Sunday, 8 November 2020

3rd-winter Yellow-legged Gull

Identifying large gulls can be a bit fraught. Having made plenty of boobs in the past I do unfortunately over-think it sometimes. Like anyone else I have an aversion to cocking up, and big gulls are fertile ground for that. So I tend to be a bit cautious. Like last Friday. Checking through the Axe Estuary gulls with Clive I spotted a darker mantled bird which looked a good candidate for Yellow-legged Gull, though not an adult. Within seconds I was over-thinking like a good 'un. Was it perhaps a Herring x Lesser Black-backed hybrid? Or in some other unspecified way less than pure? I expressed my concerns to Clive and took a few photos for checking later. This overly-cautious approach is doing my head in a bit. Instead of coming to a firm ID conclusion in the field I keep going home with big question marks over a perfectly identifiable bird. I feel like I've got the gull-watcher's yips.

Anyway, here's the bird...

Yellow-legged Gull?

A number of features point to its immaturity, including the brownish wing coverts, washed-out legs, heavy black band on the bill and lack of obvious white tips to the primaries. Like a couple of other recent birds, my concerns were totally unfounded. It is a 3rd-winter Yellow-legged Gull. A few more photos, with useful ID pointers highlighted...




The combination of features illustrated here not only identify the bird to species, but also age it nicely. For any poor souls tempted to get into all this kind of trivia I recommend browsing the YLG michahellis pages of the Gull Research website. Excellent.

I suppose caution is better than over-confidence, but it's getting a bit annoying now.

Saturday, 7 November 2020

A Good Day

It's funny how things go sometimes. Unexpected events connect like falling dominoes and reward you with something nice...

I had time for a quick walk this morning, and for a change chose a West Bay to Eype route. Heading up the cliff path a flock of about 10 Siskins bombed E below me, which was a good start. I rarely see other birders locally so was surprised to spot one five minutes later, evidently set up for a bit of vis-migging. We said hello as I walked past. Being a bit of a loner, normally that would have been that, but a few yards further on I had second thoughts and retraced my steps. I realised this must be Tom Brereton, whom I had never met but know has been vis-migging at West Bay for years. It was. So we said hello a bit more fully and chatted for a few minutes, then I headed on as before.

For the return leg I decided to take a slightly more inland route which cuts through a holiday park. As I opened the gate into it my phone beeped. It was a direct message from Tom Brereton to me via Twitter: Snow Bunting just dropped in near pods. Oof! I was just 200 yards away, so very shortly, this...

When you're gorgeous and you know it... Snow Bunting.

So yes, if I'd carried on being my usual unsociable self I would have missed out on this little cracker!

Snow Bunting is quite rare locally. Twice I can recall birds putting in decent stays at Seaton, on the shingle east of the Yacht Club, and a single on Beer Head, but that's my lot I think. Unless you count one I saw by the River Exe at Turf Lock. Certainly this is my first in the Bridport area.

This bare patch of ground was clearly full of seeds.


Apart from the Siskins I saw nothing else of note at all, and this theme played out all day. Except for a single Goldcrest, a few Blackbirds, and the ubiquitous Robins which are forever toying with you as they dive around like something rare, the bushes felt dead. Likewise the sky. The sea. Everything. And then, right at close of play...

Male Black Redstart in West Bexington

Initially I assumed this was the bird which arrived on 22nd October, but maybe not...

First of all it hasn't been seen for several days. And secondly, although today's bird was always distant its white wing-panels appeared to be a lot less striking. So it is probably a new one. Bit of a coincidence getting consecutive males though. And literally across the road from one another.

So that's today. A good day.

Wednesday, 4 November 2020

Today and Yesterday

For the first time in a few days I was looking forward to getting out birding nice and early. Very chilly, with clear skies and a light NW, finally a respite from the wind and rain. Cogden looked fantastic...

Sunrise...

In the end it was just a nice walk with loads of vis-mig. I didn't see or hear anything especially notable, but headed off to work nicely refreshed...

