Friday, 16 February 2018

A Long Shingly Slog

It's been a long time since my last Glaucous Gull. Four years almost to the day in fact. I was still living in Seaton then and twitched this beauty which Tim Wright found on the Axe Estuary on 13 Feb 2014...

Shortly after I took this photo it departed, and I'm pretty sure there are no other published pics.

So when the urge for a long walk unexpectedly took hold of me this afternoon I decided to make my way from Burton Bradstock to West Bexington to see if I could jam the nice white Glauc that's been appearing recently at Bex.

It's a massive, shingly slog from Burton to Bex. Three miles of it. Bird-wise it was dead quiet until just before the West Bexington mere, where the sloping fields had attracted good numbers of small gulls. Mostly Common and Black-headed, but with the odd Med Gull dotted about, maybe six in all. On the distant mere itself I could see a small gang of Herring Gulls. No Glaucous though. I walked on.

Level with the mere now, I checked the Herring Gulls a little more carefully. I couldn't recall if Caspian Gull has occurred at Bex, but needless to say it's constantly on my radar these days. No such luck of course, so I had a quick scan to my right, where there were several Tufties and Shovelers, neither of which (especially the former) are exactly everyday ducks on the Axe patch. Glancing at the gulls again with my naked eye I realised that one of them was suddenly huge and white...

Spot the sore thumb

So, an excellent bit of jam after all. I didn't see the Glauc arrive but assume it flew in from the sea behind me (the mere lies just inland of the beach). After a nice, restful float it had a wash and then flew west for a short way before heading up over the shingle ridge towards the sea...

What a superb gull! Across the mere...
...and away.

Fantastic! Much more successful than I'd expected, particularly as I wasn't even sure that the Glauc was still about. And of course, you can never tire of Med Gulls. An adult and 1st-winter kindly dropped onto the mere for me...

So, that was it really. I carried on to the West Bexington car park, turned around for the return leg. It was a relief to now have the cold wind on my back instead of in my face, but the three-mile walk seemed no shorter. I hadn't gone far when the Glaucous Gull came past just offshore, heading east. I watched it until it was very, very small. It was still going. Apart from a couple of adult Meds on the beach the return journey was uneventful. Just very knackering...

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Axe Caspian Gulls - a Personal History

What a miserable day it is out there. Perfect for sitting indoors and poking away at the laptop. I began this post last night and quickly realised it was going to be a bit of a hefty one. It's a labour of love really, and doubtless inspired by recent success gull-wise. A few posts back I stated that I'd seen a total of nine Caspian Gulls on the Axe. Well, I was wrong. The true figure is actually 11. This was a bit of a surprise to me, and even more so when I realised that I got photos of all of them. So here is an NQS Special: a personal history of Axe Casps, illustrated with some of the most tenth-rate gull photos in existence...

1.  October 2007

The one that started it all. Steve found this 2nd-winter bird at Coronation Corner late in the day. Reviewing the BirdForum posts we wrote at the time is quite telling. Having been misled by what turned out to be a scraggy Herring Gull back in April that year we were very cautious with this bird. And at the time it was only the second or third record for Devon.

2.  December 2009

They don't come much more classic than this gorgeous 1st-winter bird. I found this beauty at the tram sheds and, despite never having seen one of this age, was struck by how delightfully obvious it was. I suddenly realised that Caspian Gulls could sometimes be easy.

3.  February 2010

Another 1st-winter, and a whopper too! Although I was 99% sure it was a Casp I was much more circumspect than with bird number 2. It was only present for a few minutes and I got a series of around a dozen ropey shots, all from some distance downriver. I emailed a selection to one or two more experienced larophiles and among the replies was an enthusiastic thumbs-up from Ian Lewington. Looking at the photos now, I can't see what I was concerned about...

4.  October 2011

The youngest bird I've seen, this lovely 1st-winter is still sporting a few dark 1st-generation (ie. juvenile) scapulars. It was opposite the Tower Hide, from where I got a few pics and a short video with my Lumix before everything flushed.

