Friday, 21 March 2014

Gulls, Gulls, Gulls

The Rise and Rise of Cachinnans

Over the last couple of winters I have made Milton my local patch in an attempt to learn more about gulls. The refuse tip attracts large numbers and recently Caspian gull has chosen this site as one of its favoured British overwintering locations - at times Milton has been THE best spot to see Caspian gull in Britain and being less than 20 minutes from my home it's a convenient spot to watch. A few weeks back there were 10 gull species regularly visiting, though the most I managed in a day was 9.

 Dick Newell has photographed many Caspian gulls in the wider area (see but my first few attempts at locating them were largely unsuccessful. I found an adult beside the A10 at Landbeach in 2005 but any others were generally only possibles or probables and I found adult argentatus (Scandanavian herring) in particular to be at times tricky to rule out. They can be large, just as dark above and have a very similar primary pattern to Caspian.

Then about 3 years ago I found a distinctive first winter on the tip. I had only made a handful of trips at this time and it seemed to be a pivotal point as thereafter I started to come across more of them. Part of it may have been related to 'getting my eye in' but then again I had seen a number of Caspians previously elsewhere round the country, including a first year in Norfolk.

Caspian gull (1st yr), Milton Tip, Jan 2011. Classic and striking bird and in view all too briefly as they often are in the feeding mellee on the tip.
 I started concentrating on Milton (rather than Landbeach or Cottenham) soon afterwards and found Caspians to be constantly present in small numbers. I think at the same time some other landfill sites may have closed as the overall number of gulls here seemed to increase around this time. But they are recorded everywhere more regularly these days with birders knowing what to look for and with their range expanding westward into Central Europe, though they remain very rare in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Many are seen  in particular in the Thames Valley/ Estuary where photographs of ringed individuals have enabled observers to trace their movement history and country of origin.

I usually see 2 - 4 individuals on a winter visit to Milton and sometimes as many as 5 (though I usually miss out on the ringed birds!). Others have seen 7 or 8 in a day and there was one day when 9 different birds were seen (with the combined efforts of several birders). The only British gathering I know of which surpasses that number is the 11 seen at Dungeness in December 2013 and certainly this number of individuals has been recorded at Milton over a long weekend.

Caspian gull is a favourite among Larophiles as at a site like this it gives you something to look for (while hoping for something rarer) which is likely to be actually present. They can be very handsome and elegant in appearance - sometimes striking, sometimes more subtle. And anyone birding in the nineties will remember that not so long ago they were not known about - It was 1996 a ground-breaking paper appeared in British Birds alerting us all to their presence, based on the documentation of birds present at Mucking Tip in Essex. Within a couple of years we were all out looking for them; they were known as Pontic gull, or sometimes as Eastern yellow-legged as they had not yet been split from Western. It was a number of years before BOU finally made the change after what was a considerable delay, even for them, but gull taxonomy is tricky and decisions are often left for years pending scientific research.

Anyway, here's a gallery of Casps, followed by a few other gulls of interest. Most of the pics are taken at Milton but some later on were taken in Scotland. I don't have access to the tip at Milton so the birds are sometimes distant (apologies for the poor quality of some pics!), particularly as their favourite field (bordered by Butt Lane & the A10 just by Milton Park & Ride) is the size of a small county! I have used the old age class system (1st winter, 2nd winter, etc as opposed to x calendar year) for ease, though it's a little crude in the context of gull moult which does not like to be pigeonholed in this way!

1st year

1st winter Caspian gull, Milton Tip, Jan 2014. Rather large, dark bird with distinctive bill pattern. Note ad YLG below to the right

1st winter Caspian gull, Freckenham, Jan 2014. Large, classic, striking bird with c150 gulls beside the A11

1st winter Caspian gull, Milton Tip, March 2014
1st winter Caspian gull, Milton Tip, Nov 2012 (with presumed 4th winter argentatus herring gull). Caspian gull moults earlier than herring, but this bird is exceptionally advanced, showing moult contrast in the scaps and coverts (2nd & 3rd gen) in November; normally this moult would commence the following spring or summer but this bird has already replaced its lower row of scapulars. It shows off the beautiful grey shawl of streaking superbly. It is standing in the shade of the bank which gives a good flat light for assessing colours and shades. Bright sunshine can make it very difficult picking out subtleties.