Around 14:00 a message appeared on the patch WhatsApp group to the effect that a Crane was on view from the Colyford Common hide! I wasn't in a position to do much about that news, but some time later made sure I passed a handy viewpoint en route to my next job. No joy. I wasn't bothered though. Likely it would be one of those Great Crane Project birds, virtually plastic. We had one on the Axe a few years back, but thankfully I saw a 'proper' one with Phil in December 2004, several years before they were being released willy-nilly on the Somerset Levels. Even so, after work I stopped off at Coronation Corner and had a scan up the river, where I heard it was seen most recently. And indeed, there it was. The time was 16:45 and the light was dreadful, so I only bothered with a distant record shot. With a massive bird like a Crane you don't need too many pixels for a record shot...

And there it is, showing beautifully above the depth gauge.

So, yesterday...

On Twitter I follow a chap called Thomas Miller, a birder based in Oxfordshire. Oxon gets a good helping of Caspian Gulls and Thomas frequently posts photos of local birds. Yesterday he shared a couple of close shots of a super-smart first-winter Casp. It reminded me ever so much of the beaut that I saw at East Bexington a few weeks back. And then a ludicrous thought occurred. It couldn't be the same bird could it? I looked closer...and immediately spotted a single grey feather in the greater coverts...exactly like my bird. Surely not?! I quickly pulled up my photos to check...

The 1w Casp at East Bex on 5/10

Thomas has kindly let me nick his photos...

Same bird at Farmoor Res on 3/11 (compare greater coverts as ringed in photo above)

 

And check out the beautifully pale underwing...

What a cracking gull!

One more photo. This particular individual demonstrates perfectly why you can often describe Caspian Gulls as being 'on stilts'...

Mega-stilts! Thomas took this photo on 31/10. Also at Farmoor Res.

Apparently this bird has been in the area since at least 17th October, when it was seen by Ian Lewington on the tip at Didcot, just 12 days after my encounter with it at East Bexington. Thomas has photographed it loafing on wet fields at Appleford, and at the Farmoor roost.

I was absolutely delighted to learn all this. Finding out where 'your' birds go is such a buzz for gull watchers. And it illustrates one of the reasons I love them so much - they are just so mobile! A quality gull might appear almost anywhere...

East Bex to Appleford (90 miles) to Farmoor (8.6 miles)

I'll close with one last record shot of the Crane. This was taken at 17:06; it was almost dark. I was curious to see what the P900 could manage. Zoomed up to 500mm, rested carefully on my scope and shot with a 2-second timer delay...

1/5 sec at ISO 1600

Identifiable. Just.

I almost forgot to mention...

The Crane turned out to be unringed. However, as I understand it this may not necessarily mean it's definitely not from the release sheme. Birders find this kind of detail very annoying. I sympathise. Being a birder, I would...

Tuesday, 3 November 2020

White Gulls

A white-winged gull, ie Glaucous or Iceland, is a realistic late-season prize for many birders. I managed to miss both last winter, but around here they are pretty much annual. Locally I'm not sure I've seen either species any earlier than February though, and for me Iceland Gulls have outnumbered Glaucous at least three to one. However, an 'early' white-winger is not unknown in the southwest; certainly I've seen Iceland Gull on Scilly in mid-October, and I recall Steve finding a smart juv Glaucous Gull on the Axe in November one year. So when Tim Farr spotted a smallish white-winger out on the water at Sutton Bingham Reservoir on October 15th he was pretty chuffed about getting an early Iceland Gull. A few photos, courtesy Tim...

Exciting stuff! An early white-winger at Sutton Bingham

The bill pattern and dark eye point to 1cy Iceland Gull, but...

 

At this point the bird flew to the causeway of the reservoir and perched up among other gulls. It really was as white as it had looked out on the water, but Tim soon had doubts about the identification. He concluded that it was not an Iceland Gull after all, but rather a leucistic version of something much more common.

Here's what it looked like on the bank...

Not an Iceland Gull?


Tim posted some pics on Twitter, mentioning that he had written the bird off as a leucistic job. However, that was not the end of the matter...

Some disagreed with Tim's diagnosis, suggesting that it looked fine for a rather bleached, worn Iceland Gull. So I looked at it again...

