Friday 21 February 2020

Seaton Hole Gull Roost

Came back from a family day out today (more on that later) at about 4:30pm, and headed straight to the river for a last gasp look at the gulls.  The tide was high however and as a result numbers weren't great, so I nipped to Seaton Hole. Well I say 'nipped' but I actually ended up spending almost an hour there!

This was my first dusk visit to Seaton Hole this winter, and the gull roost was really impressive.  Numbers were constantly building right up to dusk, and the main small gull flock was pretty close in (probably due to the south west wind).

A small part of the flock

Although there were few large gulls (most seemed to head around the corner to Beer), among the small gulls were 680+ Common Gull and by the end of my stint 56 Med Gulls.  There's at least seven just in this shot...

I thought this was a good scenario to test the capabilities of the P900 out, as I was wondering if I did manage to pick something subtle out like a Bonaparte's or Ring-billed Gull, what kind of quality image would I be able to get?

This is a no zoom shot...

This is with about 25x optical zoom (with a single gull circled)...

And this is at about 95x zoom (so using full optical zoom of 83x with some digital zoom as well)...

Yes that's the Med Gull that's circled in the above pic, which is also in theory in the shot above that.  So to answer my own question, yes, I would be able to get a more than identifiable pic if there was a Ross's Gull sat out there with the Black-heads!  Seriously impressive kit. Especially when you consider the poor light conditions as well as the lumpy sea.

Rewinding a few hours, we'd enjoyed a lovely day on Dartmoor and at Stover CP.  As ever it was a lovely walk around the lake, and good to see Mandarin have really made themselves at home here.  A couple of years ago they'd often be around, but hidden away in quiet corners, but today...

Harry feeding the ducks! 

There were nine in total

Love 'em or hate 'em - they are lookers!

There were a few Tufted Duck out on the lake, no Goosanders today but a single female Pochard...

Don't see many of these being an Axe birder!

There were plenty of Siskin around in the trees as well, along with the usual woodland-species that always seem abundant here.

Tuesday 18 February 2020

Rapidly Revisting a Recently Revisited Gull

Well that lasted long....

I want to highlight this comment that I made in my post yesterday, the post where I proclaimed how I thought I had dug out a few old photos depicting a sub-adult Caspian Gull on the Axe...

"When you decide you are going to take an interest in gulls, you go on a journey.  It's a never ending journey really".

It really is a never ending journey, because this morning I woke up to some surprising messages from some well respected 'gullers'; "Looks more like a Yellow-legged to me".

What really is interesting, is this isn't the only messages I've received.  In all eight people have commented about the gull pictured yesterday, through various means.  Four of these have said they think it looks better for a Yellow-legged, whereas four have agreed with my Caspian Gull ID.  So at four all does that mean I have the casting vote?

Well, no.

Needless to say I will no longer be submitting this as a Caspian Gull, too many people think it isn't one. What I think is now irrelevant. 

So to completely summarise this and my last blog post... 11 years ago I was right. I was right to leave this gull unidentified, and that's how it shall remain...

Monday 17 February 2020

Revisiting a Gull of the Past

I'm about to do something I have never done before, submit a description to the Devon Birds Records Committee of a bird that I saw over 11 years ago!

Let me explain... When you decide you are going to take an interest in gulls, you go on a journey.  It's a never ending journey really. At first you bumble your way through the flocks, getting over excited by gulls that 'look like X' and of course, you will make mistakes. But as the years go by, experience comes on your side, and that is why I need to revisit this bird.

On 23rd Dec 2008 I saw a gull that at the time had me scratching my head.  First I thought I had a sub-adult Yellow-legged, but its legs had no hint of yellow and the mantle didn't quite seem dark enough, so Caspian came to mind. However when it revealed its bill I was put right off that idea, not a bill to brag about.  I took a few photos, but then the darn thing took off and flew out to sea.  Gone for good, and I was convinced at the time with the few photos I had nothing would ever come of it.

11 years more experience and I can see I was wrong. When I look at the photos now, it's a Caspian Gull..

Axe Estuary 23rd Dec 2008

I am practically banging my head against a wall as I write this...

