Sunday, 19 April 2015

The Great Blue rollercoaster

Picture this - the perfect Atlantic midwinter storm as it hits the southwest of England back in early December 2007. On the Friday afternoon, Ash F stumbled upon a first-winter Great Blue Heron from the hide at Lower Moors. And with the bird present until dusk it was time to give it a go. A decent group of birders managed to somehow fly on the next morning, but amazingly - despite horrendous weather - we couldn't locate this bird. As it happened, the wind then strengthened to 80 mph during the day and with this, the flights stopped and we were all stranded til the Monday. To cut a long story short, I had to miss a day of work, eventually fly off on the Monday as well as return empty handed on the Ardea front. So roll on this week...

Tuesday 14th April. My Champions League watching of the two Madrid clubs was quickly curtailed by a call I received from Bob W, informing me that Ash F had been up to his old tricks and had found another Great Blue Heron. Again in Lower Moors, and then on the beach at Old Town, it was pretty rude not to give this bird a go - and with a bit more information and the bird showing til dusk, I was relatively confident for the next morning. With lots of fog forecast, it looked as though the Scillonian would be the only option. And it was...

We all piled onto the Scillonian, all 70 or so of the usual suspects - same faces, just everyone starting to look that bit older given how long it'd been since a massive bird like this had got us all together. The omens were good; positive news right from first light until we lost signal on the Scillonian crossing between Land's End and the islands. However, despite the fact the bird had remained on Old Town beach all morning, there'd been no sign since 11am when it apparently just headed out of view. Arriving at just after midday, we all had about 4 hours on the island before having to get the boat back - so people starting spreading out. I headed around Peninis, seeing the odd Swallow in the process but not too much else, while others headed out in all directions. It took a couple of hours, but Andy H and Vicky T had the good fortune to relocate the bird; in a weedy field at Holy Vale. A bit of excitement for those nearby, and even before I'd arrived with the majority of others, the bird had been spooked and headed off frustrating pretty much everyone. And on this note, with a requirement to be back in London the next day, I left empty handed despite knowing the bird probably hadn't moved too far.

Thursday came and nearly went with no sign of the heron, despite a load of birders having stayed on and scoured the islands. It wasn't until a Bryher local had posted a photo on Facebook that everyone realised the Great Blue Heron had presumably spent the day on there without being detected. So, car back in action and team assembled, it was back down the M3, A303 and A30 overnight once again. Along with Josh J, James S and Sam V it was back on the Scillonian (where it was good to catch up with Ian E from my 'back in the day' Cheshire times and we had a mini fall of phylloscs) and across to Scilly again. News was again positive, as Billy S had slept over on Bryher so that he could be there at first light, so by 6.30am the heron was again on Big Pool. It was a bit nervous, but with the Scillonian having docked by midday, the 30 or so birders who had come back piled onto one of the inter island boats and headed towards Bryher. The tide was still really low, meaning we had to wait a bit to get through the channel, but once done it was a quick stroll over to the other side of the island where finally it was possible to clap eyes on this: -

1st-winter Great Blue Heron Bryher, Scilly 17th April 2015
Utterly incredible how much of a pain this massive (in all senses of the word) species had been and genuinely good to see, as well as a relief. Having an hour and a bit to watch the bird on Big Pool, it was good to see it catching a small fish despite the relatively poor weather. Plus the opportunity to look at its large size, off white thighs, reddish epaulets and finely streaked neck - add to this a concave looking bill and blotches of reddish/mauve on the next sides too.  I'm not too sure how long it'll stay on Scilly, but with over 35 records from the Azores, it's possible there will be the odd one or two more Great Blue Herons turning up in Britain in the future. Though given that this is only the second, despite everyone's awareness to look for this species, it's always going to be a bit of a mega rarity.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Thayer's Gull and birding in Galicia

I've often thought about a trip to northwest Spain, not just for a quick twitch but as an alternative winter trip destination to let's say Ireland. Anyway, that didn't happen and though a bit late in the season to do any real damage, I thought in April it'd be a nice place and a good trial run to see the lie of the land here.

