Thursday, 18 February 2021

While Waiting for Wheatears

Driving between jobs today I spied a field of Mute Swans, so pulled over to quickly check them for stray Whoopers or Bewick's. Needless to say, no chance. However...

Cattle Egret

It's amazing how rapidly this species has become part of the scenery. Not many years ago (ten? fifteen?) my discovery would have sparked a local twitch. But now? Well, I did reach into the car and dig out the camera this time, but one day...

Anyway, on to the main point of this post...

Spring is on the horizon and birders' thoughts turn to migrants. Like anyone else, my little heart swells at the prospect of plucky Wheatears flitting across the Channel very soon, but in the meantime there are other migrants to enjoy right now. No waiting. Now. Sounds good, right? Interested?

Yesterday my working day was cut short by a thick band of rain sweeping in from the west. Its arrival coincided with lunchtime, so while waiting for it to clear I sat in the car and watched the birdy comings and goings on the Axe Estuary. In just over an hour the Lesser Black-backed Gull count went from 35 to 90. Back in the days of regular note-taking I would write down any LBBG count which was bigger than nine, because the Axe norm is single figures. Today for example, no more than five whenever I checked. Yesterday's count was a big one. My Axe record is 162, on 23rd March 2006, and I've had just two other 100+ counts: 100 on 3rd March 2009 and 120+ on 23rd February 2010. Notice how they were all late winter/early spring? That's because Lesser Black-backed Gulls are migrants. Migrants!

So where did all those birds come from yesterday? In December last year I came across a colour-ringed LBBG on the Axe Estuary. It was ringed as a nestling on the North Sea coast of Germany on 3rd July 2014. Look where it's been since...

Lesser Black-backed Gull Yellow HXJ60

Yep, they might breed up here, but they winter on the Iberian coast, or even as far south as West Africa. And given the right conditions we can get a nice little arrival from mid-to-late February onwards. The magic of birdy social media revealed that my own LBBG thrills yesterday were not an isolated incident. For example, lots through Abbotsbury and a big pulse through London during the last couple of days. Exciting eh?

But Lesser Black-backs have even more to offer. Because they come in different flavours you see. Those that breed on our shores are Larus fuscus graellsii, and most of our migrants are of this race, but we also get the continental version which breeds up as far as W Norway: Larus fuscus intermedius. Intermedius birds are much darker than graellsii, closer to the shade of Great Black-backed Gulls. So, not only do you get the pleasure of watching migration in action, but also the happy delight associated with assessing shades of dark grey! Yesterday's birds all looked like graellsii to me, though some were definitely on the darker end of the spectrum. A few pics...

LBBGs beginning to gather. On the bird with open wings notice the obvious contrast between the black primaries and the rest of the upperparts.

A new arrival

From a distance I initially wondered whether the bird on the left was going to be a Yellow-legged Gull. It isn't. Great Black-backed Gull in the background - note the much darker plumage.

Nice shade comparison: GBBG on the left, graellsii LBBG on the right.

I had a little trawl through the NQS archive for some shots of intermedius birds. Here is a selection. They are quite old and the quality not great, but the much darker plumage is nicely obvious...

Graellsii on the left, intermedius on the right.

Intermedius again, possibly the same bird as above.

Definitely an intermedius on the left. Not sure about the other one...

Okay, I've done enough work. You decide.

Look at this stunner! A right hefty intermedius.

Intermedius in the sun.

I'd forgotten all about this next photo. It was taken on 5th March 2012 at Trew's Weir on the River Exe in Exeter. There were a few of these birds present and initially I had to do a double-take because they looked superficially like Yellow-legged Gulls. But they weren't. Rather they were graellsii Lesser Black-backs.

Graellsii Lesser Black-backed Gull in Exeter, 5th March 2012

So there you go. While waiting for Wheatears, what can we do?

Look at gulls.



  1. Hi Gavin, thanks for your very informative article. It's very prescient as I noticed two of these very dark intermedius types on the river by Rise at West Bay yesterday lunchtime. Gull ID is something I really need to brush up on so your article was timely as at the time I thought how much darker than usual they were.
    Cheers Steve

    1. Nice! So far I've not seen any convincing intermedius birds personally, but hopefully will soon. That spot on the Brit next to Rise is hopefully going to provide me with a really smart gull one day, at point-blank range for photos! An intermedius LBBG would do nicely! 😊

  2. According to the Skye Birds website, we had our first LBBG of the spring (1 bird) on 17th Feb down at the Costa del Broadford. They filter through up where I am too, usually peaking at maybe a dozen birds on a good day. Looking forward to the sight of their white rumps ;)

    1. Yep, while Wheatears are still tarting around in the dressing room you can rely on gulls to keep the show going. 😊