Bill aside -  this is a Caspian Gull.  And looking closely at the pics, I actually think there is enough here to present a plausible case to the DBRC. I will keep you updated with how the submission goes, but why bother I hear you ask?  Well, this is at least a third-winter bird, maybe even a fourth-winter?  Which would constitute the most mature Casp to have graced the Axe to date - we are still waiting for an adult.  But most of all, back in 2008 Casps were still proper rare in the south west, and this would become just the third record for the county. So it's got to be worth a shot.  

I am hoping to find the original pics buried away somewhere on an external hard drive, but for now will have to use the pics from my original blog post to help explain my change of heart...

Looking at this pic I'm thinking...WHAT WAS I THINKING... even more!

Let's concentrate on its overall structure in the above pic, and this is where hybrids or Caspian Gull-lookalikes often let themselves down.  I wrote at the time how long-winged it looked at rest, and that can clearly be seen in this pic. Note also it's high and 'puffed up' chest, giving it the distinctive cachinnans-look.  The legs are also classic Casp, long and thin compared to the first-winter Herring Gull front left. Whilst on the topic of legs, they are the perfect sub-adult Casp straw-colour too, not pink like a Herring of similar age.

Heads-up Steve's made a balls-up

Let's look at mantle colour now, a shade darker than the adult Herring Gull behind, and lacking the blue-tinge of this species.  This is paler however than an adult Yellow-legged Gull should look, and once again perfect for a Casp.  

The best view of its head

So let's look at its head now and isn't it white!  Not a speck or blemish, which is fairly unusual for an adult large gull pre-Christmas. Even an ad Yellow-legged usually shows some flecking, but this is completely clean.  And of course we have that typical small beady black eye that you find in adult and near-adult Casps. Head shape certainly looks nice and rounded as well, although I don't think any of my pics show its head shape well.

But now it's time to talk about the elephant in the room.... the bill. Well it's certainly not going to poke anyone's eye out, but it is narrow and parallel. Not every Caspian Gull is as well endowed as the next. 

Time to zoom in on the wing...

Bit blurry I'm afraid

 So here we can see the upperside of its wing, and note the great big chunk of black on p5. 

Having a good old preen

In this pic you can just see the underside of the nearest wing, and note the large window on p10, a typical Caspian trait.   Look again at mantle colour compared to the Herring Gull, it's darker and greyer but not by much. Legs are also showing well in this pic, strikingly long and thin.

The one thing that I still can't make my mind up on is it's age.  Clearly not an adult, with that black smudge on one of its tertials and a bit of a darkness on the beak above the red spot - but is it too 'adulty' for a third-winter?  I think I would have expected a pinker bill with some hints of a necklace if it were a third-winter, and possibly a bit more evidence of younger feathers in the wing?  But maybe I'm wrong. Again.

As ever, if you have some thoughts do share them with me. Oh and here's the original blog post, which illustrates nicely my naive chain of thoughts at the time;

Friday 14 February 2020

American Herring Gull

I am absolutely stunned. Can't really believe I am writing this post to be honest. At the time however it was all a bit stressful...

At about 2.15pm I pulled up alongside the lower part of the Axe Estuary.  As my car eased to a halt I glanced up to see how many gulls were gathered on the mud opposite, like I always do.  There wasn't that many to be honest, certainly not the carpets I was hoping for, but one of the specks instantly grabbed my attention, and without any conscious thinking my brain muttered 'dark juv Glauc' to itself... 

Isn't it strange how that happens. I literally could see no detail, but I guess as I have glanced up at these gulls so many times before, my brain noticed without me actually thinking, that something looked different about one of the 'shades of brown' I could see.  My bins went up, with my inner self naively confident I was about to get a bin-full of a dark chocolate brown juv Glaucous Gull...but what I actually got was a Herring Gull! My scope and camera came straight out...

At first I was just hopeful.  Yes I could see a matt brown bodied Herring Gull, virtually solidly dark from upper breast down to the legs, with dark tertials and fairly plain coverts, but the bird was asleep. I have actually been in his exact situation before, on a couple of occasions, only to be let down when I saw more.  But more than ever I was willing this bird to reveal a pink bill and large pale head... and it did!