Galicia is very much like Cornwall and southwest Ireland, with the birding consisting of small estuaries and fish ports. Having trawled through the Rare Birds in Spain website over the years while compiling the WP report for Birdwatch, many of the sites have become pretty familiar before I'd even visited them. Places like Ensada de Insua and A Frouxeira lagoon, and of course San Cibrao where the most bona fide Western Palearctic Thayer's Gull you're ever going to get hangs out each late winter into spring. News wasn't good though on this bird before my visit yesterday, with locals saying that it hadn't been about for a while. However, I put in a good session that paid dividends when I eventually located it among the hordes of Yellow-legged Gulls at Xove fish factory. In bright light, it showed rather well...

adult Thayer's Gull Xove fish farm, Lugo 8th April 2015
A couple of Herring Gulls were around too, an adult and a rather pale, large looking third-winter that I messed up flight shots of by taking my eyes off it at the crucial moment! There were also a couple of ringed Yellow-legged Gulls about, including this black-ringed bird that was ringed last summer in Gijon, Asturias.
1st-winter Yellow-legged Gull San Cibrao, Lugo 8th April 2015 - ringed as a chick in Gijon, Asturias on 14th July 2014.
Being a bit late on in the winter, birds like a long staying Bonaparte's Gull at Carino had moved on and no white-winged gulls were about, though a check of A Frouxeira revealed this rather handsome Merlin in the dunes - a scarce winter visitor apparently, and quite late on in the season for one here.
Merlin A Frouxeira Lagoon, Valdovino, A Coruna 8th April 2015
On the way into La Coruna last night, there was one first-winter Ring-billed Gull at O Burgo. So a re-visit today and in better light produced two 1st-winters together - distinctly different from each other.

1st-winter Ring-billed Gulls O Burgo, A Coruna 9th April 2015 (bird 1 above, bird 2 below)
We'll be heading along the coast tomorrow from La Coruna, hoping to see some more gulls of course, before spending a couple of days in Santiago de Compostela.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Gulls at Getlini, Riga, Latvia 4th and 5th April

Saturday and Sunday were spent in Latvia. Getlini Eko (landfill site) near Riga to be precise. And with Mick S, we had two really excellent days of getting to know the gulls of the Baltic. It's a really easy trip to do, with the dump being less than half an hour away from the airport and even less from the city centre where there are loads of hotels and pints of beer for just over a euro! One thing is for sure, I'll be returning to Getlini sooner rather than later.

It's the first trip this far east for gulls that I've done in Europe, so the primary targets of the trip were to look at omissus-type Herring Gulls (those ones with yellow legs, and a bit less black in the primaries, often referred to as Marsh Gulls) as well as enjoy some more Caspian Gulls - as they're always a treat - plus whatever else came along. One thing's for sure, it has quickly got me up to speed (as much as you can do) on Lesser Black-backed races - understanding how perhaps you'd struggle identifying an out-of-range graellsii with the prospect of heuglini (and vice versa) and how can you be certain what you're looking at is a heuglini anyway? There you have it, a minefield.

The highlight for me though was finding a ringed Baltic Gull i.e. a nominate fuscus - and doing the detective work of reading the metal ring. Still awaiting the finer detail, but with a look like this and a ring inscribed 'Riksmuseum Stockholm' it's definitely in the zone: -

adult Baltic Gull metal ringed in Sweden 8113504 - just waiting for the exact location...
Added to this, here is a brief summary the gulls noted over the two days: -
Caspian Gull at least ten birds noted; a third-winter and a second-winter, with all the rest first-winters. A couple of suspect individuals noted, including a Lithuanian ringed bird, that presumably had some Herring Gull influence. Just a couple of shots for starters on this post.

first-winter Caspian Gulls, Getlini Eko
Herring Gull extremely common, with the majority of birds being omissus-type, yellow legged birds. There were some very bright legged birds, and some pink-legged birds presumably from further north and west. Birds typically showed a nice white tip to P10, a subterminal band to P9 and either a small band or broken band on P5 with no black at all on P4 - what I was expecting which is always nice. Four ringed birds - two from Lithuania, one from Latvia and one from Finland.

adult omissus-type Herring Gulls, Getlini Eko
Lesser Black-backed Gull a handful seen; three adults of which two looked good candidates for nominate fuscus while another looked very graellsii-like despite the range so perhaps it's either this or heuglini (though the mirrors aren't ideal for a'classic' of the latter).

Great Black-backed Gull two birds seen, an adult and a first-winter.

Common Gull small numbers seen with perhaps fifteen to twenty birds present.

Black-headed Gull the commonest gull, and with a few rings about, very interesting to look through. Rings from Germany, Denmark, Latvia, two from Poland and most interesting of all from Northern Ireland!
Black-headed Gull 2AFD, Getlini Eko - ringed at Ballymena, County Antrim on 12th February 2014 and present there this winter until as recently as 22nd March 2015. Only the second ever bird from this scheme to be recorded outside of the UK; shows that a good proportion of our wintering Black-headed Gulls breed further east
Also, this leucistic gull, or potentially albinistic, was present too. The size of a Herring Gull, its slim and long bill does give a slight cachinnans feel. However, all white birds don't really give you much to go on especially when bare part colouration in these freak birds has no resemblance to what it would be like in normally pigmented birds.

gull sp., Getlini Eko
There'll be a few more photos to come once I get the time to do a bit of polishing off.