5.  December 2011

Definitely one of my favourites. This hefty beast was the first Axe Casp to be vaguely twitchable, turning up on four or more dates. At the time very few Devon birders had seen one in the county. I'm pretty sure all the local patch birders got to this one, and a couple from further afield too. This shot nicely illustrates how a Caspian Gull can catch your eye.

It was also the first Casp we could link to another site, having been seen on Portland and at Radipole, Weymouth back in October.

6.  March 2012

Hopefully they're beginning to stand out now, but just in case not, it's the one in the centre foreground. Again a 1st-winter, and a particularly obliging one this. It first turned up in February while I was doing a volunteer stint in the Tower Hide as a local 'expert' for an East Devon Wildlife event. I suddenly became very quiet and unhelpful for a minute or two...but at least a hideful of punters then got an opportunity to humour me by feigning interest in a gull...

This bird was seen on-and-off into April, was well-twitched, and is probably responsible for upping a good number of Devon lists by one.

7.  April 2013

Possibly my all-time favourite, this lovely 1st-winter spent just a short time having a wash and brush-up at Coronation Corner, then headed purposefully away north moments before Steve turned up. The worn, silvery-grey mantle and scaps were almost unmarked, and the head and body likewise. Just unmistakable.

8.  September 2013

Maybe our most interesting Casp due to the rather unfamiliar plumage. It's a 2cy (2nd calendar-year) bird, so basically developing 2nd-winter plumage. But notice how different it is to bird number 9 below, which is nominally only two months older. Steve found it just below Coronation Corner and I was well pleased to be in a position to twitch it. Very educational; it certainly had me looking at the text books afterwards!

9.  November 2015

A bit impulsive, but I twitched this one from Bridport! Steve found an astonishing two Caspian Gulls on the Axe that day - this 2nd-winter and a 1st-winter - and I couldn't resist. The latter had gone by the time I arrived, but this one was more gracious. My views are illustrated by the top photo taken from Coronation Corner; it was okay through the scope though. Meanwhile Ian McLean took the lower shot from the Tower Hide.

This was the second individual we could definitely link with another site - Mike Langman photographed it in Torbay three days earlier.

10.  January 2018

Nearly up to date now, and we're at Tim White's 1st-winter which has put in sporadic appearances since 17 Jan. My impression on first getting decent views of this bird was that it was probably the darkest, most strongly-marked Casp I'd seen, and casting an eye down this post confirms it. Still a cracking gull though.

11.  January 2018

No Axe Casps for me in over two years, then two in four days! Another 1st-winter, it put in a 15-minute appearance on 25 Jan, and might well be the bird Steve had briefly a fortnight or so earlier

So there we are. A bit of a monster post, but I've enjoyed putting it together, and hopefully it will be of some value. I appreciate that a few readers will hardly ever look at gulls with a view to finding something scarce or rare, and one or two perhaps never at all. On the other hand there will be some (I hope) who might just be encouraged by a post like this to have a go for themselves. I really am not an expert, I am still learning all the time. Truly, in many ways I'm a novice when it comes to things larid, I just seem to have been jammy with Caspian Gulls for some reason. My point being that if I can find them, anyone can.

That said, Caspian Gulls are most definitely very scarce in the southwest. When I bother with birding and actually look at gulls I seem to average about one a year, and that's at a site with good access and good numbers of gulls. Not everywhere is as helpful as the Axe in those respects. Even so, logic would suggest that any decent gathering of big gulls must surely deserve a quick look. They are out there!

It's worth mentioning that although my Casp total is 11, due to multiple appearances by three of them I've actually recorded Caspian Gull on 24 dates, and found them for myself on the vast majority.

And don't forget, these are just the ones I've seen. I know Steve can add a few more that I missed.

