Monday 26 February 2018

Double Ross in Dorset 23rd February 2018

On the morning of Wednesday the 21st of February there was a report of an adult Ross's Gull at Ferrybridge which lies at the beginning of the natural causeway carrying the A354 linking the mainland to the Isle of Portland in Dorset and where the Fleet Lagoon, an internationally important Nature Reserve, lies on one side of the road and joins Portland Harbour on the other. The gull was seen, but only briefly, later that day on the RSPB 's Lodmoor  Reserve at nearby Weymouth and then disappeared but I made a mental note to keep an eye on developments, if any.

The next day it was seen again at Ferrybridge, only briefly in the morning, before it was relocated in Weymouth Bay that afternoon, thereafter visiting the nearby Lodmoor Reserve which lies on the eastern outskirts of Weymouth and just the other side of the coast road that runs adjacent to the bay.

Ross's Gull is named after Captain Sir James Clark Ross, a British naval officer and explorer. It has been recorded 97 times in Britain and 22 times in Ireland excluding this current occurrence. It is the blue riband of rare gulls that occur in Britain and its rarity, attractive appearance and romantic origins make it  a highly desirable prize for birders, and the fact it occurs so infrequently on the south coast and this time in such an accessible area as the Jurassic Coast made certain this particular individual was going to be immensely popular.

A tiny gull not much bigger than a Little Gull, it is normally found breeding in the high arctic in northernmost North America and northeast Siberia. They do not usually venture much further south even in winter, being found at the edge of the pack ice in northern latitudes around the Bering Sea and the Sea of Othotsk, although a very few do reach temperate areas in northwest Europe each year. They are said to often feed like waders on mudflats in winter.

Its dove like rounded head and delicate black bill give it a large quotient of the  'cute factor' which belies its hardiness, surviving as it does in such a hostile environment. They have long pointed wings extending well beyond a curious wedge shaped white tail and their short legs are scarlet red.They are almost a combination between a tern and a small gull and as such are placed in their own genus.

I had arranged with Moth much earlier in the week to go to see a Spotted Sandpiper at Holme Pierrepoint in Nottinghamshire on Friday but felt certain he would much rather see a bird he had never seen before. Friday arrived and on my way to collect Moth at 9am I called to inform him of the change in plan to which he readily agreed. 

We set off for Weymouth on a bitterly cold day with a strong east wind blowing but it was also sunny and crystal clear. During the journey Moth kept checking my RBA (Rare Bird Alert) app. for any news about the gull but we heard nothing until near our destination, when all it said was that the gull had not been seen that morning at Lodmoor. That was all well and good but our plan was to go to Ferrybridge as that was where it had been first seen yesterday morning. 

We turned onto the road south by Maiden Castle, the largest  iron age hill fort in Europe and there we hit a huge traffic jam due to some temporary roadworks. I did feel a little better however, when on clearing the roadworks I saw the size of the tailback for cars coming out of Weymouth. We passed through Weymouth and headed for Ferrybridge but then encountered yet another long jam due to more roadworks, so judiciously circling a convenient roundabout we headed back the way we had come and set off for Lodmoor. 

Our revised plan was to wait at Lodmoor for news of the gull and watch over the western scrape there, which is where the Ross's Gull had been seen yesterday afternoon on a couple of occasions.We parked the car on the northern side of the reserve and followed the footpath through the reeds to bring us out by the western scrape. Unfortunately we found we were facing east when we got to the scrape and therefore got the full benefit of the bitter wind blowing directly into our faces but there was nothing we could do about it so we had to just get on with it as best we could but it was not pleasant.

A view East across the western scrape and then further
across the rest of the RSPB's Lodmoor Reserve 
There were a lot of other birders here, presumably with the same idea as us. At least we had other birds to watch while we waited and hoped for news of the gull. Three Marsh Harriers floated out over the acres of dead reeds and pools of water that comprise the reserve, soaring up into the blue sky and looking incongruous against a backdrop of affluent housing on the northern rise beyond the reserve.Their progress heralded a general alarm amongst the Lapwings and Common Snipe which rose, complaining, high into the sky to wheel about in the wind before coming back to land.

Eurasian Teal, one of my favourite ducks came very close, unafraid due to their familiarity with the constant stream of birders and walkers passing on the footpath every day and knowing they would not be harmed.The drakes at this time of year are at their very finest, the richly coloured plumage on heads wet from being submerged to feed, glistened in the sun.

Male Teal
A Spoonbill was wading in the shallow water, its extraordinary shaped bill being swept from side to side in true metal detector fashion but detecting a treasure of crustaceans and fish rather than hidden coins. Every so often it would lift its black bill from the water and gulp down whatever submerged prey it had found. Its legs were adorned with bling of blue, green and yellow plastic rings and a local birder told me he had reported the rings and learnt that it had been ringed as a young bird in The Netherlands in 2014 and that it regularly crossed back and fore between the two countries.