My gut reaction had been the same as Tim's. Although I thought it promising on the water, the photos on the deck portrayed a bird which to me just 'looked' wrong. I too would have written it off. But now I tried to view it a bit more critically. Had I got it wrong? Was this bird in fact an Iceland Gull?

For me this bird nicely illustrates an aspect of gull-watching which has struck me as becoming more and more evident in my own analysis of tricky birds: the 'look' of a bird, its jizz. When you have sifted through thousands and thousands of gulls in that search for something different you begin to realise how much you rely on jizz for picking out the oddity. However, the problem with jizz is its subjectivity. And because it is subjective it is open to interpretation. In the case of this particular individual, some birders are happy that it's an Iceland Gull, others quite the opposite. Logically it has to be one or the other, so how do you get past jizz and make a convincing case for its true identity?

I shall try...

Age

First up, the bicoloured bill and dark eye point to this being a first calendar-year (1cy) bird. I would concede it might be older, but I highly doubt it. Iceland Gull in its second calendar-year (2cy) would normally have a paler iris and less black on the bill. A Herring Gull of that age might have a similar bill to Tim's bird, but ditto a pale iris. So let's stick with the age being 1cy.

Which means it's been out of the nest and independant for what, three months? Four at the outside? A bleached, worn juv/1w Iceland Gull in late winter I can accept, but mid-October?

Okay, suppose it is actually a 2cy bird. And suppose it is actually an Iceland Gull. A 2cy Iceland Gull with an atypical bill pattern and atypically dark iris...

If that is the case it will recently have completed its wing moult. The outer primaries especially should be very fresh. Likewise the head and body moult will have taken place through the summer months, so the bird should look pretty neat and tidy by October. As we shall see, this bird is neither.

Structure

Structure-wise, Iceland Gulls are normally quite obvious. Smallish for a large gull, with fairly short legs, a full body, long wings, and a lightweight bill. Vaguely dove-like I suppose. I thought it might be helpful to put together a collage of random Axe Estuary birds to give an overall idea of what your average Iceland Gull looks like structurally...

Axe Iceland Gulls. At least 7 or 8 individuals are depicted here.

There's a fair bit of variation evident among those birds, from the diminutive little thing at bottom left, to the rather more butch individual bottom right.

And here's Tim's bird again...

Hmmm...

Personally I find it hard (okay, impossible!) to reconcile the appearance of this individual with what Iceland Gulls normally look like structurally. Doesn't the bill look hefty in this pose? Note too the scraggy plumage; it doesn't look neat and tidy at all.

Finally...

Plumage

A white gull has no plumage characters, right? Thankfully that is not always true, because white doesn't necessarily mean white. In the photo above you can clearly see some darker markings on the scapulars, and possibly the head. So I reduced the highlights on one of Tim's shots and got this...

No longer white


The scapulars are noticeably darker than the rest of the plumage, and what is particularly helpful is the shape of those markings you can see. They are very obviously anchor-shaped. Iceland Gulls typically do not have bold, anchor-shaped markings in their scapulars. Take another look at the collage of Axe birds and note what a normal Iceland Gull looks like. Those are late-winter birds, but in October the patterns would have been just the same, albeit fresher and more contrasting.

And note especially the central photo in the collage. Immediately right of the Iceland Gull is a first-winter Herring Gull...with anchor-shaped markings in its scaps.

I'll leave it there.


Personally I reckon Tim's analysis of this bird was spot on. It's a leucistic 1cy Herring Gull. Leucism leads to a bird's feathers being much less robust than normal, which means they wear very quickly. So leucistic birds often look rather scraggy, like this one.

Back in 2010 I got pretty excited about a white gull which had just dropped in among the Coronation Corner gathering on the Axe. I was convinced I had an Iceland Gull, and called over a fellow birder to point it out to him. Rather quickly though, I had second thoughts...

Even in this apalling digiscoped effort it doesn't 'look' right, does it?

A few days later it gave itself up properly by the tram sheds...

The pale eye points to 2nd-winter, but absolutely no plumage features at all!

 

Subsequent events proved fairly conclusively that this bird was a leucistic female Herring Gull, though there was initially some debate that it might be a Lesser Black-backed. Crucially though, its build, its structure quite clearly did not belong to an Iceland Gull. But that didn't prevent regular reports of a 'white Iceland Gull' during its stay with us. Which just goes to show that gulls are difficult. And in this case, even relatively 'easy' species like Iceland Gull are not always straightforward.