Finally, I hope that something else comes across from this collection of photos. Yes, Caspian Gulls can be quite variable, but they do appear to have a 'look'. It's hard to define, but the more you study images of them, the more they tend to jump out at you

Anyway, I'll close with an annotated pic of bird number 7. This originally appeared in a previous incarnation of NQS, and highlights a few useful ID tips. Also, because I was lazy and phasing at the time, it constituted the whole of my submission to the Devon Birds Records Committee.

As I said earlier, probably my favourite Axe Casp. A stunner. It really couldn't be anything else.

Friday, 9 February 2018

The Learning Curve

The year is 1981. A summer trip to Minsmere with Mrs NQS. Both of us are relatively new and inexperienced birders, still at the bottom of the learning curve. The Island Mere is covered in ducks, all in assorted manky brown plumage. I can't remember exactly what I wrote in my notebook, but it was something like 'Unidentified ducks, lots'. Yep, I was pretty useless at ducks.

But I was eager to learn, and so persevered with the intricacies of bird identification. And not just with ducks. Fast-forward a year or so to October 1982, and the now very pregnant Mrs NQS and I are on the Staines Res causeway, where I am counting the resident flock of a hundred-or-so Dunlin on the drained north basin. Amongst them is another little brown wader which catches my eye. It looks different somehow, in both plumage and structure. Eventually, with the helpful input of two other Staines birders, I work out that it has to be a Baird's Sandpiper. Rather handily, it stayed until the following April.

Looking back, it surprises me how quickly a novice birder can go from 'useless at ducks' to picking out and identifying a pretty subtle wader in a bunch of very similar but much more common congeners. Probably though, I shouldn't be surprised. After all, I was dead keen, I did a lot of birding, and I made an effort to learn new stuff. Application pays off. Which brings me to the point of this little tale...

Some years ago I got sick and tired of looking at big flocks of gulls on the Axe Estuary and realising that if a juvenile Yellow-legged Gull filled my scope I would not know it. Something had to be done. So I made an effort to learn what to look for, and eventually began to find and identify juv YLGs. In the process I no doubt looked at, analysed and discarded many thousands of Herring Gulls, and not a few Great and Lesser Black-backs. In time I went through the exact same process for Caspian Gull. That exercise is still paying dividends today. Or, to be more precise, yesterday...

A mid-afternoon break at Coronation Corner. Lots of big gulls on the mud and in the river. First scan across them with a scope and there's a Caspian Gull bobbing about in the water, having a wash! It caught my eye as instantly as if it had been painted day-glo yellow. Admittedly it was all rather jammy re timing and whatnot, but I can tell you that a dozen years ago I would have looked right through it. That simply doesn't happen any more.

There's a moral there!

Anyway, it was clearly Tim White's bird from 17 Jan, and this time it hung around long enough for Steve, Ian McLean, and Tim to see. There will be some good photos, but in the meantime there's this one...

Hello again.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

What Am I??

In a comment on the previous post Steve Gale of North Downs & Beyond fame suggested that I am morphing back into a birder again. Looking at very recent NQS output (like the last four posts, say) you'd maybe think so. But am I?

Earlier this evening I went for a 5 mile run. Included in that run were 4x 4-minute efforts at roughly 7 min/mile pace (which feels quite rapid at the moment) with a 3-minute recovery jog between each. This is called interval training. Cool runners might call it 'reps', which is short for 'repetitions'. It is designed to make you faster. And - if you get it wrong - to puke. I've been toying with these structured sessions for a few weeks now. Rather than just 'popping out for a run' I am genuinely trying to make some constructive progress in both speed and endurance.

So I would definitely say that I'm a runner right now. I probably have been for 30-odd years but just didn't know I could still do it.

On Sunday afternoon I went on a fairly leisurely 25-mile bike ride with a mate. Apart from the wet and muddy lanes, and the quarter-mile of thorny hedge trimmings we had to negotiate (don't get me onto farmers' antics, please) it was great, and I cannot wait for spring to herald some sunshine and warmth so I can really enjoy my cycling again.

