Tuesday 14 January 2020

The Best Local Twitch Ever!

Sitting here I am accompanied by the sound of gusting hoolie, and the air is full of drizzly murk. Thankfully that's all outside, and I'm not. We seem to have been afflicted by similarly grim conditions on a far-too-regular basis right through the late autumn and winter, though today for some reason it has triggered a memory. A memory of similar weather, but on a summer's day, just over 12 years ago. Like today, I'd been out birding first thing, hoping for some storm-driven goodies, and been disappointed. Like today, I'd returned home and battened down the hatches. The date was August 14th, 2007...

It's late morning and my phone rings. It's Steve...

"There's an Audouin's Gull at Seaton Marshes!"

I'll just pause there for a moment. Assuming you are a birder reading this, and no matter where in the country you are situated, I think I am safe in assuming that receiving such a call from a fellow local birder would trigger a cascade of utter chaos in your body. Like it did in mine. If I had been wired to a device for measuring the many physiological processes happily chuntering away within, there would have been a sudden explosion of spikes. Big, big spikes.

"Really?" I said, somewhat inadequately.

Because that's how I respond to chaos. I also hurtled round the house like a madman, grabbing optics, camera, car keys...and was at the Seaton Marshes car park very rapidly indeed. The only other vehicle there was Steve's. A quick phone call confirmed that he was in the hide and the bird still present. I am not ashamed to admit that I ran. I ran to that hide like the gangly, scope-carrying, middle-aged man I was. The indignities we suffer for a bird...

Two fields to the north, a large flock of gulls was sheltering from the horrible weather. They were at least 500m distant, and between us and them was a load of rank vegetation and a barbed-wire fence. Much of the flock was hidden from view, and the birds themselves at least partially obscured one another. Buried in the melee was an Audouin's Gull. How Steve managed to get me on it I don't know, because the only bits visible at that moment in time were its mantle, its wing tips, and the back of its head. A few seconds later the gulls all shuffled around a bit, and it was completely hidden. We waited. And we waited. Nothing.

Steve had an appointment elsewhere and reluctantly was forced to tear himself away, leaving me alone. Alone with an invisible, stonkingly mega-rare gull, somewhere out there in that seething mass of dross. I felt a heavy responsibility not to lose it, and dared not take my eye from the scope...

And then, after what seemed an age, I realised I could see it. Not all of it. Just a white, beady-eyed head, and a bill like deep-red lipstick. For the next 90 minutes it was cat-and-mouse, as the Audouin's kept vanishing and reappearing. Three times it flew a short distance, shifting position in the flock, and gradually I pieced together a description. And then suddenly it was in virtually full view, preening, for about ten minutes. By now the hide was rammed solid, and it was a challenge getting some digiscoped shots now that there was finally an opportunity. But I did, and here are three of them - screenshots from the BBRC description which still resides on my laptop...

These photos give some idea of the viewing conditions. Compared to some parts of the flock, this lot were remarkably unobscured! Hopefully it's apparent which one is the Audouin's, but in case not, it's the 23 pixels just left of the fence post.

Finally I relinquished the prime spot I had, and exited the hide. Since other birders had begun to arrive I'd been on a bit of guilt trip, knowing that latecomers would be struggling to get any view at all, let alone a good one. The bird was frankly a nightmare to see.

Steve, meanwhile, had returned from his errand and was watching the bird from a house which overlooks the marshes. I'm sure he won't mind me including a photo he took through the window; it's my favourite image of the whole event...

Steve Waite's photo of a massive OOF!! Just imagine the adrenaline rush!

Not long after my departure, the whole flock did likewise, and around 14:00 the Audouin's was lost. By now the area was full of birders twitching the gull, and they spent the afternoon searching far and wide. Two young twitchers were among that eager throng, but despite a reported 'possible sighting' of it flying down the river at 20:00 there had been no sign, and as the evening began to draw in and the light fade, they decided to hunt out the local Tesco for something to eat. In 2007 there was no such thing as a Seaton Tesco, but there was a holiday camp along Harbour Road which had a rather utilitarian, Tesco-like appearance. They spotted the buildings and pulled over to investigate. A few gulls were perched on the roof, so, a quick scan...

I can only imagine the resulting euphoria!!    (Photo: Dan Pointon)

Ironically, the holiday camp was later demolished, and the site is now where the Seaton Tesco lives.

I am fortunate to have been party to some terrific birding moments over the years, but the Seaton Marshes Audouin's Gull is right up there among my favourites. The excitement, the difficulty, and the unexpected little twist at the was brilliant. I know I've related this tale before, but hopefully it's one that bears retelling...


  1. What a moment Gav. Was that really 12 years ago?

    1. Yes Ric, how quickly it goes...
      Also the heyday of the 'Backwater Birding' thread on Birdforum.
      Everything is history all too soon.

  2. I'll try again.

    Gav, how do you filter out 3000 posts per hour on everything on Birdforum to find the one thread you wish to look at?

    1. Tricky. Search function? That's usually how I find stuff on there.