At the end of all this I will add a caveat...

I am not infallible and could be wrong. Perhaps Tim's white gull really is an Iceland Gull. However, I've done the best I can to be objective about the creature, so would take some persuading!

Finally, I wish you all the best with your winter gulling!

Ooh! A white-winger! Er...oh...wait a sec...

Monday, 2 November 2020

From the Archives...

Earlier this evening I was looking for photos of an interesting gull which visited the Axe in 2010. The search led me to the archived pages of NQS Mk1 where I found a post by Davina Wydegirth, an occasional contributor in those days. Although silly nonsense, the memories it evoked made me smile. So I shall resurrect it here.

The date is 8th January 2010, and we are in the grip of a freezing spell of weather which produced some spectacular winter birding, including this patch tick for everyone...


Davina WydeGirth - on Location at Black Hole Marsh

A late night tip-off had me at Seaton cemetery for 08:00 sharp. Gavin looked a bit sheepish when he saw me there, obviously realising that I now knew I was NOT on his 'Devon Birders Big & Serious Text Group'. I gave him a conciliatory smile, promised to leave him out of all the photos, and watched very carefully as he took out his phone and rectified the omission.

We marched down the track and Steve filled in the details for me. Apparently we were going to stake out the spot where a Bittern had been seen going to roost last night. A Bittern is a rare bird - a cross between a Heron, a Short-eared Owl and a reed bed - and would be a patch tick for everyone.

We stood at the required spot, and waited. The mood was optimistic...

L to R: Steve (with front-loading doughnut dispenser), Karen and Bun

Steve was grinning continuously just at the PROSPECT of adding Bittern to his patch list. He handed us all a doughnut each, and ate six.

Nothing happened for a while. It was absolutely FREEZING, but Karen kept complaining (smugly and loudly) that her feet were too warm. Gavin kept mumbling 'Let's go in, and boot it'. Bun kept looking at the doughnut bag. Steve kept eating, and grinned a great deal.

"Let's boot it!" Gavin again.
"No," said Steve. "Let's see if it's already come out of the roost and is back on the ditch where it was first seen yesterday. Why don't we have a quiet walk along there and take a look."
"Good idea," said Gavin, "We might boot it."

And that is exactly what happened. As the Bittern flew up from the ditch all four birders followed it in silence with their bins. When it landed out of sight I heard a squeaky 'Let's boot it AGAIN!' and was instructed to wait where I was as the quartet marched meaningfully round a bend in the path...

When they returned it was doughnuts all round, then Bun headed off to work. Gavin's phone rang. It was Brian, from Exeter, asking if it was worth travelling up to try for the Bittern. Gavin said it was, then rang off and suggested booting it 'good and proper' before Brian arrived. The others thought this was a brilliant idea.

A bit of barrier negotiation was now necessary. This proved tricky for Karen. Having worn so many clothes, she found it impossible to bend sufficiently to get over the gate. The others found a hole in the fence and posted her through it like a tightly rolled newspaper. Unfortunately they were not able to find the Bittern again, so Gavin stalked a Juncus patch and kicked every clump.

Brian turned up. So did Ian M.

 

L to R: Karen (check out those slippers!), Brian (cheerfully optimistic and clearly ignorant of all the booting), Steve (now WELL beyond simple grinning, and all out of doughnuts), Ian M (Bittern-less unfortunately, as is evident).

Two more birders were seen approaching...

Andy and Dave

After anxiously checking with the locals that the chippy would be open soon, Dave asked about the Bittern. Gavin, Steve and Karen exchanged meaningful looks (Gavin concealing his scuffed right boot) made their excuses and left, Ian going with them. I heard later that Brian, Dave and Andy carefully walked 7 miles of ditch before coming across a dented Bittern.

 

Postscript

Phil missed the Bittern that Friday, but caught up with it the following day and provided us with a photo opportunity...

Bittern at Colyford, 9th January 2010. I've still only seen 3 on the Axe patch.