Panic mode kicked in - the game was on this could be the real smithsonian deal!!! I could see it had distinctly zebra-striped undertail coverts, which was another big plus for American Herring Gull, and look at that strikingly shaped pale head with an unusually pink bill for a first-winter Herring.  Frustratingly though, the bird remained static so I couldn't see any more than just the very tip of its tail - the one part of the bird I really needed to see. 

All in all going well so far you could say.  But now take this into consideration....

1/ I have a bird that has all the hallmarks of a pukka rare, but I haven't seen the one clinching feature. The conclusive single feature that you must see.

2/ My phone battery was at 4%.

3/ My son was with his Nanny, who had to go out in twenty minutes time and is a five minute drive away.

Three stressful factors in what should have been a joyous series of events.  Anyway, I had to do something so bit the bullet...

I quickly phoned Gavin (who was half an hour away) and posted a message on the local WhatsApp Group "Got an American Herring Gull candidate on Estuary but not seen tail yet" . Then my phone died.  I was alone.

Thankfully the American Herring Gull 'candidate' didn't do what many gulls on the Axe tend to do. It actually stayed put.  Ian Mc arrived ten minutes later, and once I got him on (the now sitting down and asleep) gull, he kindly lent me his phone so I could call Nanny and inform her I will give her a lift to where she had to be, which gave me a further 15 minutes in the field.  A short while later Kevin and Phil turn up, and after about ten minutes I felt Phil had captured enough of the birds tail in a picture to nail it - seemed to be solidly black from base to tip.  Bingo. I borrowed Kev's phone to call Mark B, and gladly Gav soon arrived. It was the real deal.  An American Herring Gull, an Axe first, and my first ever full stop. Superb. And surprisingly the first new species for the patch since Least Sand way back on 2nd August 2016!

It was soon time for me to leave, but just over an hour later I was able to return in a more relaxed state.  I had a bit of charge on my phone, my Mum had been to town and returned home, plus Jess had now finished work so Harry was with his Mummy.  Finally I could properly enjoy this bird...


And then at 4:15pm it took flight, which I managed to video and subsequently grab stills from...

Although others had snapped the tail pattern, it was something I wanted to do myself so am delighted with the above two stills.  After I took this short video, it pitched down again for a brief moment, before upping and heading off out to sea.  

Will we see it again? I hope so.  But if not, what a privilege and what a brilliantly educational bird.  Am delighted to have found it too as that's now 18 species of gull I've found on the Axe (Glaucous Gull on 12th Nov 2010 being the 17th, so that's a nine year wait!).  Next easiest are Franklin's or Ross's I suppose - so I really cannot wait for number 19 because it's going to be a corker whatever it is!  Great Black-headed (or Pallas's for the kids) remains my most wanted of course.

Anyway, just to summarise for those who aren't so fussed about gulls, here's what makes the above bird a first-winter American Herring Gull (match the points to the images below);

1/ A pretty much all dark tail across the width from base to tip.

2/ Striped rump, no clean white areas.

3/ Distinctively striped undertail coverts.

4/ Solidly dark brown underparts extending to upper breast where it becomes more mottled. This single features made it look like such a dark young gull, strikingly so.

5 / Contrasting paler heavy-looking head. 

6/ Thick based mostly pale bill - most first-winter Euro Herring Gulls retain darker bills in their first-winter.

7/ Solidly dark tertials with narrow pale tips and just a bit of notching on the lowest.

8/ Solidly dark secondary bar.

9/ Far less notched and patterned coverts than you'd expect on a first-winter Euro Herring.

10/ A restricted pale inner primary window.

11/ An overall heavy and well built gull. Completely different structure to any large gull I've ever seen in fact - really front heavy with a broad breast and thick neck (well it is American!).

Things got even more interesting tonight, as closer scrutiny of the pics revealed this is the very same American Herring Gull that was seen at West Bexington on 25th and 26th January. When it first turned up at West Bex (found by Axe birder Ian Mc) I was egging it on to drop in here - can't believe it actually did! Just amazes me it's not been seen at any time in between, where has it been hiding!?

As ever with a rarity, the best part was sharing it. And am delighted most of the Axe patchers got to see it.  I really would love it to return though, as am sure there are many more who want to clap eyes on it - good luck all!