So, although my poor, neglected winter bike is in dire need of a deep clean I would say that I am very much a cyclist still.

A runner and a cyclist.

The recent proliferation of white-wingers inspired me to take a proper look at the Axe Estuary gulls whenever I was over Seaton way. The upshot of that little endeavour has now taken up four posts...and I still haven't found a Glauc or Iceland Gull! I really like gulls. Probably I always will.

For some reason I've not been quite so inspired by the Hawfinch thing, but even so I would say that I am still a birder...

A runner and a cyclist and a birder.

And how chuffed I was when Rob sent me photos of his first 20lb pike yesterday morning. It genuinely made my day. And then this morning he sent me this...

Rob's message read: "Guess how big!"

Big landing nets always seem to make a fish look smaller than it is, so my reply was initially: "Surely not another 20?" And then "No. Must be 15 though".

Eventually this arrived...

Rob is famous for his sartorial indifference anyway, but I would imagine he cares even less when the real star of the photo weighs 23lb 1oz!

Yes, the jammy so-and-so has just caught two 20lb pike in 24 hours. He also had a smaller one just under 9lb, all of them falling to tactics that are far from mainstream when it comes to piking. Three bites. Three landed fish. I think his persistence in developing a different approach over the last two winters has been both vindicated and well-rewarded!

When I get enough spare time I will once again be after the pike, and if the rivers fine down from their somewhat swollen state before the end of February I shall be after the grayling too. So yes, I am also still an angler.

A runner and a cyclist and a birder and an angler.

So, to pick up Steve's original point, personally I feel I will always be a birder, and hopefully all the other things too. But I find it impossible to pursue all my interests, at the fairly high level of application that I find necessary, all of the time. Each will wax and wane in due season. I am comfortable with this reality. In fact I like things this way. Long may that be true...

Ooh, I almost forgot. Guess what I did when Rob sent me his latest pike photos. Yes, that's right, I made a collage...

Left: 28 Nov 2017 - 23lb 8oz   Right: 30 Jan 2018 - 23lb 1oz
And yes, they are the same fish!
It was a tiny disappointment to discover that Rob's second twenty wasn't a new one for us, but on the other hand it was nice to have shared it, so to speak. Still, it had travelled quite a long way from where I caught it.

So yes, I am a runner, cyclist, birder, angler...and detective. But probably not all at once.

Monday, 29 January 2018

This is Getting Silly...

Once again lunchtime found me beside the Axe Estuary at Coronation Corner. I'll confess, this wasn't my first time beside the river today, but an earlier scoot along had been fruitless. Good numbers of big gulls, but mostly a little too distant for comfortable viewing with bins through a windscreen. Out we get then, scope up, scan. Zip. Back inside, sarnies out, World at One, munch...

Gulls were trickling in constantly, which definitely warranted another scoping before I headed off. And yes, in keeping with current stupid amounts of jam, right there in the middle of the flock was a Caspian Gull.

Straight away I recognised it as Tim's bird, and just as straight away it did the off, flying upriver to land bang in front of the Tower Hide. It took me about ten minutes to get round to the hide, and there it still was, really close. Annoyingly, the moment I got the camera out the bird flew back across the river, but at least I managed a few very distant shots of it...

I'll admit, it doesn't exactly stand out like a sore thumb at this angle in the gloomy light

By this time I'd alerted Steve, who once again kindly put the news out, and in the distance I could see a birder climbing out of his car at Coronation Corner. So, back I went...

It was Mark Bailey from Torbay, who'd been conveniently near at hand visiting the Glossy Ibis at Seaton Marshes. It's always a pleasure to share good birds, and Mark and myself and another birder who'd just turned up had great views as it stood alone on the nearby mud. A couple of shots...

Conditions were still very gloomy. I know a 1st-winter Casp is hardly a kaleidoscope of colour, but without sunshine it's hard even to see what's grey and what's brown.