Well, we did also try to access the coast for something slightly different, but had little luck in tracking much down - just a Great Grey Shrike on wires over a typically boggy area at Mangalsalas. We could have seen what many would term 'real' birds, including Pygmy and Ural Owls, plus some decent woodpeckers, but we didn't bother. Oh yeah, and on the Sunday, three of these guys were enjoying the dump alongside the gulls...
White Stork, Getlini Eko

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Finishing off another winter at the tip

Not being able to get out much last weekend due to other commitments, it was a joy to be enjoying the sweet smell of landfill sites again this morning. Perhaps the last visit of the winter, what with being away next weekend and then most gulls moving off, it was really nice to have a couple of first-winter Caspian Gulls to round things off: -
1st-winter Caspian Gull Essex 28th March 2015 - ringed here at the tip last weekend as J3NT
1st-winter Caspian Gull Essex 28th March 2015
One of these birds, as you see above, was ringed by the NTGG last weekend - gutted I wasn't there to see it in the hand; they also ringed an adult Glaucous Gull that is now in Northamptonshire so suitably gripped once again. Anyway, back to today, where as well as the Casps there were a couple of Yellow-legged Gulls (an adult and first-winter) as well as a handful of Mediterranean Gulls (three adults and two first-winters). As has often been the case this winter, the hybrid second-winter Iceland Gull imposter (presumably a Herring x Glaucous Gull hybrid) was present again along with a regular leucistic bird.

2nd-winter hybrid gull Essex 28th March 2015; present for the last couple of months on and off; though mimicking an Iceland Gull it does seem to feel as though one parent is a Herring Gull (with the other parent presumably a Glaucous Gull as Iceland Gulls apparently don't interbreed)
leucistic Herring Gull Essex 28th March 2015; a regular bird this winter (with an East Anglia Gull Group ringed 2nd-winter Herring Gull)
Things got more and more blowy as the day went on, with it being difficult to angle the Land Rover to view birds anything other than side on. The tip face was in a bit of an awkward position, but I was able to manoeuvre us to a flat area where we could see the melee as well as an adjacent flat area. A few ringed birds, all local though, as well as one of the freakiest billed gulls I've ever seen: -
1st-winter Herring Gull Essex 28th March 2015
So as mentioned at the start of this post, this could be it for tip visits for me this winter. I'll be away next weekend and then hopefully spring migration will kick in as the gulls disperse. Being honest, it has been an expensive (half a dozen punctures) and frustrating (a couple of headache inducing hybrids lingering on) winter although with a couple of Glaucous Gulls, an Iceland Gull and around 40 Caspian Gulls recorded it was certainly worth it. Having the privilege of viewing gulls close up on a weekly basis is something I don't take for granted either, and with landfill sites as we know them on their way out with a preference for incinerators and recycling these days, every winter from now on up at the tip will be treated as if it's the last one... roll on winter 2015/16!

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Good gull haul on a dusty tip

I wasn't able to get out last weekend, with the only bird of note being a Little Egret in Barnston, Essex. Therefore, despite a hefty cold that has wiped me out most of the week, I was looking forward to today's tip visit. Bright skies and breezy to start off with, clouding over later as the morning progressed. It's not something that happens too often due to the usual rain in the weather, but with 10 or so days with very little water falling from the heavens, the tip was dry. And with the wind, it was blowing dust around like nobody's business.

The easterly wind also presumably had an impact on an increase in Caspian Gulls present today. A couple of weeks ago we drew a blank, and in my absence last week Steve A only had two. So the six present today was the peak count this year, and brings the tally for winter to over 40 individuals (more than 2013/14 despite a reduced number of visits due to 'tyre pressure'). Today's haul included a slick 3rd-winter, a rather solid-looking, bleached 2nd-winter with reduced P10 mirrors and four 1st-winters of differing sizes and darkness.
Bird 1 - 1st-winter Caspian Gull

Bird 2 - 1st-winter Caspian Gull; a small and rather dark individual

Bird 3 - 2nd-winter Caspian Gull; a bleached and solid looking individual with very small mirrors to P10

Bird 4 - 3rd-winter Caspian Gull

Bird 5 - 1st-winter Caspian Gull

Bird 6 - 1st-winter Caspian Gull
As well as the Caspian Gulls, there was once again a white-winged gull headache present. The bird present in late January and documented here looked much paler and Iceland Gull-like today in the warm early morning light. And having learnt something about looking at features and ignoring the 'feel' of the bird from two weeks ago, then is there actually that much wrong with it being a 2nd-winter Iceland Gull?