Although the following sightings feel a bit insignificant now, to complete the day they need to be mentioned. AHG aside it was a good gull day on the Axe, I saw at least 60 Med Gulls, with the actual total probably well over 100.  Also 120 Commons and rather surprisingly a first-winter Yellow-legged mid-morning...

There were a few waders about too, with three Greenshank and a Bar-tailed Godwit being notable winter Axe records.

Wow. What a day. Steve out.

Wednesday 5 February 2020

A Serin Surprise

Well there's nothing like a nice little find to pump some life back into a hibernating blog...

Over the last couple of weeks I've decided to get off my backside and walk to work most mornings, it takes me about 40 minutes but it's a nice route.  During yesterday's walk - well almost at the end of it as I was two minutes from my place of work - I was stopped in my tracks by a bird call. Oh yes, birds, I remember them... 

It was a quiet call, but still sounded close, in fact it seemed to emanate from a couple of almost see-through buddleia's no more than 15 feet from me (I was stood on Riverside Way looking east).  I stopped and stared, couldn't see anything, but then heard it again a couple of times before seeing the back of a small silent bird fly away. Annoying.

The best way I can describe the call is that it was like a short Brambling, but much less harsh and dry, higher-pitched, with a Siskin-twang to it. Something like "tsswee'.  It's not the call of Serin I am used to, that delightful rapid trill, but for some reason it just sounded like a Serin to me - presumably uttering an alarm-type call.  Frustratingly due to the time I had to push on to work, but during the last few minutes of my walk I sent a quick message out on the local WhatsApp group...

"Just had a VERY probable Serin. It's on the old Racal site... blah blah blah... needs checking out"...

Gladly Ian, Kev and Gav must have seen something genuine in my message, as they all spent some time looking for it later that day. To no avail however.

That evening I gave Xeno-canto a few minutes, which made me even more convinced, so I put out another 'call to arms' plea on the WhatsApp group.  This encouraged a text from Gav saying he was going to try again in the morning, and let's roll on to this morning...

Gav kindly offered to pick me up a good half-hour before I was due into work, giving us ample time to wander around Riverside Way and discuss the things we always seem to discuss when we get together; Gulls, dodgy birders, 'phasing' and countless statements such as "I have always thought that ditch looks good for a [insert name of a rare bird here]".

I have to be honest and say in my gut I was sensing we were on the road to failure. It just didn't feel like anything was going to come of it.  But then a small bird flew over us, silent, but as it looked quite bouncy in flight we both felt it needed following.  Lucky for us it appeared to drop down not all that far away, and even luckier for us, when we approached the area up flew a small finch with a bright yellow rump! Our luck continued further as it didn't then continue to fly, but landed on a small bare tree right in front of us.  There sat a Serin. A proper Axe rarity. I think we were both a bit shocked!

I quickly fired a message off as Gav was snapping away, which alerted Kev and Clive who were unbeknown to us mooching around close by.  However at this point it then did decide to fly off, trilling just as a Serin should, as it flew back east.  It was at this point I also had to head off, and although there was no sign of it for several hours, eventually at around 1pm it was relocated in pretty much the same area where it showed off and on for about an hour.  This is when Dave Helliar managed to get these rather nice snaps of it...

A streaky thing of beauty (c) Dave Helliar

Look at that rump! (c) Dave Helliar

Am pretty confident we can conclude this is a first-winter female, which is the dullest of all Serin plumages - although still looks amazing to me!  That vivid yellow rump, beautiful feather edging and of course the characteristic stubby little bill.  And as I said a few paragraphs up, a proper Axe rare.  

This is only the second Axe record of Serin, the first flew past me during an Axe Cliff vis mig watch on 6th Nov 2007, so it could be said I have graciously unblocked this one for others... could...

It is actually really surprising how rare Serin is proving here, especially considering our location and vast array of habitats. I'm simply amazed we've not logged a few more fly-throughs over the years, or even a settled spring singing male or two, but it's just not happened... Which is why a mid-winter brown streaky one feeding on waste ground will do just fine :-)

Might even give you a second blog post this month if you're lucky....