Saturday 31 January 2015

Two gulls and a goose 30th January 2015

Last year a first winter Kumlien's Gull decided to spend a few months at Littlehampton in West Sussex, mainly hanging around at the mouth of the River Arun which runs into the sea at Littlehampton,  It created quite a stir amongst us birding folk. In fact I went to see it no less than three times and took many photos of it last year, feeding on the beach tideline. Well, this January it decided to return to its old haunts and now in its second winter or third year of life was again frequenting the mouth of the River Arun  or loafing slightly upriver on the lifeboat slipway by the Look and Sea Visitor Centre. This year however it has proved more elusive than last year and has varied the locations it has favoured although generally remaining somewhere near to the tidal River Adur.

It now has some grey feathers appearing on its upperparts and its eye is beginning to turn pale. A gull for the birding connoisseur,  superficially it can look just like every other large immature gull hanging around the environs of the Arun or the beach,  however a closer look will reveal differences to our familiar Herring Gull. For a start its size is slightly smaller if a comparison can be made with any Herring Gull that happens to be alongside. The whole bird is more delicate with a smaller rounded head and a distinctive bi-coloured bill. Perhaps the most obvious difference is in the flight feathers which are brown on the outer four or five primaries but nowhere near the black brown of the same feathers on immature Herring Gulls of similar age.  

Kumlien's Gull is not yet a true species and may never be. Currently it is considered a hybrid between Iceland Gull which is a regular visitor to Great Britain in winter and Thayer's Gull  which is very rare in Great Britain. Kumlien's Gulls breed on Baffin Island and spend their winter on the northeast coast of America so they  are pretty scarce here, which is why it is always good to see one. This bird originating from America is now presumably settled  on this side of the Atlantic. Who knows what it will do next or where it will end up....

So another early start from Kingham was required, in the dark and wet and with the promise of a driving endurance test of nightmare proportions coping with heavy traffic all the way to Littlehampton, but after a couple of hours I was winding my way through the narrow streets of Littlehampton, finally coming to a stop in a small secluded car park a stone's throw from the slipway. 

The eastern promenade by the River Arun looking downriver to the sea in the
extreme distance.The slipway is just at the bottom left of the picture
The view from the top of the slipway where the lifeboat is launched from
The last reported sighting of the Kumlien's Gull had been from the slipway by the Visitor Centre a couple of days ago and although its behaviour is erratic and unpredictable this is the place it has been reported from most frequently so it made sense to start looking here. I walked to the slipway but disappointingly there was only a motley collection of Black headed Gulls and a couple of Herring Gulls standing around with some more large gulls circling high over the town calling loudly for no accountable reason. I used the gulls present to get my camera settings right so that all would be ready for the Kumlien's Gull if it ever showed up.

Adult Herring Gull
Second or third winter Herring Gull

One or two Black headed Gulls were already adopting their breeding plumage
I stood in the dull early morning by the Visitor Centre which at this time of year was firmly shut, the cafe dark and deserted and the ranks of outside tables, no doubt thronged on summer days, currently wet, forlorn and uninviting, their appearance somehow imparting the epitomy of a winter's weekday in a small South Coast seaside town. The promenade alongside the river where I stood outside the Visitor Centre was equally deserted. I had the place to myself. No other birders. No one at all.

The Look & Sea Visitor Centre
The lack of gulls was not a good start and something had to be done to attract the gulls to the slipway so I walked a few hundred metres to the town shops and had then to wait for ten minutes for Sainsbury's to open at 8am. The town was slowly awakening as if reluctant to embrace the cold damp morning but the forecast was good for later. My mission was to buy some cheap sliced bread and entice the gulls to come to the slipway to gobble up the slices as I lobbed them into the air from the promenade that overlooked the slipway and river. Hopefully the gulls that would be attracted might include the Kumlien's. Sainsbury's doors were duly flung open at the appointed hour and I headed for the shopping aisles and bought four sliced loaves for the gulls and then a hot chocolate for myself to keep body and soul together. That surely should be enough for both me and the gulls?

I walked back to the slipway with two loaves clutched in each hand. I need not have worried about the gulls coming to the bread. The gulls noticing what I was carrying as I approached the slipway headed for me at speed. A veritable tsunami of very excited gulls of all sizes flew around me at close range, squawking and wheeling in anticipation of being fed. They are obviously fed from here on a regular basis and judging by my experience can spot a loaf and its potential at many hundred metres. 