Sunday, 1 November 2020

A Dismal Sunday Afternoon

It's Sunday afternoon. Instead of being out there birding I am tapping at the keyboard while rain once again batters the windows. At first light I was slotted neatly into my seawatching chair at Cogden, and by 08:00 already bored stiff. Two Common Scoters, plus a handful of auks and Gannets, was pretty dire for an hour. Sure, it might have livened up later, but I somehow doubted it would. I am becoming increasingly intolerant of mega-slow seawatches. A change of scenery then...

Water Lane Fish Farm, inland from Burton Bradstock, has recently hosted a gorgeous Grey Phalarope. Might it still be present? I went to look. It was. Because this bird is such a gem, and so tame, a few more photos were inevitable. Cue Grey Phalarope overload...

Feeding happily in its usual spot at 08:20

It came right over to say hello...

Breadth of the bill nicely evident in this one.

Notice the blackish, pointy, as-yet-unmoulted juvenile rear scapulars


I spent a few minutes with the phalarope, then walked further along the path to view other ponds. Being a fish farm you would imagine the place must be a bit of a magnet for birds, and probably it is. I never see Green Sandpipers locally, so it was good to encounter a couple of them here...

One of two Green Sandpipers. A bit distant, and that excessive eye ring is photographic effect; it had a wholly white rump, and no hint of Solitary-ness.

Another obvious fish farm bird is Cormorant. They keep their distance (understandably) and I couldn't really see enough detail with bins, but wondered if they might include the so-called 'continental' subspecies, sinensis. So I took a photo...

'Continental' Cormorant    Phalacrocorax carbo sinensis

Judged purely on the angle formed by the rear of the gular patch and the gape, this is a pretty obvious sinensis. When I lived in Devon, sinensis was a county rarity requiring a description. I don't know what the Dorset status is, but the latest Dorset Bird Report (2018) doesn't even mention sinensis, and The Birds of Dorset (2004) makes only passing reference to it. But I'll bet there are loads about. Let's face it, who looks closely at Cormorants? I suppose we ought to have Double-crested Cormorant on the radar though...

So, is our local fish farm a welcoming environment for water birds? Not really. As this Heron discovered to its cost...

The grim reality which frequently results when 'nice' habitat is also a commercial enterprise.

Yes, the habitat might be attractive to birds, but it is hardly welcoming, and I can think of countless more pleasant places to go birding.

West Bexington for example. It was dead blowy when I visited yesterday afternoon, so I mooched along the beach and sat down on the shingle overlooking the mere. With all the recent rain, this seasonal water body is filling nicely and becoming attractive to passing gulls...

Gulls were dropping in, staying a few minutes, and passing on.

At a range of 200+ yards the gulls seemed unconcerned by my presence, but were only lingering briefly even so. Just long enough for a quick wash and preen, then away. Nothing unusual yesterday, but at one point there were 10 Med Gulls, which are always a treat.

Three Med Gulls in this photo.

I realise that an obsession with gulls might be incomprehensible to some, and recently I've been giving thought to what the attraction is for me. And I think I now know. It's nothing complicated, and there are clues scattered throughout this blog. Just looking at the last 12 months, what are some of the birdy subjects which have caught my attention? Getting to grips with Siberian Chiffchaffs; trying to identify a wintering White Wagtail; having a go at nocmig for the first time. Also, the kind of birding I particularly enjoy: mostly plodding around relatively underwatched localities trying to turn up my own birds, rather than chasing other birders' birds. None of those things is the easy option; each is a challenge. And there it is. While I do enjoy most birding, I most enjoy birding that presents me with a challenge.

So gulls have an obvious attraction. They are difficult. Every time I get involved with a big gang of gulls it is a challenge for me. There will often be birds I struggle to identify. The incredible variation of size, shape and plumage within some species is just mind-boggling. Factor in the genetic uncertainties produced by interbreeding and it is all a bit of a minefield for the unwary.

Gulls are also humbling. If you cannot accept the possibility of making ID errors, forget gulls. If you worry about 'looking bad' among your peers, forget gulls. If you think you have a reputation for infallibility, forget gulls!

