Thursday, 25 January 2018

Birding Interlude of the Satisfying Kind!

So it's lunchtime and, as I often do if working near Seaton, I'm parked alongside the estuary. Normally on such occasions I periodically raise my bins and peer rather half-heartedly at whatever is on view. Today though, I was much more alert. I was in gull mode. After yesterday's foul weather I was seriously hoping that a Glaucous or Iceland Gull might appear. Plus of course, Monday's distant and frustrating Casp had fired me up a bit. But, realistically, what were the chances of a Caspian Gull popping up in front of such a part-time birder twice in one week...?

A trickle of big gulls were dropping in to the river at Coronation Corner, having a little wash and then flying over to the far bank to preen. Approximately halfway through my sarnie a quick scan of the latest few arrivals revealed a dazzling white head and breast on what was clearly a 1st-winter bird. What!?!! A Caspian Gull!! Grabbing scope and camera I was out of the van like a shot. It spent hardly any time on the water and my photos were apalling...

It might seem odd to say this, but to my eye there's more than enough information in this unflattering 'capture' of a scraggy bunch of feathers to know unequivocally that it's a Caspian Gull.

Ditto with this one...

Like the other big gulls, it flew to the opposite bank and began to preen. In the horribly harsh sunlight I couldn't get anything remotely decent out of the Lumix, so dug out my 10+ year-old Fuji FinePix F30 for a bit of digiscope action. Just like the old days, when I used to look at birds and that...

I didn't do a great deal better with the Fuji, but did get this one...

It's actually mid-preen, which is why the wing is a little droopy. Absolutely no doubt here - that is a 1st-winter Casp in all its glory.

Within 5 minutes of first clapping eyes on the bird I had phoned Steve, who kindly put out a text to the locals on my behalf. Unfortunately it stayed no longer than 15 minutes in total before flying away high towards the sea. Poor old Tim White turned up about 5 minutes after that. Axe Casps are rarely obliging in that regard.

Though I haven't done a critical analysis of the photos yet, I can see nothing to suggest this isn't Monday's individual. It was unringed, so definitely not last week's Dawlish Warren bird.

To be honest, this fortuitous episode has got me wondering about something I do find a bit strange...

I think this is my ninth Axe Casp. I am no expert with masses of experience - those nine are the only Caspian Gulls I've ever seen, but seven of them I found myself, all 1st-winters. This one and (if my memory is correct) two others, I 'found' multiple times; in other words they turned up more than once and I happened to be on the spot to 'find' them more than once. The remainder of the [probably] 13 Axe Caspian Gulls were (as far as I am aware) all found by Steve. Just two observers. I'm not too sure who exactly have found the several other Devon birds, but I know that very few observers are involved, and that at least two of them also have multiple finds to their name. And yet when it comes to other scarce gulls - white-wingers, say - loads of different observers turn them up. I know Casps are subtle, but they're not impossible. Far from it. Is it simply that birders repeatedly overlook them because thay don't have the species on their radar??

I would love to be able to do something to rectify that. So, please allow me to offer my Number One Top Tip for finding 1st-winter Caspian Gulls in a flock of winter dross. Here it is...

Look for the big gull with the gleaming white head and body. Make sure it's a 1st-winter, and you're well on your way. Unless my dodgy memory is playing tricks I think I can say that every single Casp I have found (and each time I found it) the bird caught my eye because of its dazzling white head and body. Honestly, It really is an absolutely 24-carat, stop-you-in-your-tracks feature.

If just one birder were to remember that tip, try it for him/herself and then go and find their very own Casp as a result, I would be absolutely delighted. Look, this is how obvious they can be...

Scene from the Tower Hide one day in Feb 2012:
Foreground left, staring into the water: 1st-winter Herring Gull.
On the lump of tree: another 1st-winter Herring Gull.
Between the two: Agh! Where are my sunglasses!?!!

Isn't it ironic. Umpteen posts about cycling, fishing, running and so on, and then when he does finally get round to actual birds we get two posts of nothing but gull. Yes, how to try your readership.


  1. Fantastic Gav, I've only found 1 fw Casp but it was the 'gleaming' white head that got me onto that bird first, so I agree in a flock its probably single best way to filter out anything interesting amongst fw birds at any distance. After that there is still more work to do but, unless you're into your gulls, a good book (Collins Guide 2nd edition) will guide those onto all the other features to nail it. A half decent camera is useful too. Also go to the Axe it's far and away the best place - or is that down to the the knowledgeable birders - a combination of both I think. Also of course the ease of getting to a great vantage point is there anywhere else you can drive up and in a minute be watching usually a very large number of gulls at relatively close range?

    1. Cheers Mike, and good tip re Collins Guide. Must be 2nd edition of course; 1st edition mentions cachinnans but no illustrations. Of Casp that edition says: 'differences [from YLG] subtle and a cautious approach advisable'. Too right! My tip for picking out a 1W is simplistic, but works. There certainly is plenty more to do to clinch one though! ��

      You're dead right about how the Axe is relatively easy to access and view, and frequently has a really good turnover of gulls. We've been a bit spoiled really. And long may it continue!

  2. Gav, I've probably already mentioned this, but many years back I was wandering around Stockers and came across a group of large gulls standing on the ice. I couldn't help but notice that one of the immature birds was that dazzling clean as ice white appearance.
    It 'was' different. However, it wasn't different enough to qualify as another species that I was aware of. I just kept scratching my head as to why it looked like it did.
    I stared at that bird for ages and ages.
    After previous posts of yours on the subject, I have no doubts at all it was a fw Casp.
    And whatever the Herts Birds club might say, I'm avin it! :)

    1. Well, that would be a Stockers tick for me, obviously! 😊