I scanned the gulls now squabbling over the bread I was dispensing on the sea and on the slipway, and to my delight found the Kumlien's Gull sitting demurely on the river a little way out from the vulgar scrum of gulls below me on the slipway, but still close enough to give me excellent views. 

Where it had appeared from I had no idea as I had scanned the river and found no trace of it but it was here now so any further thoughts in that direction were purely academic.

Second winter Kumlien's Gull

The Kumlien's Gull showing pale grey feathers on the mantle beginning to appear 
and on a few upper scapulars. Note how the darker brown outer primaries have 
whitish fringes and conceal the much paler inner primaries
I continued the supply of bread in between taking pictures of the Kumlien's Gull.  It was easy to pick out when flying due to all the flight feathers being pale milky brown, almost white apart from the outermost four or five, but when settled on the sea you had to look twice as the browner outer feathers covered the paler ones. 

The above two images show to good effect the contrasting pale inner flight feathers
and the outer primaries with their darker brown outer webs giving a stripey look to
the outer wing
Compare this image of the Kumlien's Gull with that of the similar aged
Herring Gull below

Second winter Herring Gull. Note the almost black flight and tail feathers, the
different tertial pattern and the different shaped, coarser and browner markings
on the wing coverts. The bill is also not so markedly bi-coloured and the head
shape is subtly different
Despite this it was also possible to pick it out due to its overall paler plumage. Most of the time the Kumlien's seemed somewhat overawed by the heavier more aggressive Herring Gulls and the sheer numbers of Black headed Gulls, but as time wore on it too finally plucked up courage and entered the fray to grab a slice of bread which it then carried off to swallow in flight pursued by a couple of ever hopeful Black headed Gulls.

Eventually the bread ran out and to my delight the Kumlien's settled on the wet concrete slipway and wandered around for ten or so minutes before flying off downriver towards the rivermouth. 

I made another visit to Sainsbury's and subsequent coaxing with a fresh supply of bread brought back many of the gulls but the Kumlien's Gull was not among them and so it appeared that the hour long show was well and truly over.

This unexpected success meant that I had achieved the purpose of my visit by 10am which was a pleasant surprise. Relaxed I decided to go and look at another American, a Ring billed Gull which was spending its twelth winter at Gosport, just forty minutes drive west of Littlehampton.

A gentle drive down the M27 and then through the shambles of housing, military buildings and roadworks leading to Gosport, found me parking by Walpole Park Boating Lake on what was now, due to the persistent northwest wind, a sunny but cold and blustery late morning.

Walpole Park looked even more derelict and uncared for than normal as both the lakes have been drained in an effort to improve and upgrade the area, so I was met with a large area of mud, pipes and machinery with patches of water lying on the muddy bottoms of the lakes. I found the Ring billed Gull easily, it was floating in the only reasonable sized area of water left but it soon flew off to its favourite site, the grass bank beside the road and then after some minutes flew off over the town and was not seen again.

Adult Ring billed Gull
It was still not lunchtime, so before leaving for home I decided to drive the short distance to the western edge of Gosport to HMS Sultan, a naval training base whose playing fields attract a large flock of Dark bellied Brent Geese at this time of year.  I was here with Badger a month ago and we found an adult Black Brant, the North American version of our familiar Dark bellied Brent Goose species, feeding with them.

I scanned the flock of geese and in a short while found the Black Brant, its pure white flanks gleaming distinctively in the sunshine. Even more interesting for me was the fact the Black Brant had two hybrid young with it so it had obviously bred with a Dark bellied Brent Goose last year and brought itself and its progeny to the exotic climes of Gosport! Why I had not noticed this on my previous visit is one of life's mysteries or maybe it was a different Black Brant we saw then? 

The adult, from its behaviour, appeared to be a female but sadly there was no sign of a mate but the juveniles stuck closely to the adult Black Brant so there was no doubt it was their parent. The juveniles were interesting in their own right showing obvious evidence of their hybrid origin being much paler on the flanks than a normal juvenile Dark bellied Brent and also showing a large white necklace of feathers around their neck as large as can be seen on some adult Dark bellied Brent Geese.

Adult Black Brant with a juvenile. Note on the latter the huge white necklace
of feathers around the neck and the very pale flanks
Adult Black Brant with two juveniles both showing the large white necklace
of feathers around the neck and  very pale flanks
So my day with its unwitting North American theme came to an end at just after 1pm and I luxuriated in the knowledge that I would be back home well before becoming entangled in the Friday evening rush hour traffic. Gosport decided to inflict one final indignity on me, for as I fled it took me over an hour to get clear due to major roadworks on the only road out of Gosport to the Motorway. 

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