One thing is for sure, Steve A and I have drawn the short straw in terms of the Iceland Gulls that have turned up this winter. That's if that's what they both are. Slightly older and more straightforward was an adult Great Black-backed Gull that had been ringed as a chick in southwest Norway in July 1994.
20 year old Great Black-backed Gull JH417 - ringed as a chick at Kjellingen, Mandal, Vest-Agder, Norway on 8th July 1994; its colour ring was attached on 3rd June 2011 and it has been seen subsequently at Dungeness, Kent on 4th March 2012, Hirtshals Havn, Søren Nordbysvej, Nordjylland, Denmark on 24th December 2014 and Boulogne-sur-Mer, France 4th January 2015 as well as each summer on its breeding grounds in southwest Norway.
Good pushes of Lesser Black-backed Gulls this time of year is typical, and amongst the decent number of adults, were a couple of NTGG ringed birds and a couple of intermedius types. A dozen or so adult Med Gulls were back too, with several paired up. Looking forward to next weekend!

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Saturday's gull again

A few tweets and facebook messages later, not everyone is agreeing. And that's what is good about gulls as it's not necessarily a precise science. Saturday's gull (see here) continues to polarise views with Glaucous, Iceland and hybrid all still being suggested by individuals who all know something about gulls.

So now I've had a bit of time to sleep on things, look objectively at it as well as take in points made by others. There is actually a different way of looking at things compared to Saturday's subjective, jizz related observation.
2nd-winter Iceland Gull Essex 28th February 2015?
One of Europe's top gullers, who to his credit doesn't sit on the fence, got me to think slightly differently. What are the characteristics of a 2nd-winter Iceland Gull?
- tepid green/yellow bill with black subterminal band
- pale iris
- white plumage with some hoary marking on the coverts
- dark pink legs
- long primary projection
2nd-winter Iceland Gull Essex 28th February 2015?
Does this bird show all of the above features? Yes. Therefore it's a 2nd-winter Iceland Gull. Despite the structure being more stocky, Herring Gull-esque, it should still be within the range of a very large Iceland Gull. There are no plumage traits that suggest otherwise [and of course Iceland Gulls do not interbreed].
2nd-winter Iceland Gull Essex 28th February 2015?
This bird has and is a massive headache, and has been put to one side by one of Britain's best bird finders, identified as a Glaucous Gull in Surrey, an Iceland Gull in Essex (well done Paul H!) and as a suspect, potential Herring Gull hybrid by yours truly most recently.

It takes a bloke with bigger bollocks than most to change their mind, so there you go. And I'm warming to the glaucoides idea. In the grand scheme of things though, few people are interested in gulls anyway...

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Back on the tip and 'that' gull

This time last week I was still in the sunshine of southern California. In contrast today, it was grey and dismal on the tip in Essex. And it took almost three hours to get up there! While I'd been away, Steve had again been unlucky on the tyre front again - it must be half a dozen we've shredded this winter. After going into a local fitting shop and getting our new off-road tyres on the rims, we had to jack the Land Rover up and change things ourselves.

But it was all worth it, just to get a few rings and find that the juvenile Glaucous Gull was still about, albeit briefly. Highlight (it was to me anyhow) was seeing in the flesh what seems to be the same bird that has recently been troubling a few birders with its identity both at Rainham and in Surrey at Beddington and the reservoir roosts - opinion divided between Iceland and Glaucous Gulls. I had a couple of email conversations with people about this bird while I was in California, and remained (untypically) rather non-committal. However, I benefited from seeing it up relatively close and immediately it felt all 'wrong' for both species; size wise it was very similar structurally to a Herring Gull and with a relatively long primary projection it wasn't your average Glaucous Gull. Its tepid bill with dark subterminal band, and pale eye, too didn't feel to fit completely either. I'd go for it being either a leucistic Herring Gull or potentially with some Glaucous genes mixed through.

And just to add to the headache, in amongst the half dozen or so frisky Mediterranean Gulls seen today, was this hybrid bird (complete with a Polish ring): -

hybrid Mediterranean x Black-headed Gull
There were also a couple of Yellow-legged Gulls (first and second-winters) but disappointingly drew a blank on Caspian Gulls today.
2nd-winter Yellow-legged Gull