Tag Archives: Gulls

Third time lucky: Bonaparte’s Gull

Having only been to Barking Creekmouth for the first time recently, it may seem a little excessive to pay two visits in one day. In fact, it seemed a little excessive to me as well. The monotonous mile and a half walk alongside the Beckton sewage works is bearable once or twice, but four times in one day is tough going.

But such is the pull of birds. Such is the ‘twitch’. And this wasn’t just for a year or London tick, this was for a full fat life tick: Bonaparte’s Gull. But oh boy did this diminutive larid give a couple of us the run-around on Sunday!

One benefit of the walks was seeing the Roding at different stages of Thames tidal-flow; an easy comparison of just how radically different it makes the place look. This is a photo I took a couple of months ago at low tide:

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Roding at Barking Creekmouth, low tide

And this was almost the same view (slightly different angle) taken on Sunday at high tide – this had nothing to do with the flow of the Roding, which was similar on Sunday to the flow in the photo above:

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Roding at Barking Creekmouth, high tide

By the time I arrived, the finder of the American vagrant gull, Paul Hawkins, was leaving, not having seen his his bird for about fifteen minutes. This didn’t bode well.

Those of us there studied every Black-headed Gull present carefully, and twice, and then probably all over again. Luckily some of the guys I was with are truly excellent gull specialists and helped point out the first cycle Yellow-legged Gull which was a year tick for me and I would have almost certainly overlooked were it not for them.

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Poor record shot of 1st Cy Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michahellis)

Nick, Marco and I even drove for twenty minutes to get a view from the other side of the Roding, a mere 100 metres away as the gull flies, but with no extra luck.

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Nick and the tidal barrier where the Roding meets the Thames at low tide

After some driving around the dystopian mini-rust-belt that makes up the Barking dock area, I headed back to give my wife a lift to the airport. Fast forward a few hours and I heard the Bonaparte’s Gull was back and was soon-after joined by a young Caspian Gull (another potential year tick). Nick and I missed both by a matter of minutes. Super!

I consoled myself marginally with the sight of three very cute Shelduck chicks.

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Common Shelduck and three chicks (Tadorna tadorna)

The expert view was that our best chance of finding the main prize (only a few are seen in the UK each year) was to try down-river and on the other side of the Thames. A mere forty minute drive and twenty minute walk (please inject sarcasm if not apparent) despite being just a few flaps of wings even for a small gull.

As Nick and I marched down the south bank in the early evening light we had the extraordinary sight of over a hundred terns (we presume mostly or all Common Tern) but didn’t really have time to scan or photograph properly so you just get this iPhone shot of about thirty of them. I have certainly never seen that many tern in London before.

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The white dots are mostly Common Tern (Sterna hirundo)

From one sewage works to another, Nick and I finally arrived at Crossness and scanned the Thames around the sluice mouth.

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Thames from Crossness with rain clouds to North-West. The Bonaparte’s is one of those dots

There were only a couple of dozen black heads to look at this time, and it was only a couple of minutes before I was exclaiming that “I’ve got it!” All the driving, and walking, and scanning, and sewage smells were worth it. My life first Bonaparte’s Gull and an important tick for Nick’s big London year list quest as well:

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Bonaparte’s Gull (Chroicocephalus philadelphia)

As any American readers will know very well, the Bonaparte’s Gull is the third smallest gull in the world (I had ticked off the smallest, Little Gull, just a couple of weeks earlier). It is named, not after the similarly diminutive French emperor – which was my assumption – but his exploring ornithologist nephew, Charles Lucien Bonaparte.

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Bonaparte’s at the back just about showing overall size difference and dainty bill compared with Black-headed Gull in the front (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) and different stages of moult obvs!

I was thrilled, and the walk back to the car after a long day of driving and walking, seemed like the shortest yet. I was even in a state of mind to enjoy the sunset.

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The twenty-year-old, 100m long hopper dredger, Sand Fulmar, on its way to Southampton*

*Not that I’m a secret ship-spotter you understand!

Wanstead patchwork: Part XXI (When is a Caspian Gull not a Caspian Gull?)

In the last few days I have studied 1st winter gulls more than ever before. Here is a 1st winter Caspian Gull:

Caspian Gull (Larus cachinnans) - PHOTO BY NICK CROFT

Caspian Gull (Larus cachinnans) – PHOTO BY NICK CROFT

It has been on the patch for a few days and several people have seen it and photographed it (see here and here ). When I first saw a photo of it, I doubted that it was a Caspian. The gonys angle on the bill looked too deep (although not so much in this photo), the eye mask was instantly reminiscent of the Yellow-legged Gulls I had recently seen in Ibiza, and it seemed to have an under-advanced moult when I compared it with my field guide drawings. But now, I can see how wrong I was.

Although I had been looking at a slightly different picture where the tertial feathers were not as clear, I can now see that this bird does have a relatively parallel bill, it has a clear ‘shawl’ of streaks on the neck around the otherwise white head, and it has a white-edged set of tertial feathers that are otherwise uniformly brown. In sum, it is a Caspian Gull.

Today, I was half-fooled by a 1st winter Herring Gull. It had a beautiful white-ish head (although in my photos this doesn’t seem quite as striking as in my mind’s eye), seemingly long legs, and an upright stance.

Not a Caspian Gull

Not a Caspian Gull

When it flew, it seemed quite pale under the wing:

Not a Caspian Gull

Not a Caspian Gull

But, it had one thing above all that made me want to believe it was a Caspian Gull: it looked different. It walked about, pecking at bits of rubbish alongside a couple of other Herring Gulls (not shown) that had darker heads and just looked more like proper Herring Gulls.

A couple of us followed it about and took photos of it in various different spots:

Not a Caspian Gull

Not a Caspian Gull

But (yes, another ‘but’), something was wrong. At the time, it wasn’t really careful observation that identified the problem areas, it just simply looked wrong. I just wasn’t happy ticking it off in my mind. Different, maybe; but Caspian… not so much. Now I am home, of course, I have had a chance to study the photos more and I can see how ‘wrong’ it was. The main thing is the tertial feathers, they are chequered instead of pure brown with a white edge like the first photo. Pale head maybe, but no clear streaking on the neck, and the bill is just not long or narrow enough. It was a Herring Gull all along.

Whilst there were plenty with dark heads that I didn’t photograph, as I walked around I saw other Herring Gulls with quite pale heads:

Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)

Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)

The one above has quite a round head, whereas the one that confused me was more sharply defined like a Caspian, but even so, this shows that I shouldn’t have been so obsessed with a single feature.

So, no patch or life tick for me, even though the real Caspian Gull was apparently out there today (I look forward to studying the photos of it carefully!) But I have probably learned more about Herring Gulls and Caspian Gulls than if I had seen a definite Caspian, ticked it, and moved on.

I had shown a couple of guys where the ‘Caspian (not Caspian)’ had flown to and was pointing it out by saying “it is just to the right of the Great Black-backed Gull” when one of them said, “are you sure that’s not a Lesser Black-backed Gull?” On that particular call, I am confident that it was indeed a ‘Great’, and not a ‘lesser’. Phew!

Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus)

Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus)