Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Looking at the Gulls Properly

Originally I planned to begin the NQS year with a very non-birdy post, but writer's block and this morning's birdy stuff have put paid to that notion...

So, just before midday I bumped into Phil alongside the Axe Estuary. Apparently it is the worst start to the year that he can recall on the Seaton/Axe patch. No local scarcities at all, unless you count Greenshank; I don't. Which means my gull-related jam a little earlier was even more welcome. Let me talk you through it...

I'll be honest. This winter so far, I have probably passed my bins very half-heartedly over the Axe Estuary gulls on less than a handful of occasions. I haven't even had my scope with me for ages. This morning I took all the optics. This morning I took my aged little FinePix. This morning I was going to make a proper effort, and have a proper look. I was pleased to see a good bunch of big gulls half way up the river, roughly in line with the Seaton Marshes hide, and stopped opposite them. Now, in order to look at them properly, you don't just lean over and peer through a drizzle-speckled window. No, you get out of the van for a proper, unobscured view. If it's going to be a proper look, that's what you do. So that's what I did.

For some reason I scanned them in the opposite direction to what my instincts usually dictate, so I didn't spot the interesting one until I'd almost done the lot. Being well to my left, it wasn't properly side-on, plus it was preening hard, its head buried somewhere in its scaps. But a brief view of that head prior to burial had stopped me in my tracks and made me wait patiently for its reappearance. Why? If you've ever read any of my Caspy witterings before, you will know why. Because that head looked gleamingly white.

Mind you, at this stage, with all the upperpart feathers waving around at odd angles, I couldn't even be sure of the tone of its back. It might yet turn out to be a first-winter Great Black-backed Gull, though I didn't really think it was quite big enough. Anyway, finally it came up for air and there it was: a white head and a grey mantle. I reached for the scope.

Within seconds the scope confirmed my suspicions. It was a first-winter Caspian Gull, my 12th on the Axe. Conscious that I have (amazingly) managed at least a record shot of every single Axe Casp that I've seen, I hurried to get my camera. Sure enough, the bird was still there, so I immediately put the camera to the eyepiece and took two quick shots. The settings were rubbish, so I fiddled around to adjust them, checked again for the bird and realised it was gone. Thankfully I got straight on it, heading away down the river, but it was clearly intent on the open sea rather than the tram sheds.

So there we have it. More Casp jam.


A surprising amount of feather detail in this photo. It looks to have replaced a couple of inner greater coverts and (I think) several inner median coverts too, which probably makes it the most advanced 1st-winter, moult-wise, that I've seen. The mantle and scaps are nice and pale, and very finely marked, and there is very little in the way of dark streaking on what you can see of the underparts. A nicely saggy 'full-nappy' look too!

Sorry, much less sharp, this photo, but it shows that Casp 'look' to the head very well. Very clean, very white, just a hint of its darkly-speckled 'shawl'. Note the obvious pale areas on the bill too. Nice.


  1. Your post got me out 'Gulling' Gav.
    No Casps though. Must try harder.

    1. That's nice to hear, Ric. There's got to be a Casp or two in the Colne Valley somewhere.
      I ought to try harder also. Getting the scope out once a year is a bit slack!

  2. In retrospect Gav, I'm claiming a 2w on Stockers. Probably mentioned that before. A strange encounter where I knew I was seeing something different, but what?
    I have a scope, but it's a right monster of a thing. Good for a sea watch. Goes to 67x.
    Lugging that about feels like work.