1st winter Caspian gulls, Milton, Jan 2013. I was photographing the preening bird at the back (here showing the tail pattern nicely) and only noticed the front bird later on when examining photos. It hadn't been present at the start but had 'photobombed' the image.
  2nd yr

2nd winter Caspian gull, Milton Tip, Jan 2014. As well as the obvious bird centre left, the bird in the middle at the extreme right is also a 2nd winter Caspian, albeit a rather camera-shy one!

2nd winter Caspian gull, Milton, Jan 2014. Though the mantle looks a bit pale here, it looked fine in the field with all relevant features present. Note very long wings giving the bird an attenuated, phalarope-like rear end.

2nd winter Caspian gull (or hybrid), Milton , Jan 2013. I had this down as a cachinanns x argentatus hybrid for a long time but believe now it could well be within variation of Caspian gull. It shows a rather heavy bill and unusually short, thick legs for this species.

3rd yr
3rd winter Caspian gull, Milton Tip, Jan 2013. Like many subadult Caspians this bird retains traces of streaking on the nape, all that is left of the distinctive 'grey shawl' so obvious in its first year. Similar to adult, but note dark tertials and primary coverts (and sometimes dark slivers on the tail)


Adult Caspian gull, Milton Tip, Nov 2012. P10 underside just visible

Adult Caspian gull, Histon, Feb 2014. Dark eye and small head obvious here, giving the bird a rather common gull-like appearance. One of three birds in this particular flock in a flooded field a couple of miles from Milton Tip.

Caspian gulls, Milton, Feb 2014. This photo shows (at the front of the flock) a 3rd winter and an adult Caspian gull but they're far from obvious. I was trying to make up my mind on the younger bird when it gave the diagnostic long call (a first for me) starting with wings raised for the start, then folded with head thrown back 90 degrees (typically 45 on herring and wings not raised). It was posturing and squaring up to the adult which I'd overlooked - not an obvious bird (at a fair range admitedly) but I suddenly realised it was identical structurally to the 3rd winter and appeared dark-eyed with the right head shape and a longish bill (rather bright, indicating full breeding getup). In this photo only the long wings seem to stand out though the dark eye is hinted at too. But whereas the previous adult bird leapt out at me (so to speak), this one did not.

Other species

1st winter Glaucous gull, Milton, Jan 2013. Small bird and very pale, appearing almost white in the field. Superficially similar to a 2nd winter, it is actually a 1st winter, showing a dark eye and solid dark bill tip. The coloration is not down to wear but thought to be due to racial variation or colour morphing - white birds like this seem to be commoner to the west of the species' range.

1st winter Glaucous gull, Milton, December 2012. A large, dark bird (even recalling American herring in this pic) in contrast to the previous one, though note it usually looked paler in the field than is suggested in this photo
1st winter Glaucous gull, Milton, January 2014. Dwarfing a colour ringed LBBG

1st winter Glaucous gull, Milton, January 2014. Same bird as above
Gulls, Milton Tip, Feb 2014. There are 6 spp in this pic - can you spot the Caspian & glaucous?

1st winter Glaucous gull, Milton Tip, January 2014. Same bird as above
Adult yellow-legged gull, Milton Tip, November 2012. Always present in small numbers, with adults and older immatures most numerous; 1st winters rather scarce

Hybrids and other confusing individuals
Hybrid gull resembling adult Iceland gull, Milton Tip, January 2014. This bird showed grey on the leading edge of the primaries and very herring gull-like head and bill plus rather long legs. It could be a Viking type, (Glaucous x herring hybrid, rather common in northern latitudes) but the long wings are puzzling. We're told Iceland very rarely hybridises, but could this bird have had L glaucoides as one of its parents?

2nd winter Iceland gull or hybrid, Collieston, Aberdeens, December 2013. Not taken anywhere near Milton, this was the other interesting gull of the winter for me. It bears some similarities to the previous bird, hence its inclusion here, in that it appears to lie on or near the edge of the expected range of variation of Iceland gull but its true identity is not clear. It could be a 'Viking' gull, an exceptionally dark Iceland-type or an Iceland x herring hybrid. After seeing the last two birds, I'm left wondering if perhaps it's worth reconsidering the apparent rarity of Iceland hybrids?