On the other hand, if you have a little humility, are keen to learn new stuff, and enjoy the satisfaction and fulfillment which comes with a hurdle successfully cleared, gulls are just the thing...

On Friday I spent some time on the Axe Estuary. Almost straight away I was delighted to come across this obvious adult Yellow-legged Gull...

Not as close as I would have liked, but a lovely, bog standard adult Yellow-legged Gull

It was a perfect example of the taxon. Hefty, noticeably darker mantled than nearby Herring Gulls, with bright yellow legs and bill, a red eye-ring (not orange as in HG) and a clean, white head. As Yellow-legged Gulls go, this is about as easy as they get. However, a bit later there was this bird on the upper estuary...

The one with its head turned towards the camera, and...er...yellow legs

And here it is much closer, in company with a Herring Gull

So, is this bird a Yellow-legged Gull too? As mentioned in relation to the first individual, typically they are big, white-headed lumps. But in the lower photo our bird is quite obviously smaller than the Herring Gull. It also has quite a streaked head. Its legs and bill don't look quite as yellow as those of the first bird. There are hybrid gulls (eg, Herring x Lesser Black-backed) which can superficially resemble Yellow-legged Gull, and indeed YLG itself will sometimes interbreed with other LWHG (large white-headed gull) taxa. So is this bird the result of such promiscuity? I would say not. I am happy that this is a perfectly normal Yellow-legged Gull, but I had to study it pretty carefully to be sure. We don't see that many YLGs in East Devon/West Dorset, hence the caution. So yes, this particular bird was a challenge for me, but in the end I reached a satisfactory conclusion and learned a few things along the way. At the risk of boring NQS readers rigid I may well outline the ID process in a future post...

Anyway, it's now 16:41 and almost dark. What a dismal afternoon. Still, writing this post has been fun, and for once probably better than actual birding would have been!

Monday, 26 October 2020

Garden Listing Tales

I was sitting in our garden cabin this morning, chatting on the phone and peering idly out of the window. Between the cabin door and our little conservatory is about four yards of gravel and slabs. A small, dark bird hopped into view and flicked up to nab a fly off the conservatory door, in the process fanning a rich, red tail. A Black Redstart! It turned out there were at least two birds, at one point both together on the roof of a nearby building...

This one on the ridge...

...and this one by the gutter

This was the first one I saw, photographed on a property just behind ours.

 

Black Redstart is a new bird for the garden, and number 63 on my #BWKM0 list, the first addition for months. I didn't get out birding at all today, but I wonder if there were a few more of these lovely little characters out there among the local rooftops?

The appearance of that first one, on the modest span of ground between the cabin and conservatory, gives me the opportunity to recount the story of another nice garden bird...

It was November, in 2016 I think, though I never did note the exact date. I was in the cabin very early, catching up on some paperwork. Just before dawn there was a torrential downpour. When it finally relented I stepped outside, intent on brewing a coffee. Pausing briefly I looked around. The air was clean and fresh in the weak light, the ground still very wet. It is just four or five strides to the conservatory. As I took the final step, a bird exploded off the gravel, just inches from the conservatory, and shot away over the neighbouring gardens, climbing rapidly. It was a Jack Snipe! Presumably a migrant downed by the heavy rain, it is undoubtedly one of the most ludicrous garden birds I am ever likely to see.

The astute reader will probably have wondered how I could be so sure it wasn't just a Common Snipe. No binoculars, obviously, and the light's not too great at that time in the morning is it? And of course they are right to be dubious. So. Here's why it's a Jack Snipe, now and forever...

Although my views were pretty grim, there was no doubting it was a Snipe sp. Jack Snipe are considerably outnumbered by Common Snipe, so I know where the statistical probability lies. However, I almost trod on it. It didn't call. It gave the impression of a smallish bird. To me that suggests Jack Snipe. My garden is very small, three miles inland, and nowhere near any marshy, Snipe-ish habbo. The likelihood of ever getting another is very slightly greater than zero. If you think I'm going to have 'Unidentified Snipe sp' on my garden list, well, think again! My gut said Jack Snipe, and I went with it. And as the saying goes, it's my list and I'll count what I want! Oh, and did I mention how it was quite clearly looking for a reedy spot to quickly drop back into? No...?