Black tailed Godwits hunkered down on a sunny bank in the lee of the wind, cosy and sheltered in the grass with their long bills tucked into the feathers of their backs. Two Common Snipe did similar in the lee of some nearer reeds. 

Common Snipe
Dunlin wandered about the muddy scrape while Common Shelducks, were scattered around the marsh, large and very obvious  from a distance in their pied plumage and sporting a sash of chestnut across their breast. A lone Avocet flew around the scrape, calling, and finally settled under a bank with some Black headed and Mediterranean Gulls, to sleep.

Adult Mediterranean Gull moulting into summer plumage
Four Ruff, three males and a much smaller female called a Reeve, wandered energetically along the muddy margins of the scrape and through the short grass behind, ceaselessly looking for food.

A Grey Heron put down on the mud briefly but was clearly unhappy about the wind and soon departed to the more sheltered ditches which it shared with a couple of Little Egrets.

Grey Heron
Time slowly passed by but the Ross's Gull  was not co-operating and gradually birders trickled away, unable to withstand the wind chill and quite possibly bored, all the initial enthusiasm long gone. I too was contemplating how much longer to remain when a huge white gull drifted over our heads and landed on the muddy scrape. It was a Glaucous Gull and an enormous one at that, a real brutish looking bird, dwarfing every other gull present including the Herring Gulls. In the harsh bright sunlight it looked very white and closer study showed it was a second winter bird and now beginning to acquire adult characteristics such as a pale eye and a faintly grey mantle. It waded about amongst the smaller, circumspect Black headed and Mediterranean Gulls before flying up onto a bank to preen for twenty minutes and then fly off. 

Size comparison!

Second winter Glaucous Gull
This was an unexpected and pleasant surprise, especially as it was a new bird for Moth but now it was back to wondering about the Ross's Gull and if it would ever appear. There was still no news about it and just when we were debating how much longer we intended to endure the purgatory of the cold and ceaseless wind a birder came up to us and told us that a friend of his had just called to say the Ross's Gull was currently sat on the sea at Bowleaze Cove. I had no idea where this was but he pointed to a distant block of flats beyond the eastern end of the reserve and told us it was on the sea near there.

'Come on Moth let's give it a go' and we headed off back along the footpath to the car. It was good to be moving once again and getting some circulation and warmth back into our bodies. The short drive to the flats was accomplished in little time but we found that the gull was further east than here and we had to drive another mile or so to a closed amusement arcade and view the gull from a grassy area nearby, overlooking the sea.

A fellow birder currently looking at the gull, in time honoured fashion allowed me a view through his scope so I could say I had seen it and ascertain where it was on the sea. Then I found it in my own scope, sitting demure and petite, rising and falling, visible and then invisible in the wave troughs of the rough sea, beyond a large and straggling flock of Black headed and Mediterranean Gulls. Moth looked through my scope and saw the gull too so he now had two lifers for the day and we were happy to have achieved this minor triumph, virtually at the last possible moment. The Ross's Gull sat on the sea for ten minutes and then took off and flew strongly further east with some other Black headed Gulls and we lost sight of it as it rounded a distant point. 

Moth recording the happy moment at Cowleaze Cove
Now it really was time to go as both of us were colder than we cared to admit and the warmth and sanctuary of the car was a benediction as we turned north to head for home.

I could now say that was it but during the day I had been in contact with both Badger and Peter, two other Oxfordshire birding colleagues who had expressed a desire to try and see this elusive gull tomorrow, Saturday.

Via various phone calls to both I had formulated a plan that Peter would drive us to Ferrybridge on Saturday. We would depart from Peter's house in Oxford at five am, collecting Badger from Abingdon on the way and aim to arrive at Ferrybridge by seven am or just after. I felt it essential to be there early as this had been the modus operandi of the Ross's Gull on the previous two mornings.

Saturday arrived and I left home at four am to drive to Peter's home. It was even colder today than yesterday with the same wind blowing strongly from the east and on the coast it would be even stronger and probably colder. It was not going to be pleasant.

The drive south was, in contrast to yesterday, uneventful, with no traffic hold ups and we arrived at Ferrybridge at seven am, already burdened with the depressing news that the gull had not been seen at Ferrybridge so far. The weather, apart from the chilling wind was, like yesterday, sunny with crystal clear skies but that was no consolation.

We parked in the large Dorset Wildlife Trust car park along with many other birders and joined a long line of birders cowering under the wall carrying the A354 across the Causeway.

