Thursday, 13 January 2022

Dross

It is now almost 40 years since I began to look at gulls properly. 1982 was the year of revelation. In the autumn of that year I saw my first Mediterranean Gull, in Norfolk, and very soon afterwards found my first, at Staines Reservoir. Med Gull was still a very scarce bird in the London recording area. That individual was an adult in winter plumage, but the following spring I discovered a 1st-winter - again at Staines Res - and realised that youngsters were perfectly doable. In 1984 I learned about the Wraysbury Reservoir roost. Late on a winter's afternoon you might have seen me climbing the gates and hurrying up the bank to get out of view. Glaucous and Iceland Gulls were the sought-after prizes. As my interest grew, less obvious gulls like the darker-mantled, yellow-legged Herring Gulls (now Yellow-legged Gull) began to register, and the properly black Lesser Black-backed Gulls...

Almost invariably, digging out any of these gems required the same approach: pick carefully through a flock of gulls. Although I am much older now, I haven't found a better way.

Yesterday I was finally able to get some work done. This put me in the Seaton area, where at lunchtime the Axe Estuary beckoned. This was the lovely view from Coronation Corner...

A few hundred gulls in glorious sunshine. Wonderful!

Bright sunshine isn't the best light for assessing subtle shades of grey, but it would certainly make an adult Ring-billed Gull's yellow legs stand out, and its pale eye easier to see. Of course, Ring-billed Gulls are like hen's teeth nowadays, but you have to dream. So, once the big gulls had been sifted for Casps etc, every single Common Gull got a grilling, including the youngsters. The Black-headed Gulls too - Bonaparte's Gull is still one of my most wanted. And of course, on the Axe a winter Med is always a nice reward.

This number of gulls feels quite manageable, and I honestly felt like I did the lot. But there was nothing. Not a thing. The whole lot were so much...er...dross.

Or were they?

It is true that any search through a gull flock is a hopeful quest for the odd one out; something unusual, something special; ideally something rare. You select each bird, examine it, discard it - toss it on the dross pile. That's how it seems, but really it's not like that at all. Sure, you might whizz through them a bit dismissively in that hunt for a goodie, but once you realise there isn't one, you relax and begin to appreciate them in their own right. The incredible variability in Herring Gulls for example. Not just in plumage, but size, structure, even facial expression! And how the sun brings out the intense redness of an adult BHG's legs. And that even 1st-winter Common Gulls are not all the same...

Instead of the usual grey saddle of second-generation feathers, this 1st-winter Common Gull has retained its brown, scaly juvenile scaps. Is it from somewhere with a short, late season, way above the Arctic Circle? Possibly. Who knows? Interesting though.

And of course, sifting through all these regular gulls helps you become more and more familiar with the 'look' of the commoner species, so that the 24-carat gull can be more easily separated from its drossy mates. Like in this shot...

Lunchtime today. Spot the classy gull.

Hopefully a bit more obvious now: 1st-winter Med Gull hiding behind that preening Herring Gull, just left of centre.

Yes, when I use the seemingly disparaging term 'dross' to refer to everyday gulls, it is always with an underlying note of affection. I love gulls, all of them. Drossy gulls have helped me while away many very pleasurable hours in the last 40 years. Long may they continue to do so.

Always look at gulls!

9 comments:

  1. I always struggled with Where's Wally books, I assume you find them easy :o)

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    1. I heard the Where's Wally artist is a gull enthusiast. 😄

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  2. When identifying gulls Gav where did you start?
    Studying the gulls, making notes, then cross referencing with field guides. Tagging along with someone who was good on id-ing gulls and picking up from them, or studying a good field guide until it sort off stuck and then go out into field, or maybe all of these and more. Obviously practice make perfect-ish.

    P.S. I'm assuming you had or have a copy of T&AD Poyser The Identification of Gulls by P.J Grant back then.

    All the best and thank you

    Tony

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    1. Good question Tony. When it came to our regular gulls, I started with adults, moving on to younger birds later. I did buy the PJ Grant book, and definitely learned a lot from it. Nowadays, I reckon the Collins Guide (2nd edition) contains enough detail on the various age plumages to get anyone off to a flying start with gulls. Then there are gull-specific books (I have three) for birders unfortunate enough to get hooked!

      Once armed with the Collins Guide (or similar) there is no substitute for simply looking at gulls as often as possible, ideally with an analytical eye.

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    2. And pretty much self taught too. In the mid-80s Glaucous Gull was uncommon but regular in W London, whereas Iceland Gull a rarer bird. I clearly recall the satisfaction of clinching my first London Iceland Gull (a juv) at the Wraysbury Res roost, based on ID criteria I'd basically learned from a book.

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  3. Im pleased it only took 0.25 of a second to pick the classy gull out of the distant shot... :)

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    1. Nice one Stew. And I guess Med Gull is still a nice little prize in Northumberland? Surprisingly few on the Axe in mid-winter (that's my first this year, in two visits) yet 30-odd miles away in the Weymouth area there are many hundreds, maybe thousands. Always a treat though.

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  4. Really do enjoy your blogs on gulls.I go through the (dross) gulls at Longham Lakes (though closed at present due to bird flu) and enjoy everyone one.Best gull I have seen there is a Boneaparte's Gull. As you know I find gulls a bit of a challenge specifically the larger ones still looking for my 1st Caspian Gull.

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    1. Thanks Martin, I'm really pleased you enjoyed the post. And it's great to hear that you're sifting the Longham Lakes dross! One day it will pay off handsomely I'm sure, and in the meantime you'll enjoy getting to know all your regulars a little better. Win-win. Keep at it! All the best...

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