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

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