Yes it really was as cold as it looks
It was sheltered here and out of the biting wind, as we contemplated the bleak muddy shoreline of the Fleet Lagoon, sparsely populated by a few Dark bellied Brent Geese,  two small flocks of loafing Black headed and Herring Gulls respectively but sadly, no Ross's Gull. It was seven thirty am and despite the shelter from the wall it was numbingly cold but at least we were out of the wind. A couple of Greater Black backed Gulls played with a flatfish before one swallowed it and out on the blue water a dozen or so Red breasted Mergansers were swimming around and diving for food. The males shaggy crests being blown by the strong wind into strange contorted shapes.

Greater Black backed Gulls
Ringed Plovers, Dunlins and Turnstones flew into roost on the shore as the tide crept in. We stood semi comatose, staring hopefully and willing a small white gull to appear but our hopes went unrequited. Then a general stirring commenced along the line of birders. The Ross's Gull had been reported from Lodmoor at 8.13! I set off with all the others back to the car park but then everyone stopped and confusion reigned briefly as we learned the gull had flown off from Lodmoor and was reported to be heading west - which would be towards Ferrybridge! Back we all trudged to resume our positions under the wall. Badger had sensibly remained where he was and I felt a little foolish as we stood and resumed our vigil.

Optimism turned rapidly to pessimism as the time passed with no sign of the Ross's Gull. Badger gave in first and retreated to the car defeated by the cold. Peter and myself stuck it out until nine thirty but as Peter's ticket for the car park ran out then, we too went back to the car. It was certainly a relief to get out of the wind, which on the walk back to the car had frozen my cheeks almost rigid.

We discussed what to do and settled for going to Lodmoor where at least we could watch some birds such as the Spoonbills and Marsh Harriers and, you never know, the Ross's Gull might, just might come back to the western scrape. We stopped at a bakers in Ferrybridge for a couple of pasties and I felt much better having eaten one and realised I had already been up for five and a half hours.

I suggested before we went to Lodmoor we go and look at Bowleaze Cove just in case the gull was there, which necessitated passing through Weymouth and driving past the other big RSPB Reserve in Weymouth, Radipole Lake. As we crossed the bridge I looked down on the lake and remarked that I saw no reason why the gull should not be there. At the time it was just a flippant remark and I did not realise how pertinent it was going to be. Needless to say there were no gulls at Bowleaze Cove so we retreated to Lodmoor.

We parked the car in the familiar place on the northern edge of Lodmoor and for some reason I asked Peter to park it facing back up the road in case we needed to leave in a hurry to go and see the gull. We followed the footpath that led to the western side of Lodmoor and the western scrape. A Cetti's Warbler sang lustily and briefly from some brambles but as usual it remained totally invisible. Back on the footpath we stopped at a gap where it overlooked the western scrape, which true to form with our bad luck was devoid of birds, unlike yesterday. The wind was also blowing hard, right into our faces, and now many other birders had the same idea as us, so it was quite crowded on the footpath and space was at a premium.

Birders crowding the footpath at the western end of Lodmoor
As we stopped by a bench we found Terry sat there, having made his way independently from Oxford. His luck was no better than ours, in fact worse, as he told us the galling news he had missed the Ross's Gull on the western scrape this morning by just a few minutes. We commiserated with him and then just stood about  chatting and getting progressively colder. Terry then went to look for the Spoonbill and I cannot recall how much longer we stood here, although it seemed an age, but finally a bit of good news and what we had been waiting for came through on the RBA app. The Ross's Gull was at Radipole! Apparently a birder seeking refreshment  in the RSPB Visitor Centre there had idly scoped a tiny island in the lake that was harbouring some loafing Black headed Gulls.The island was situated just off an adjacent wooden bridge by the Visitor Centre and in the midst of the Black headed Gulls was the star turn. It had been found at 1135 but first we had to get to Radipole from Lodmoor which, although only a short distance, required transiting the eastern part of Weymouth, now very busy on a Saturday lunchtime. Where was Terry?

We headed back along the depressingly familiar footpath to the car. Tension and anxiety amongst us was now at stratospheric levels as we negotiated the slow moving Saturday traffic with everyone else sublimely ignorant of the momentous event at Radipole and in no hurry whatsoever or so it seemed. Every traffic light was red and took an age to turn green. We got to the major crossroads opposite Radipole's car park and beyond we could clearly see the hordes of birders, all at this very minute hanging over the wall looking at a Ross's Gull. The lights at the crossroads took forever to change in our favour but finally we got the green light, yet now there was one more set to negotiate and they were red. Come on! They turned green and we shot into the car park. I dived out and paid for a parking ticket and then we ran to join  the assembled birders.

