A Bonaparte's Gull, named not as one would assume after the diminutive French general but after his nephew, has spent a few weeks at Radipole Lake, the RSPB's Reserve in Weymouth, Dorset. Today, like yesterday was predicted to be fine and sunny so what better excuse could there be than to combine a pleasant day at a bird reserve on the south coast with viewing an attractive and rare gull all the way from North America?
Radipole Lake is an extensive area of lagoons and reed beds situated right in the heart of Weymouth and is surrounded on all sides by busy roads, mega stores and housing but once amongst the reeds, lagoons and hedgerows of the reserve you would not know it and a sense of calm and tranquillity transcends the noise and bustle of an urban conurbation on the reserve's very doorstep.
I departed my home in the Cotswolds at six on Tuesday morning. It was crisp and still outside as I wound my way along the familiar lanes. The cold night after the warmth of the preceding day had created a mist shrouded landscape but a fiery orange sun already burned bright in the sky above the low lying mist and soon the enveloping mist would be banished.
A misty early morning in the Cotswolds
I wearied my way down roads busy with traffic rushing to deadlines and destinations I could only imagine. Three hours later I found myself driving into the expansive and expensive car park by the tiny, thatched roofed RSPB Visitor Centre at Radipole Lake and stepped out into a beautiful, calm and sunny morning in Weymouth.
RSPB Visitor Centre Radipole Lake
The first thing I heard above the noise of the traffic was a Willow Warbler cascading its wistful cadence of notes from an Alder right by the edge of the car park. From a winter in deepest, mysterious tropical Africa to a summer home in busy and brash Weymouth, this tiny scrap of resilient life was the living marvel of the wonders and incongruity of migration. A tiny being, innocent and uncomprehending of our world but unwittingly enriching it for those who can appreciate such things.
Newly arrived migrant Willow Warbler
A quick enquiry at the RSPB desk about where to go to find the Buddleia Loop, the location on the reserve the gull was most favouring, elicited the information that it was at the far end of the reserve, but this was no hardship as it entailed a pleasant walk down narrow, sun soaked tracks passing through tall dead reeds and greening hedgerows vibrant with birdlife.
My passage was regularly interrupted by the volleying bright notes of Cetti's Warblers. Usually the most skulking of species and very hard to see, here they flew across the paths and sang, blatantly visible from high in bushes, unconcerned and unworried by the presence of humankind. Common ChiffChaffs added their monotonous contribution and hunted insects in the green budding twigs and bushes. Another Willow Warbler sang gently, almost introspectively further down the track, flicking through the newly sprouting lemon green leaves of a bank of Sallows. Apparently Willow Warblers still on migration sing more quietly than usual until their migration has been completed. Everywhere the urgency of Spring was becoming apparent, the sheer vibrancy and energy of its arrival was almost tangible as the sun gently warmed the earth.
I wandered on, encountering many butterflies, Tortoiseshells and Peacocks mainly, that were making the most of the conditions and absorbing the sun's heat into their rejuvenated wings and bodies. Basking with flattened wings on the warm sun baked tracks or caressed in bowers of frothy white blackthorn blossom.
I arrived at the semi circular concrete viewpoint overlooking the large lagoon where the Bonaparte's Gull was mainly to be found.
The Buddleia Loop Viewing Point, just visible at the end of the track
The Lagoon favoured by the Bonaparte's Gull
Out on the blue waters of the lagoon Herring Gulls idled on the water or stood on one or other of two small stony islands in the company of a couple of indolent Cormorants, but two smaller gulls over on the far side of the lagoon by the reeds looked more interesting and duly resolved themselves into a Black headed Gull and the Bonaparte's Gull. Both were immatures, now in their second year of life and thus free from the cares of breeding until next year.They were busily swimming on the water picking minute prey from the calm surface. The Bonaparte's Gull in comparison to the slightly larger Black headed Gull was petite and delicate, almost tern like, with a needle black bill and pale salmon pink legs. It swam hither and thither but always kept its distance from us.
Bonaparte's Gull with Black headed Gull behind
I sat with others on the concrete wall of the viewing point, a miscellaneous collection of photographers, general birders, Easter holiday families, even dog walkers, all of us patient and resigned to waiting for the Bonaparte's Gull to come closer. A pair of Marsh Harriers floated in from the East and circled over the vast reed bed, the female's creamy head bright in the sunlight and contrasting with her chocolate brown body. After thirty minutes or so it was obvious that the Bonaparte's Gull would not be coming nearer unless some incentive was provided.
My thoughts turned to bread. Especially after the spectacular success of such a ploy with which we tempted an Iceland Gull in Cardiff on Good Friday. Would it, could it work again? There was only one way to find out and it became obvious only one person was going to do it. Me. Initiative to the fore! Without a word I left and made the long walk back to the Visitor Centre and then over the busy road to a garage where I purchased a loaf of finest Hovis sliced brown bread and returned to the viewpoint. Nothing had changed in my absence. Nobody seemed to have even moved. The Bonaparte's Gull was still patrolling the far side of the lagoon.