At that moment the gathering clouds emptied a lot of water onto us and we retreated. I hung around though, and following the rain came a gap in the weather. The sun even emerged. The Casp was still present, and now quite active amongst the good-sized flock of gulls at the water's edge. I got some more photos...

Compare the Casp with those 1st-winter Herring Gulls all around it. What a difference a bit of sunshine makes. Especially when the water is reflecting a nice dark rain cloud for a bit of contrast. Despite how obvious it looks in this series of shots, I'm pretty sure its mantle and scaps are the darkest, most heavily marked I've yet seen on a Casp, with less contrast between them and the coverts than I'm used to. So not a textbook individual, I would say. But still a Casp I think, and still beautiful!

Just after 15:00 it upped and went, heading away S over the town. About ten minutes before that, Julian Thomas turned up. Perfect timing. So this visit was approximately an hour and 45 mins. By Axe standards that is a long stay!

Finally, Mr Collage presents his latest offering. Tim's on the left, today's on the right...

No question, it's the same bird

So then, a good day. A good day for bumping into scarce gulls. A good day for bumping into birders I haven't seen in a while. And a good day for piking...

This morning, before all the gull stuff, Rob got in touch. A bit later he sent me some photos. Here's one...

Rob's first twenty! Bit of a 'scraper' at 20lb 2oz, but what a lump! I was nearly as chuffed as Rob!

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Detective Work

So there have been several recent Caspian Gull happenings on the Axe. Once for Steve on 9 January, twice for me last week, and now also for Tim White on 17 January. Amazing. The question is though, how many birds have been involved? One? Two? More?

I love comparing photos to work out stuff like this, and have done so several times. One year on the Axe we had a steady procession of Iceland Gulls. Photos proved that what we thought was one very white one was actually two birds. On another occasion, careful image analysis demonstrated that just one Red-breasted Goose was involved in records from Christchurch Harbour, Ferrybridge and Exminster Marshes. My sleuthing urges have been applied to Caspian Gull pics also. Learning that our Dec 2011 bird was previously on Portland in October was a particularly satisfying one, and that Steve's 2nd-winter bird from a couple of winters ago had been at Torbay a few days prior.

Anyway, I present below my latest efforts in this department...

Left: Jan 17 (Tim White)    Right: Jan 22
In the past I have used little circles, arrows and annotation to highlight similarities. In this case I think it would all get too messy, but suffice to say there are numerous common features. Certainly enough to satisfy me anyway.

Just for the fun of it I thought I would compare open wing shots. However, in the following collage I've added a couple of previous Axe Casps to the mix. The purpose of this set of images is not so much to show that my bird and Tim's are one and the same, but to illustrate both the variability in 1st-winter Caspian Gull upperwing pattern, and the similarities - those features that help confirm identification...

Always those darker-based, paler-tipped greater coverts giving a distinctive pale wing-bar that contrasts with almost blackish secondaries. The median coverts exhibit a similar pattern, also producing a definite (if fainter) wing-bar.

I briefy considered another collage comparing my bird from last Thursday (25th) to Steve's from 9 Jan, but Steve's photos are so lacking in detail that it wouldn't be very convincing (sorry Steve!). Nevertheless I feel there's enough there to persuade me that they are most probably the same bird.

Right, let's draw some conclusions then...
  • Tim's bird from 17 Jan is my bird from 22 Jan
  • Steve's bird from 9 Jan is [probably] my bird from 25 Jan
  • I have definitely seen TWO different Axe Caspian Gulls in four days!
  • But technically I didn't find either of them...
  • The ringed Dawlish bird from 17 Jan means at least 3 Casps may still be knocking about in E Devon!
  • There may never have been a better time to 'find' a Devon Casp
Point number four highlights one reason why I have never bothered with a self-found list. Even so, learning that both my birds had previously been discovered by someone else did not for one moment detract from the massive buzz I enjoyed both times!

It's funny, although I've done so little birding in recent times, whenever I do make the effort for a while I seem to get really jammy. Now that I don't mind...

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Birding Interlude of the Satisfying Kind!