Around a hundred birders were crammed onto the wooden bridge and beyond, along the footpath adjacent to a small island just a few metres away in the lake. Somehow we each managed to find a space and there, at last was the object of our desire.The Ross's Gull stood on its short red legs fast asleep  on the shingle of the tiny island.

The scrum of birders was so thick that other people just out for a walk had little chance of getting by on the bridge whilst other birders who, in their anxiety to see the gull, had abandoned cars without paying first were now returning having purchased a ticket only to find their places gone. No quarter was being given. It was everyone for themselves.You relinquished your place at your peril.

The Ross's Gull was not immediately obvious as it was partially obscured by other gulls and instructions were being regularly issued to guide people to it but once seen it was obvious how small and distinctive it was compared to the surrounding Black headed Gulls. It woke up and moved as the Black headed Gulls shuffled about, giving way to them. It was an adult and I noted a faint thin line of grey encircling its neck, the beginnings of its summer plumage. Its upperparts were delicate pale grey while the head and underparts were white with possibly the faintest of pink flushes on its breast. Its eye was black.

Adult Ross's Gull
We watched the gull and took its photo many times, video'd it and generally enjoyed it for around thirty minutes until at 12.20 it suddenly stretched its wings to the sky and flew off over the car park heading for nearby Weymouth Bay. We followed it in our bins, its long pointed wings distinctive as it winged its way high over the surrounding buildings towards the sea.

A collective sigh of relief and contentment followed its departure as everyone extricated themselves from the congestion of bodies, scopes, tripods and cameras, one and all spilling out into the car park to recount to each other our individual experiences and give release to an accumulation of anxiety and excitement.

Birders just after the gull had flown off
It was over and we had seen the Ross's Gull really well. Terry managed to make it to Radipole in time but only just, having had similar frustrations with the Weymouth traffic in getting to Radipole but the main thing was he had seen it so we could all relax, for it is important that all of us see the bird as otherwise the experience is diminished.

We resolved to return to Lodmoor as Badger fancied taking some video of the Spoonbill. We returned to a now very familiar parking spot and took the walk back along the similarly familiar footpath to the western scrape. A Ruff was feeding very close to the bank and diverted our attention for a few minutes before we walked to a bench opposite the western scrape.There were now far fewer birders than before and it was a relaxed and convivial atmosphere on the footpath as our exertions had warmed us up and the cruel wind was for the moment  no longer troubling us.

Nothing much happened and we idled the time away until the welcome return of the second winter Glaucous Gull got us all interested in our surroundings again. A  minute later another Glaucous Gull flew in, a browner first winter bird this time and both gulls made for a bank harbouring some Herring Gulls, where they indulged in a bout of feather maintenance.

First winter Glaucous Gull
Terry called Badger who was away chasing after the Spoonbill and he returned to video the Glaucous Gulls.  I got talking to a Scottish lady called Fiona and in the course of our conversation learned she had come all the way from Glasgow to see the Ross's Gull. When she learned we were from Oxford she told us about her abortive trip to Farmoor, our local reservoir in Oxford to see a supposed Lesser Scaup, only to learn it was a hybrid. I told her she had become something of a 'cause celebre' amongst us Oxonbirders and we all felt for her but I was delighted to learn from her that she had managed to see a proper Lesser Scaup shortly afterwards in Cornwall. It is inconsequential encounters such as this that I  enjoy so much about birding. You often do not know who your neighbouring birder is and what tale they have to tell.

I asked Fiona if she had seen the Ross's Gull that we had seen just now at Radipole and learnt that she had missed it by five minutes.She told me her luck was out and this was her second day here and she thought she was destined never to see the gull but was going to stay one more night in Weymouth if she did not see it today. We told her she still had plenty of time today but she was not optimistic.

At that very moment further news came through of the Ross's Gull. It was back at Radipole! Fiona said it would probably be gone by the time she got there. We told her that she had to try to see it and if she did not go then she definitely would not see it. She went in one direction as we headed in the other, back along the familiar footpath to the car. We reprised our frustrating drive through Weymouth once more but this time I was in Terry's 4x4. We joined another scrum of birders on the same bridge and footpath  and the gull was in its same location on the tiny island but this time left the island to swim on the water.

At 2.45 it flew up from the island, as before, rising high above the car park and flying out towards Weymouth Bay and was gone.

I met a very happy Fiona as we all spilled out into the car park once more.

'See. I told you!' 

She laughed and we wished each other good luck.

The gull's departure was our cue to go and Badger joined Terry, who on this second visit felt he had now seen the gull properly.They headed off to Oxford whilst myself and Peter also set off for home a few minutes later. The late afternoon sun cast a golden glow over the land as we headed north and a similar glow warmed my heart as I reminisced on my arduous but ultimately rewarding two days in Dorset.

Video below courtesy of Badger

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