2nd winter Iceland gull sp or hybrid, Collieston, Aberdeens, December 2013. Pale eye, rather heavy bill and slightly atypical primary pattern are among the featues seemingly at odds with my original identification of this bird as a 2nd winter Kumlien's gull. 
1st winter Caspian gull or hybrid, Milton Tip, March 2014. This bird took flight with the flock and I only got a couple of (very poor) shots. Looking at them later it's apparent there is dark blackish feathering coming through on the outer coverts around the carpal joint and on the scapulars. It doesn't look like oil or any other kind of soiling and looks too dark to me to be misrepresentative photo artefact, but rather some dark LBBG-like 3rd gen feathering, yet it looks too large, pale and long-legged for a nominate fuscus and looks otherwise to be a Caspian-type.
Adult lesser black-backed gull or hybrid (possibly with herring or GBBG) Figgate Park, Edinburgh, March 2014. An unusual bird for a lesser with very broad white trailing edge, pale pink legs and shortish primary projection. A number of apparent herring x LBBG hybrids have been photographed in this area and as some hybrids can adopt the upperpart coloration of one parent (rather than appear intermediate) it's just possible there could be herring gull genes in this bird. However it could still be within the range of LBBG - would welcome further opinion on this.
1st winter Ivory gull, Patrington Haven, Yorks; December 2013. The best gull of the winter and part of a record influx, added here to prove to Larophobes that gulls (even young ones) can be simple, straightforward and beautiful- sometimes!

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Double Duck Dip

Trans-Atlantic wildfowl have pissed me off three times in the last few
days. A drake surf scoter wintering at Musselburgh, just 4 miles from
where I was staying in Edinburgh at the weekend, refused to
materialise despite my two attempts to see it on consecutive days; and a couple of
days later back down south a green-winged teal gave me the slip at Fen
Drayton. Really, how rude!

There were some decent ducks about though. The Firth of Forth is an
excellent area for wintering velvet scoter and at least 50 were
present on a my second visit, spread over a large area in singles,
pairs and small groups of up to 5 or 6 birds. I checked the drakes for the apparent Stejneger's seen in December but without success. I wonder where that got to?

Melanitta submarinus

There were good numbers too of other wildfowl - at least 30 long-tailed ducks, a flock of 10 RB
mergansers and a minimum of 8 slavonian grebes (one in breeding getup)
and just a 5 minute walk from my temporary digs, 3 goosander gave me
my closest ever views of the species.

Bad hair day!

Sadly there was no time to go through the gulls at Musselburgh but I did come across this oddity sharing the park lake with the goosander.
More pics of this to follow in a later post I think, but for now I haven't a scooby doo as to what it is and fear the dreaded 'H' word may be about to rear its ugly head, and not for the first time in recent months. If you think it's just a lesser, look again as there are a number of features that don't seem quite right, to me at least!

Down in Cambs I left Fen Drayton and deliberately ignored another rare American duck, choosing to drive past nearby Earith Washes' drake American wigeon in favour of a catch-up with that marvellous water pipit roost at Sutton Gault. I was the only person present so there were no witnesses to my log of a new county record of 32 water pipits sat in an oak tree, something I never expected to see in the fens! 31 birds had been recorded the night before but it remains to be seen whether this roost will continue to grow or will vanish overnight (heading south, the opposite way to most other migrants!), as we are well and truly into spring now and I've already recorded my first singing chiffies and blackcaps and seen my first butterflies of the year. Bring it on!

sunset over the fens

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

More Larid delights dished up but Chinese remains off the menu...

Somehow managed to get out birding 3 times last week. On Wednesday I was working in Bedford and popped in to Grafham to do the gull roost with Andrew. Adult and juv glauc both showed well and there was what appeared to be a 2nd winter Caspian too, though was rather distant. It was a pleasant evening, and half a dozen goosander and single drake goldeneye were notable, as were a calling chiffchaff and tawny owl.

Friday afternoon saw a little sojourn to the fens via Milton, noting my first brimstone of the year en route. One or two Caspian gulls there was standard fare but another gull was rather interesting. Looked like a 1st winter Caspian from the front but there appears to be black feathering on the inner coverts around the leading edge/ carpal joint and on the scaps.

The best I can come up with is that the bird above is a 2cy Caspian with some odd dark feathers coming through (or a hybrid). It doesn't look like oil or any other kind of soiling and looks too dark to me to be misrepresentative photo artefact, but rather some dark LBBG-like 3rd gen feathering, yet it looks too large, pale and long-legged for a nominate bird. Unfortunately the poor picture quality means a definitive I/D will not be forthcoming!