So it's lunchtime and, as I often do if working near Seaton, I'm parked alongside the estuary. Normally on such occasions I periodically raise my bins and peer rather half-heartedly at whatever is on view. Today though, I was much more alert. I was in gull mode. After yesterday's foul weather I was seriously hoping that a Glaucous or Iceland Gull might appear. Plus of course, Monday's distant and frustrating Casp had fired me up a bit. But, realistically, what were the chances of a Caspian Gull popping up in front of such a part-time birder twice in one week...?

A trickle of big gulls were dropping in to the river at Coronation Corner, having a little wash and then flying over to the far bank to preen. Approximately halfway through my sarnie a quick scan of the latest few arrivals revealed a dazzling white head and breast on what was clearly a 1st-winter bird. What!?!! A Caspian Gull!! Grabbing scope and camera I was out of the van like a shot. It spent hardly any time on the water and my photos were apalling...

It might seem odd to say this, but to my eye there's more than enough information in this unflattering 'capture' of a scraggy bunch of feathers to know unequivocally that it's a Caspian Gull.

Ditto with this one...

Like the other big gulls, it flew to the opposite bank and began to preen. In the horribly harsh sunlight I couldn't get anything remotely decent out of the Lumix, so dug out my 10+ year-old Fuji FinePix F30 for a bit of digiscope action. Just like the old days, when I used to look at birds and that...

I didn't do a great deal better with the Fuji, but did get this one...

It's actually mid-preen, which is why the wing is a little droopy. Absolutely no doubt here - that is a 1st-winter Casp in all its glory.

Within 5 minutes of first clapping eyes on the bird I had phoned Steve, who kindly put out a text to the locals on my behalf. Unfortunately it stayed no longer than 15 minutes in total before flying away high towards the sea. Poor old Tim White turned up about 5 minutes after that. Axe Casps are rarely obliging in that regard.

Though I haven't done a critical analysis of the photos yet, I can see nothing to suggest this isn't Monday's individual. It was unringed, so definitely not last week's Dawlish Warren bird.

To be honest, this fortuitous episode has got me wondering about something I do find a bit strange...

I think this is my ninth Axe Casp. I am no expert with masses of experience - those nine are the only Caspian Gulls I've ever seen, but seven of them I found myself, all 1st-winters. This one and (if my memory is correct) two others, I 'found' multiple times; in other words they turned up more than once and I happened to be on the spot to 'find' them more than once. The remainder of the [probably] 13 Axe Caspian Gulls were (as far as I am aware) all found by Steve. Just two observers. I'm not too sure who exactly have found the several other Devon birds, but I know that very few observers are involved, and that at least two of them also have multiple finds to their name. And yet when it comes to other scarce gulls - white-wingers, say - loads of different observers turn them up. I know Casps are subtle, but they're not impossible. Far from it. Is it simply that birders repeatedly overlook them because thay don't have the species on their radar??

I would love to be able to do something to rectify that. So, please allow me to offer my Number One Top Tip for finding 1st-winter Caspian Gulls in a flock of winter dross. Here it is...

Look for the big gull with the gleaming white head and body. Make sure it's a 1st-winter, and you're well on your way. Unless my dodgy memory is playing tricks I think I can say that every single Casp I have found (and each time I found it) the bird caught my eye because of its dazzling white head and body. Honestly, It really is an absolutely 24-carat, stop-you-in-your-tracks feature.

If just one birder were to remember that tip, try it for him/herself and then go and find their very own Casp as a result, I would be absolutely delighted. Look, this is how obvious they can be...

Scene from the Tower Hide one day in Feb 2012:
Foreground left, staring into the water: 1st-winter Herring Gull.
On the lump of tree: another 1st-winter Herring Gull.
Between the two: Agh! Where are my sunglasses!?!!

Isn't it ironic. Umpteen posts about cycling, fishing, running and so on, and then when he does finally get round to actual birds we get two posts of nothing but gull. Yes, how to try your readership.