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;


  1. Ha ha! Looks brilliant doesn't it?! I remember this bird, and the photos, and am delighted you've revisited it. The bill looks pretty good to me actually, and it's nicely dull. Is that a saggy nappy? And look at that primary projection...

    Like it lots! All the best with the submission.

  2. Looks like a Caspian, doesn't it? The whole profile seems classic textbook stance. I wish I'd photographed a similar-looking bird at Axminster a few years ago. Must remember to take camera when gulls are about!