Tag Archives: Herring Gull

Birding and a baby

Last Saturday started as so many others for me. My alarm went off in the dark and I slipped out of bed as quietly as possible to head out birding. On this occasion, however, my wife was already awake. She put her hand on my shoulder and said, calmly, “my waters have broken and I am having contractions”. My birding trip was to be postponed it seemed.

My wife and I proceeded to have quite a nice day together. Throughout most of the day the contractions were mild enough to allow an almost normal day to be had. At one point, my overdue wife had enough to do that I actually did nip out birding for about an hour. I realise I may be publicly self-nominating myself for ‘worst husband of the year’ award. It was certainly not something I expected to be doing on the day my wife went into labour, but things had progressed so gently, that I was given a clear green light.

Almost exactly a year-on from seeing it in 3rd winter plumage, the Snaresbrook Caspian Gull has returned now as a 4cy bird.

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Caspian Gull (Larus cachinnans)

Here was the same bird on the same location, albeit a little colder given the ice, a year ago.

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Same bird as a 3cy bird taken in December 2017

On the way home I stopped off at Leyton Tip as a local birder had tipped (pun intended) me off that it was a good place to see Herring Gull in the nominate ‘argentatus’ subspecies rather than all the pale-mantled ‘argenteus’ birds we are used to in London. The gen was good, although the views were terrible, so I grabbed a record shot and raced home to be with my wife.

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Herring Gull (Larus argentatus argentatus)

That evening we went for a nice walk, the contractions picked up in pace and intensity and, by 05:32 the next morning, my son, Harry, was born at home weighing in at 9lbs. And so life begins and so my life changes, but this is primarily a blog about birding, so…

Today (with my son now a week old), I nipped out again as my wife’s friend came over to help. Another local lake (Connaught Water) and four Goosander were actually a year tick for me, and first for me locally.

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Drake Goosander (Mergus merganser)

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Female Goosander

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Getting to know the locals

One of the benefits of working the same patch regularly is that, occasionally, you get to know and recognise individual birds. Sometimes this is made easy for us:

Specific locally scarce or rare birds

The recent Red-backed Shrike on Wanstead Flats was the first of its kind locally for 38 years. I am sure there are other juvenile Red-backed Shrike that look very similar to the one we had stay for around 11 days, but nobody in their right mind would think that it was a different bird from one day to the next.

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Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio) – yes, I know I have displayed this photo before

Sometimes relatively common passage migrants might stay a day or two. So it was the other day when two quite distinct young Wheatear were found for two days running in the Broomfields.

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Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

Colour-ringed birds

I have mentioned Black-headed Gull ‘2LBA’ before. Recently, I have seen it pretty much every time I have visited Jubilee Pond. I wouldn’t be able to tell you much about the distinct features of the particular bird, but… I don’t need to as it wears its identity pretty clearly on its leg.

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Black-headed Gull (Larus ridibundus) – ‘2LBA’ 

Distinctive individuals

Whilst not wishing to indulge in any species-ist ‘they all look the same’ kind of rhetoric, it is inevitably hard for most of us – even regular and dedicated birders – to get to understand the individual features of birds within one species. However, I am reminded of the late, great, Sir Peter Scott and his painted studies of individual Whooper Swan face markings. But for us mere mortals there seems to be a spectrum from uniquely marked birds through to subtle differences that only close-up and regular study could allow.

At the easy end of that spectrum, you have birds like this rather beautiful, but also ‘manky’, domestic-interbreed Mallard that I have seen on Jubilee and Alexandra ponds.

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Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)

Somewhat further down the spectrum are birds like this pale 3cy argenteus Herring Gull, where the distinctive eyes, mantle colour, moult, and bill markings have let me identify the same bird on several occasions in the last week as I have had the opportunity to get out most days.

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10 September: Herring Gull (Larus argentatus argenteus)

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10 September: Same bird in flight showing missing secondaries

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12 September: same bird, same place (facing different direction)

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)

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.