Saturday, 10 February 2018

Axe Caspian Gulls - a Personal History

What a miserable day it is out there. Perfect for sitting indoors and poking away at the laptop. I began this post last night and quickly realised it was going to be a bit of a hefty one. It's a labour of love really, and doubtless inspired by recent success gull-wise. A few posts back I stated that I'd seen a total of nine Caspian Gulls on the Axe. Well, I was wrong. The true figure is actually 11. This was a bit of a surprise to me, and even more so when I realised that I got photos of all of them. So here is an NQS Special: a personal history of Axe Casps, illustrated with some of the most tenth-rate gull photos in existence...

1.  October 2007

The one that started it all. Steve found this 2nd-winter bird at Coronation Corner late in the day. Reviewing the BirdForum posts we wrote at the time is quite telling. Having been misled by what turned out to be a scraggy Herring Gull back in April that year we were very cautious with this bird. And at the time it was only the second or third record for Devon.

2.  December 2009

They don't come much more classic than this gorgeous 1st-winter bird. I found this beauty at the tram sheds and, despite never having seen one of this age, was struck by how delightfully obvious it was. I suddenly realised that Caspian Gulls could sometimes be easy.

3.  February 2010

Another 1st-winter, and a whopper too! Although I was 99% sure it was a Casp I was much more circumspect than with bird number 2. It was only present for a few minutes and I got a series of around a dozen ropey shots, all from some distance downriver. I emailed a selection to one or two more experienced larophiles and among the replies was an enthusiastic thumbs-up from Ian Lewington. Looking at the photos now, I can't see what I was concerned about...

4.  October 2011

The youngest bird I've seen, this lovely 1st-winter is still sporting a few dark 1st-generation (ie. juvenile) scapulars. It was opposite the Tower Hide, from where I got a few pics and a short video with my Lumix before everything flushed.

5.  December 2011

Definitely one of my favourites. This hefty beast was the first Axe Casp to be vaguely twitchable, turning up on four or more dates. At the time very few Devon birders had seen one in the county. I'm pretty sure all the local patch birders got to this one, and a couple from further afield too. This shot nicely illustrates how a Caspian Gull can catch your eye.

It was also the first Casp we could link to another site, having been seen on Portland and at Radipole, Weymouth back in October.

6.  March 2012

Hopefully they're beginning to stand out now, but just in case not, it's the one in the centre foreground. Again a 1st-winter, and a particularly obliging one this. It first turned up in February while I was doing a volunteer stint in the Tower Hide as a local 'expert' for an East Devon Wildlife event. I suddenly became very quiet and unhelpful for a minute or two...but at least a hideful of punters then got an opportunity to humour me by feigning interest in a gull...

This bird was seen on-and-off into April, was well-twitched, and is probably responsible for upping a good number of Devon lists by one.

7.  April 2013

Possibly my all-time favourite, this lovely 1st-winter spent just a short time having a wash and brush-up at Coronation Corner, then headed purposefully away north moments before Steve turned up. The worn, silvery-grey mantle and scaps were almost unmarked, and the head and body likewise. Just unmistakable.

8.  September 2013

Maybe our most interesting Casp due to the rather unfamiliar plumage. It's a 2cy (2nd calendar-year) bird, so basically developing 2nd-winter plumage. But notice how different it is to bird number 9 below, which is nominally only two months older. Steve found it just below Coronation Corner and I was well pleased to be in a position to twitch it. Very educational; it certainly had me looking at the text books afterwards!

9.  November 2015

A bit impulsive, but I twitched this one from Bridport! Steve found an astonishing two Caspian Gulls on the Axe that day - this 2nd-winter and a 1st-winter - and I couldn't resist. The latter had gone by the time I arrived, but this one was more gracious. My views are illustrated by the top photo taken from Coronation Corner; it was okay through the scope though. Meanwhile Ian McLean took the lower shot from the Tower Hide.

