Tag Archives: Herring Gull

Gulling the Thames

Amongst the gulls returning to London from coastal breeding grounds, there have been a few gems recently. Most notably a Bonaparte’s Gull that was seen over several days at Crossness. But there have also been a few returning Yellow-legged Gull as well.

It was mainly this latter bird that I went out looking for this morning, starting with the Thames Barrier park at low tide.

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Thames Barrier at low-tide

There were large numbers of Black-headed Gull spread pretty evenly along the exposed shoreline (I suppose they don’t really need to huddle together in this heat). There were maybe high double digits of Lesser Black-backed Gull, low double digits of Herring Gull, and a small handful of Common Gull.

It was soon pretty clear there were no Yellow-legged Gull, so I focused on scanning the small gulls. I got lucky and found an adult Mediterranean Gull, always nice to see in summer plumage with its true black head (unlike the choclatey-coloured hood of the mis-named Black-headed Gull). The Med Gull was quite close in, but by the time I had got my camera out and ready, it must have flown. As I packed up and left, I saw one more juvenile Med Gull way down river in the distance so I took a grainy phone-scope shot for my records (and to inflict on my long-suffering readers).

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Juvenile Mediterranean Gull (Larus melanocephalus)

By the time I had driven down the road and walked the rather epicly long path down to Creekmouth, the tide had come in rapidly and there was a much-diminished beach.

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Roding entering the Thames at Barking Creekmouth with the flood barrier

I checked the Black-headed Gulls floating around the Roding outflow, but couldn’t pick out any narrow-billed Bonaparte’s candidates, or any more thick-billed Med Gulls, so I turned my attention to the Beckton Sewage Works behind me.

It isn’t easy birding the sewage works but it had good numbers of gulls…

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Beckton Sewage Works

That view above is not typical or illustrative of reality. I managed to take it because my iPhone pressed up against the fence is small enough to get a good view, but a more accurate representation of what I was looking at is:

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I’m not sure quite why the fencing needs to be so narrow and restrictive

The pools in the photo are quite sizeable, and, at 40,000 square metres (Google Maps has allowed me to measure them), they are a third bigger than Heronry Lake on my local Patch.

Creekmouth and Beckton

I quickly found what I was hoping for on the water as one bird stood out quite well, despite the blurry distortions of peaking through such narrow meshing. It was a fair distance away so I didn’t get any good shots, but at least I had found a Yellow-legged Gull.

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Juvenile Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michaellis)

As it swam about in the treatment pools, it helpfully aligned up with a Herring Gull to give a better sense of size and bill thickness.

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The morning wasn’t all about gulls, a pair of Peregrine performed for me and another local birder who I bumped into, Linnet and Grey Wagtail danced about on trees and posts respectively, and I got some stunning views of Reed Warbler which popped through the reeds and fencing to watch me walk past.

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Eurasian Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus)

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Carry on Lapwing

Winter is coming… back. Today was the first of a week full of forecast freezing weather and snow. It was a stunning, sunny, but cold day.

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East Copse on Wanstead Flats

Despite the cold, Spring seemed to be in the air for the Canada Goose flock on Jubilee…

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Mating pair of Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)

As always with mating anatidae, it was a typically scrappy affair.

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But other birds were responding more… err… suitably to the cold weather. WhatsApp told me that Tony had 19 Lapwing over the SSSI. Unfortunately, I was all the way over by Alexandra lake but started heading in the right direction, trying to multi-task by frantically scanning the sky whilst speed walking towards SSSI.

What ensued was some comedy ‘grippage’ as Tony and I exchanged phone calls and more Lapwing seemed to appear and disappear all without me seeing them: “ten more James”, “oh, they’re coming back”, “now they’re on the deck”, and “they’ve gone mate”. By the time I reached the SSSI, I could see the distant figures of Tony and Bob, but I had missed all their Lapwing. That was until I found my own flock! By the time I reached the guys we counted the flock of 27 birds as they disappeared into the western distance.