A bill so dodgy the taxman would have a fit

a proper Caspo
A herring gull with a strange bill aberration provided some interest. Recently described by a well-known group of birders as a new species, the sickle-billed gull. For more info and pics of this form (and some stunning-looking Larids, see

I headed to Mare Fen where a quick half hour visit produced just 3 grey wags, a Cetti's and 12 little egrets. It was then on to Sutton Gault where a roost of water pipits had been reported. Leaving my car at the bridge by the flood it was a half hour walk to the Gullet but well worth it. At least 55 whooper swans and 12+ corn buntings were present and soon the water pipits started arriving. At one point we had 17 in the air together (most of which joined a flock of corn butnings in the obvious lone oak tree there) but must have had at least 20 birds in total (a new county record was set the previous night with 27 birds). A fine sight to see, and we left as the sun went down and a flyby barn owl bade us farewell. I learned subsequently this roost was first reported in 2002 but has never been as large as it is now.

water pipit roost gathering, Sutton Gault

Oh yes, nearly forgot, the small matter of a wasted 9.5 hours at Hythe on sunday, where a certain pond heron was conspicuous by its absence. My second attempt, too. It was like a summer's day with small torts and brimstones flitting around in the sunshine. A flyover med gull and ad male peregrine provided entertainment, but bird of the day was a lovely firecrest, located on the south side of the valley. Who wants to see an escaped Ardeola anyway?!

Adult male peregrine & sparrowhawk, Hythe

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

A Not So Iffy Smiffy!

And for me, another March 1st sighting... the significance of that being that of the 4 smithsonianus I've now seen in Britain and Ireland, 3 of them have been on March 1st. The most recent becomes my first British sighting, of a bird frequenting Campbeltown in Argyll.

It was UTB while it was still getting light. We thought we'd missed it by seconds but then had untickable views as it flew around over the town in the distance. We drove inland and soon relocated it on a nearby rooftop, a dark beast with a pale head that seemed to glow in the early morning gloom.

American herring gull, Campbeltown (c) Andrew Lawson

After a few minutes it was gone again but we relocated it shortly afterwards on a flood just up the road. In better light at long range it appeared less distinctive, and several minutes of observation was required to convince ourselves it was definitely the same bird!

The long drive had put off many listers, Campbeltown being located right down near the end of the Kintyre Peninsula, but for those who made it, there were other rewards too. We missed most of these, being a week late for the Todd’s Canada goose, and failing to connect with any white-winged gulls (and not even trying for the two snow geese) but we did have a couple of hundred Greenland whitefronts with the gull and I picked out a single Tundra bean goose hanging out with some (presumably wild) greylags in the distance.

American herring gull has an interesting status on this side of the Atlantic with dozens of records for Ireland and just a handful for Britain. In the former it is regular and easily twitchable but this side of the Irish Sea it remains a challenge, with most birds failing to be upgraded from possible/ probable status and few hanging around to be twitched.

from the archives: Grotgull - plumage only a Mother would love! 1st summer American herring gull, Blennerville, Co Kerry, September 2010

It was Punkbirder Dan Brown who kicked off the Campbeltown saga by finding a 1st winter slap bang in the middle of a winter in which gulls featured prominently thanks to a succession of storms more typical of the autumn. The bird wasn’t easily twitchable but he located a possible 2nd winter nearby and Jim Dickson located another 1st winter in the harbour (or technically a juvenile as it clearly still has 1st gen scapulars). Jim got fantastic photos which showed a classic bird that no-one dared challenge in the I/D stakes, and it has been seen almost daily ever since. The first twitchers that weekend (a full week before our visit) were given the run around, some having to wait a whopping 7.5 hours for a sighting, but it then got a little easier to see, despite its haphazard appearances at various spots up to 4 miles from the harbour.

After the herring gull, our next target was another bird graced with the American prefix - American coot. The Loch Flemington bird constitutes just the 7th British record (with 2 previously seen in Ireland). This bird has been fairly popular with birders, despite the considerable drive required by those travelling up from the south. Our drive turned out to be even longer than most, having already called in at Campbeltown, Argyll. On the way up north we stopped briefly for a pair of dippers and the first pair of a final total of 5 red grouse, but not for the apparent peregrine, merlin and great northern diver, all of which gave tantalising glimpses from the car as we sailed past, keen not to lose too much time.

The coot was considerably easier to locate than the loch it resided on and provided a fitting end to a productive day. Only the Northern Lights hadn't shown, with us travelling 24 hours too late to witness the wonderful display seen across the country the previous night. By the time we returned home early next morning we had notched up something in the region of 1,400 miles and 30 hours' driving (out of 36 for the whole trip from start to finish).  As someone pointed out on the journey, in years to come you won’t remember the travelling, but you will remember the birds. I’ll drink to that!

It's not all just about the rarities!

Blast from the past: American coot, Stodmarsh; April 1996