This was the second individual we could definitely link with another site - Mike Langman photographed it in Torbay three days earlier.

10.  January 2018

Nearly up to date now, and we're at Tim White's 1st-winter which has put in sporadic appearances since 17 Jan. My impression on first getting decent views of this bird was that it was probably the darkest, most strongly-marked Casp I'd seen, and casting an eye down this post confirms it. Still a cracking gull though.

11.  January 2018

No Axe Casps for me in over two years, then two in four days! Another 1st-winter, it put in a 15-minute appearance on 25 Jan, and might well be the bird Steve had briefly a fortnight or so earlier

So there we are. A bit of a monster post, but I've enjoyed putting it together, and hopefully it will be of some value. I appreciate that a few readers will hardly ever look at gulls with a view to finding something scarce or rare, and one or two perhaps never at all. On the other hand there will be some (I hope) who might just be encouraged by a post like this to have a go for themselves. I really am not an expert, I am still learning all the time. Truly, in many ways I'm a novice when it comes to things larid, I just seem to have been jammy with Caspian Gulls for some reason. My point being that if I can find them, anyone can.

That said, Caspian Gulls are most definitely very scarce in the southwest. When I bother with birding and actually look at gulls I seem to average about one a year, and that's at a site with good access and good numbers of gulls. Not everywhere is as helpful as the Axe in those respects. Even so, logic would suggest that any decent gathering of big gulls must surely deserve a quick look. They are out there!

It's worth mentioning that although my Casp total is 11, due to multiple appearances by three of them I've actually recorded Caspian Gull on 24 dates, and found them for myself on the vast majority.

And don't forget, these are just the ones I've seen. I know Steve can add a few more that I missed.

Finally, I hope that something else comes across from this collection of photos. Yes, Caspian Gulls can be quite variable, but they do appear to have a 'look'. It's hard to define, but the more you study images of them, the more they tend to jump out at you

Anyway, I'll close with an annotated pic of bird number 7. This originally appeared in a previous incarnation of NQS, and highlights a few useful ID tips. Also, because I was lazy and phasing at the time, it constituted the whole of my submission to the Devon Birds Records Committee.

As I said earlier, probably my favourite Axe Casp. A stunner. It really couldn't be anything else.


  1. Great post Gavin. Please keep up the 'birdy' posts. Matt

    1. Thanks for your kind comment Matt. I'd really like to keep up the birdy posts too, but you know how it is... :)

  2. Thanks for this post Gav, as I've gained an Axe Casp! For some reason in my head 5 and 6 were the same bird, so my tally is up to ten now. To complete the Axe history, as you say there was a 1w with the 2w on 14/11/15, a 1w on 17/03/15 and a 1w on 21/10/14. All photographed. So 14 birds in all.

    Although I clearly can't say there weren't any Axe Casps in 2016/2017, I did check the gulls as frequently in those years as I did in the few years previous, in fact more in 2017 as I was year-listing. I agree that they are a very scarce bird down here, possibly even rare, but I think we've proved they're also one of those species that vary year on year, a bit like white-wingers. Some winters are just good for them, others aren't.

    That September 1st-summer is quite an odd one really, especially when compared with your April '13 bird. I would have expected a far plainer grey mantle and whiter flanks, without looking at any books. It clearly is a Casp though, guess just a much slower moulting one.

    1. Steve, many thanks for the list of other records. A total of 14 is excellent. Best in the West?

      I tend to agree with your good year/bad year theory, and I don't see much evidence of them 'expanding' their winter range in this direction and becoming more numerous. Not in the time we've been tuned in to them anyway.

      Re that 1st-summer bird: yep, very different plumage-wise to the usual 1st-winter experience! A web trawl for photos of that age class turns up a massive range of variation though. Quite reassuring.

      I'm glad the Axe Estuary is such a good spot to pull up and have a bite to eat. Here's to a few more lunchtime Casps!