[If you would like to read more about Lapwing sightings on the patch, I have crunched some numbers and written a blog post here]

The comedy antics didn’t stop once I had year-ticked the Lapwing. As I stood by Jubilee, some more Lapwing passed over and this time I tried to get photos of the distant birds. Anyone who has tried to focus on distant dots in the sky will know that just finding and focusing on the bird is a challenge. Whenever I got a bird in focus I snapped away quickly… at one point getting several photos of a passing Wood Pigeon instead of the intended quarry.

A little later still I took some photos of a confiding Jackdaw on the Police Scrape. [My wife saw this photo and said it looks like a “little oily penguin”.]

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Western Jackdaw (Coloeus monedula)

Whilst taking pictures of the diminutive penguin corvid, I became aware of a kerfuffle a little way off. It was another Lapwing being chased off the scrape by a crow. I had been so engrossed in the little oily Jackdaw, I completely missed the fact that the Patch-scarce wader had been on the ground in front of me. By the time I got any usable shots, the Lapwing was already quite high over my head. It felt a bit like ‘Mr Bean goes birding’.

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Northern Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus)

In total today, we counted at least 108 Lapwing flying over, the largest numbers seen on the Patch for five years (I believe).

I also picked up two more year ticks today: Common Snipe and – embarrassingly – my first Mistle Thrush for the year.

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Mistle Thrush (Turdus viscivorus)

Meanwhile, back on Jubilee a strange and terrible winged beast had appeared. Was this the end of days? Was grimy old Jubilee about to become the lake of sulphur and fire that the Book of Revelation foretells? Or was it just a poor one legged Herring Gull having a mid-air shake?

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European Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)

Watching Gulls… badly

I have been watching our patch gulls quite closely recently. Some of my patch colleagues would see this as a sign of weakness or desperation, but I have actually been quite enjoying it. Partly, this is because there is so much more that can be relatively easily learned just working the Patch, and partly because I am aware there are some guys who come in from off the Patch every now and again and seem to contribute disproportionately to the interesting gull finds that we have (more on them later).

In fact, more on them now, as Jamie P and Dante S had spotted an untimely juvenile Common Gull on the Patch the other day. A day when I too had been out and about but failed to spot anything so interesting. So I went back out this weekend determined to find this bird. I failed. There were plenty, probably 100+, first winter birds, but no juveniles that I could find.

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1st winter Common Gull (Larus canus)

I scanned the large gulls in case there was anything else more interesting in amongst them. There wasn’t. One gull that stood out was this young Herring Gull.

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Herring Gull (Larus argentatus argenteus)

It really puzzled me. Look how pale it is and how worn the moult is on the coverts and tertials. But the moult was nowhere near developed enough on the scapulars for a 2nd winter, so I assumed it was a 1st winter bird that was weirdly pale and worn. Error! Luckily a better birder than me pointed out that this is simply a somewhat-retarded 2nd winter bird. It seems so obvious now!

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An actual 1st winter Herring Gull

There are other reasons to scan gulls, of course. Ringed gull recoveries can yield interesting histories, and a great time to see rings on gulls is when our ponds are iced over. Our winter resident ‘2LBA’ Black-headed Gull was skating about on Jubilee Pond.

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Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)

I have photographed this bird on at least five separate occasions now over the last year and it has been around for almost a year longer than that; appearing as a first winter bird in March 2016 having been ringed as a chick (pullus) in June 2015 in Fishers Green only ten miles North of the Patch as the gull flies.

I have bothered to record six colour-ringed gulls on the Patch in the three and a bit years I’ve been birding/living here. The longest distance traveller so far was Green ‘J8M4’, a Common Gull I saw in September last year who was ringed six hundred miles North East of the Patch in Rogaland, Norway.

Aside from ‘2LBA’, yesterday, I also clocked Blue ‘JMP’ on ‘Shoulder of Mutton’ pond, an eight-and-a-half year-old Lesser Black-backed Gull ringed in a tip in Gloucester 100 miles West-North-West of the Patch back in May 2010 just as David Cameron was walking into 10 Downing Street for the first time. Gosh – that seems like a long time ago!

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Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus graellsii)

There is one more ringed gull I want to mention. Not a gull with a leg ring, but rather a Ring-billed Gull, the American vagrant that I last saw on a beach in Mexico. The last time one was found in London was nine years ago, I believe! The last time that was… until today! The outstanding young birder, Dante Shepherd (mentioned above), found one at Thames Barrier Park, just five miles South as the gull flies. It is rather longer in the car, but I jumped in, nonetheless, as soon as I heard the news.

