally, our Arctic tern reaches the Inner Farne island where she was born. Her mate of the previous year finds her, and their courtship begins once again. Here they will spend a few months feeding, building up their fat reserves and raising their family. Then in August, they’ll take to the air, and embark on the long migration back to Antarctica once again.

 Listen again to episode 5
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