I announced my intention to cast bread upon the waters in the hope of attracting the Bonaparte's Gull closer and politely enquired if there were any objections. A grizzled local hanging on the end of a camera attached to an enormous lens said he had no objection but told me it would not work. 'I needed peanuts' he told me. I said I was not really inclined to walk back again for peanuts and threw the first couple of bread slices, skimming them frisbee fashion across the water to get them some distance from the shore. At first nothing moved or showed the slightest interest apart from three belligerent Coots which typically managed to create mayhem amongst both themselves and the ever hungry Mallards. The Coots with wings raised looked ridiculous as they tried to enlarge themselves against their perceived opponent. A Moorhen swam tentatively by them picking at morsels of bread, hoping not to attract the Coots ire.
Grizzle said 'I told you so'. I ignored him and threw the rest of the finest wholemeal slices onto the water. At last a Herring Gull showed interest, took off and headed for the bread, quickly followed by its fellows and, best of all, the Black headed Gull and Bonaparte's Gull promptly followed in their wake. Someone complimented me on the successful ploy. I could not resist cheekily replying 'But it doesn't come to bread'. Grizzle muttered 'Well it didn't yesterday'. We all settled down, honour satisfied and amicably took our photo opportunity of the now close up Bonaparte's Gull.
For fifteen minutes the gulls milled around, the Bonaparte's Gull always diffident and timid amongst its larger squabbling companions. The bread quickly vanished and the Herring Gulls now sat waiting for the next opportunity. A pair cried vociferously in duet, the noise so redolent of long forgotten childhoods by the sea.
The Bonaparte's and Black headed Gull retreated to the far side of the lagoon to recommence picking prey from the water.
It was over. No one said thank you. No one offered to go and get more bread. The photographers just sat there. The others melted away, satisfied with what they had seen. I too left and wandered back down the track. A scruffy non descript warbler flitted from one bush across the track to another, twig to twig above me, singing a very strange song indeed. In appearance it looked like a dishevelled Common Chiffchaff but its song was very odd as it was a combination of both Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff. I have read about others encountering this phenomenon but this was the first time it had happened to me. I really did not know what to make of it.
Is it a Chiffchaff or Willow Warbler? I go for the former or maybe a hybrid?.
I headed back to the car park, not to leave Radipole but to extend my car parking payment. This done I availed myself of a hot chocolate and a slice of locally made Dorset Apple Cake in the Visitor Centre, sitting at a table on the sun deck watching the gulls bathing in the river and Black tailed Godwits, now in their breeding orange finery, probing the muddy shallows with their long bills.
A short rest here was definitely welcome and then I wandered back down the track to the Bonaparte's lagoon but it had flown off. I sat, happy nonetheless, content, contemplative and surveyed the scene before me. A Swallow, shining midnight blue and black in the sun dipped down to drink from the lagoon and then was gone over the reeds. A Sand Martin, some minutes later, briefly hawked flies above the reeds before it carried on inland. A Sedge Warbler grated out a few frantic stanzas from the distant reeds on the other side of the lagoon. Two Shelduck, with bright, poster paint red bills, glistening wet, swam and then flew across the lagoon and were gone into the hazy blue above the reeds.
I looked down to the edge of the lagoon, the shallow water was being cleaved by grey bodies, the backs and dorsal fins occasionally breaking the water's surface. The swirls of water mysterious and exciting anticipation. Mullet, big ones at that, in a shoal, were cruising back and fore in the shallows, scaly grey piscine torpedoes in the sun rippled waters.
Time drifted on into early afternoon. The Bonaparte's Gull came back to do a brief fly past over the lagoon and then was gone again. I walked slowly back to the Visitor Centre. Channels cut in the reeds secreted diminutive Teal.
A group of three Mallard and a drake Common Pochard were the epitomy of contentment, all soft rounded plumage curves as they dozed in the sun, sequestered in the reeds.
Intricately patterned drake Gadwalls, with plumage of subdued browns black and greys, wheezed their duck decoy call from hidden channels and another unseen Sedge Warbler struck up its scratchy song from deep in an adjacent reed bed.
Back at the Visitor Centre excited holiday children fed the ever expectant Tufted Ducks and Mallard waiting below the bridge over the channel. £1.00 for a small bag of corn from the RSPB Centre and the ducks were your instant friends.
A Brown Rat, unloved and un-noticed, sat in a corner of the walkway nibbling a morsel, delicately holding the food in tiny baby pink hands.
A cry from a young boy pierced the air. 'Dad it's the merganser! Look it's diving!'. He was referring of course to the famous or infamous Hooded Merganser that has been present here for a few years now. Controversy raged at first about its origin. Had it really come all the way from North America? Now it is generally accepted as an escaped bird, its origin unknown but its beauty transcends all else and I always look forward to seeing it. It cares not one jot about its origins and nor do I.