In what reminded me of the run-around the Bonaparte’s Gull gave me last year, as I was pulling up at the park, WhatsApp informed me that the gull had just flown East. Jamie and Dante kindly pointed me in the direction of a very distant flock of mixed gulls down-river.

I dutifully scanned through as many as I could, and saw birds (that plural should tell you how I was clutching at straws) that looked possible, but, the truth was, they were simply too far away for me to get enough on them.

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The white smear on the mud is where the Ring-billed Gull might have been

For a short few minutes, the bright golden light of early evening shone on the flock like a sign from the Great Gull in the sky, and I stood peering through my scope as snow flakes fell on me.

Hopefully the Ring-billed Gull will stay around for a bit. Maybe it will follow its closely related Common Gulls and come up to Wanstead – which would be a Patch first. We can but dream… of gulls.

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Thames Barrier sunset at low tide

 

Gull on black

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;*

Well, I wouldn’t describe the ice as ‘stone’-like exactly, more like a brittle glaze in these climate-warmed times. A wafer-like shelf that could never carry the weight of a man (certainly not a man of my current girth), but, while it lasted, has served as a temporary gull magnet.

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Eagle Pond, Snaresbrook

In the fading light, the diminished promontory of ice blurred the horizons between water in its liquid and solid states, and also between the ‘elements’ (archaic, not chemic) of water and air. As I stood on a pavement (yes, pavement) with the drizzle distorting my binocular’d view, everything took on a one-dimensional blackness. A void only punctuated by the white and grey of gulls with the odd smudge from a brownish juvenile.

One of the punctuation marks in the photo above is an Eastern visitor, a 3rd-winter Caspian Gull. First spotted by Stuart Fisher on ‘Eagle Pond’, and now much photographed by the London gull specialists, including our very own Patch Cowboy. I found out after the fact that the crisp shots taken by these guys – showing every mid-moult feather in all its glory – owe something to cheap bread being used as a lure. All’s fair in birding, love, and war I suppose.

When I saw the Casp, it was not yawning down bread, but rather gnawing on a bone on top of the ice on the other side of the lake. The grainy, cropped, resulting pictures attest… but it is still the closest I have seen this species to my Patch, having missed a younger bird last year.

The Eagle Pond in Snaresbrook is a frontier on a neighbouring patch to ours; the Leyton Flats.

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Caspian Gull (Larus cachinnans)

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This Casp is not the only sub-adult gull I have snapped recently. My micro-patch water gauge yielded a new tick for me the other week in the brief spell of snow that we had; a Herring Gull (now the fourth gull to have graced the post for me, found in the same order as how common they are on the Patch: BHG, Common, LBBG, Herring…).

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2nd-Winter Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)

With the snow and drizzle, the seemingly constant water level on Jubilee Pond has finally started to creep up.

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Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)

*In the bleak midwinter, Christina Rossetti

From galls to gulls (and back to galls)

The Summer ‘silly season’ in patch birding – when self-respecting birders go off and get new hobbies like… er?… surveying plant galls, or lichen, or when they attempt to turn gin and tonic drinking into an Olympic sport – may be coming to an end somewhat faster than I expected.

The quiet month of June normally leaks a little into July, but one of my patch colleagues shattered that peace last Saturday with news of an extremely early ‘Autumn’  Common Redstart on the Patch. He also found what may have been a juvenile Yellow-legged Gull. I was busy doing other stuff that morning, but returned for an afternoon wander.

The Redstart was nowhere to be found in the early afternoon heat so I strolled onto the football pitches. The pitch-roost of gulls is still pretty small at the moment, but there was a reasonable selection of non-breeding birds that was worth scanning as I was rather keen to ensure YLG joined my 2017 patch list.

I could almost immediately see that one of the young, and very pale, Herring Gull‘s was colour-ringed. It was only when it took flight that the ring came clear of the grass and was readable as Orange L1YT. I am still waiting to see full details, but I understand it is likely to be a ‘Pitsea’ bird.

