Tag Archives: Herring Gull

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.

IMG_0990v2

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.

IMG_0929v2

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:

IMG_3135v2

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’.

New York City: the birds of Central Park

One does not necessarily associate New York City with wildlife. There is so much to see and do in this amazing city that birding is probably quite far down most people’s NYC bucket list. However, for an “Englishman in New York” (to borrow Sting’s lyrics), spending a few hours with the wildlife of Central Park was deeply rewarding in my recent week in the Big Apple.

Central Park is like a great slab of green in the heart of Manhattan (or brown when we were there last week, as New York was just emerging from Winter, slightly behind the UK) – seen below from the top of the Empire State building partially obscured by skyscrapers…

Central Park from Empire State

Central Park from Empire State

Despite its uber-urban location, an astonishing 230 species of bird (about a quarter of all birds known to exist in the US) have been spotted in Central Park. Whilst I obviously didn’t get close to that number in just a couple of hours in early April, I was pleased with my visit.

I started at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir (the largest body of water in the park):

Reservoir views

Reservoir walkway

There were some familiar waterbirds, such as:

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)

… and…

Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata)

Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata)

… But also less familiar for a European, such as:

Ruddy duck (Oxyura jamaicensis)

Ruddy duck (Oxyura jamaicensis)

… and what I later discovered was a relatively rare sight for New York City…

Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena)

Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena)

Although not as numerous as in the nearby Turtle Pond, the Reservoir is also home to introduced (probably released pets) Terrapins (I am uncertain of the species below, but it is probably the common, Red-eared Slider):

Terrapin

Near the Reservoir, I was alerted by the call of a raptor circling over the trees in what seemed like a victory dance as it carried the carcass of its prey (an unidentified bird) in its talons:

Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)

Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)

Elsewhere around the park, I saw a couple of further familiar species, such as:

House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

… and…

Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

… and the almost globally ubiquitous…

Feral Pigeon (Columba livia)

Feral Pigeon (Columba livia)

But I was there to see North American species. Central Park did not disappoint:

Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula)

Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula)

Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura)

Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura)

Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)

Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)

I was thrilled to see a North American favourite, the aptly named Cardinal…

Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

Three obscured shots below of, what I believe (thanks to some help from the online birding community – how cool am I?) is an Eastern Phoebe – one of the first migratory birds to return heralding the start of Spring:

Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe)

Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe)

Visiting other countries is great for a birder, because you get to be all excited by common birds that a local birder wouldn’t look twice at, such as:

Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)

Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)

…and the highly common but confusingly named (it is called a robin because of its red breast, but is actually a Thrush)…

American Robin (Turdus migratorius)

American robin (Turdus migratorius)

Another Thrush that I snapped was the Hermit Thrush:

Hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus)

Hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus)

There are a number of other lakes in the park beyond the Reservoir:

Central Park lake

It was on these lakes that I saw the New World relative of our Great Cormorant:

Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) next to Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)

Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) next to Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) and numerous terrapins

As well as getting a very distant shot of the wonderfully named, Bufflehead:

Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola)

Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola)

And seeing lots more terrapins/turtles basking…

At least two species, but mainly the Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans)

At least two species, but mainly the Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans)

The highlight of my birding afternoon in Central Park was probably the fact that I spotted three species of woodpecker:

Including these two merged perspectives…

Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)

Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)

…and the smallest woodpecker in the US…

Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)

Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)

… and finally a blurry and obscured shot of…

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius)

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius)

Outside of Central Park, I got a bit excited seeing a brown squirrel, until I realised it was a melanistic sub-group of the familiar Grey Squirrel and not a new species:

Eastern Grey/Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)

Eastern Grey/Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)

I also photographed a couple of gulls outside of Central Park: one which appeared to be familiar and one not…

The familiar bird is a Herring Gull, but is recognised now by most authorities as a separate species from the European Herring Gull, photographed from the Staten Island ferry…

American Herring Gull (Larus smithsonianus)

American Herring Gull (Larus smithsonianus)

The less familiar gull was photographed (twice – two shots merged below) near Brooklyn Bridge:

Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis)

Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis)

This gull took my total number of species photographed during a week in New York City (an only about 2 hours of birding) to 24, 17 of which were new birds for my photographic list.