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Young Herring Gull (Larus argentatus): ‘L1YT’

I followed it as it moved from flock to flock on the pitch when a slightly bulkier gull flew in behind it. I instantly knew it was different, and you can see that the bill, face mask, and tail – amongst other things – give away the ID as Yellow-legged Gull, but also point to this being a different bird from the one Tony had seen earlier.

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Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michahellis)

Aside from the juvenile gull, there was little else of interest in avian terms so I reverted back to studying leaves, with my best find being this impressive fig gall caused by an aphid on English Elm:

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Tetraneura ulmi

In case you were to think that my day was solely spent with gulls and galls (some people’s idea of wildlife hell), I also counted double figures of species of butterfly with Small Copper being new for the year on the patch for me.

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)

A Big Birding Year: Part XXIII (Crow and the blurry man … an apology for poor photography)

I have taken up many column inches (can you use that term with a blog?) bemoaning how difficult it is to photograph birds (see here and here) as even with expensive glass (long and powerful lenses), you really need to be quite close to birds to get a clear shot.

I have also explained how most poor quality shots can be used for record purposes only and never find themselves languishing in their blurry noisiness on the world wide web.

*storytime* A few days ago, I lay in bed with a severe case of near-fatal man-flu (watch this immediately!). Lying in my sick-bed, feeling very sorry for myself, I peered out of my bedroom window and saw a wonderful thing… A THRUSH! My dire illness was momentarily forgotten and I sprang out of bed like a child on Christmas morning. I quickly assembled my camera and started snapping directly through our rather grimy windows (the outsides at least – whatever happened to traditional window cleaners?) and across the road diagonally at a spotty bird perched on a roof.

A thrush, but which one?

A thrush, but which one?

By the time I had opened the window to get a clearer shot, the bird had flown. My clammy little fingers zoomed in on the view screen and I squinted at the distant fuzzy images with the heavy breath of anticipation. “Have I finally snapped the elusive Song Thrush which has evaded me all year so far?” Despite desperately willing to see Song Thrush traits, even with an image as poor as this, enough signs are there to tell me I had photographed a Mistle Thrush again and so not a new tick for my year. In case you are interested to know what thought processes (speed/eventually work their way through) my mind, here is a visual representation:

Mistle Thrush (Turdus viscivorus)

Mistle Thrush (Turdus viscivorus)

A clear, close view and image of a Thrush would be easy to identify, but distant and obscured views help hone identification skills which are the vital ingredient in any good birder.

Yesterday, I ambled around the London Wetland Centre seeing a lot of not very much (if you know what I mean). I couldn’t go home without taking any photos so I lazily snapped at some distant gulls. It was only when I was back at home with my finger hovering over the delete button, that I realised that my poor quality shot contained something quite interesting. No, unfortunately not some rare gull, but rather a view that reminded me of a famous classical and renaissance subject of philosophy and art: the Three Ages of Man:

Giorgione,_Three_Ages

You may feel I am attempting to inject culture into a fuzzy image of some birds, but actually … well… anyway… here is what I saw: The “Three Ages of Gull”, or more precisely (and ignoring the Coot in the water) left to right, what I believe to be a juvenile Herring Gull approaching its first winter, a second winter Herring Gull, and a third winter Herring Gull on the right:

European Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)

Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)

The photo quality is crap, but I still feel like I have captured something special (Mummy says I am special).

Even when you get close enough to get a reasonable quality image, things in the background can spoil the picture. But sometimes those eye-sores and boo-boos can add value to the image. And so it was yesterday in a local park with a Carrion Crow and a blurry pedestrian in the background:

Carrion Crow (Corvix corone)

Carrion Crow (Corvix corone)

As the man walked out of shot, the Crow shuddered and ruffled its feathers giving this evil-associated, intelligent scavenger the momentary look of a cute lil fluffy thing:

I am the cute one, he was just a stranger

I am the cute one, he was just a stranger

And so I conclude… wildlife photography and birding aren’t just about razor-sharp images and rare birds (ticks in a book), but also about some of the magic of happenstance (or at least that is what I tell myself).

Post Scriptum I am sure I needn’t really explain that the word ‘apology’ in the title refers to the ancient meaning of defence and justification, rather than saying ‘sorry’.