Sunday 22 December 2013

The Gull from Hull 21st December 2013

Friday afternoon on the 20th December and having fought a heroic Christmas shopping  trolley war campaign up and down the aisles of Waitrose's supermarket in Witney I returned home with a large amount of cheese, amongst other items, and an Ivory Gull very much on my mind. Why? Well an immature Ivory Gull, a rare wanderer from the Arctic, had been entertaining birders for a few days at a place called Patrington Haven some 2.5 miles southeast of Hull in East Yorkshire. A quick volley of texts back and fore to Badger that evening and we were all set for a 5am start from Kidlington on Saturday with Andy and Terry completing a full complement in the Badger's car.

I did not get much sleep on Friday night. I went to bed early but it is the same every time. I get too excited about going rare birding and just cannot sleep due to the anticipation. My whole body tingles and my mind races with nervous energy. Then my daughter, who is in the USA studying at Boston University for a year, skyped us at around 10pm, so another two hours went past as we exchanged Christmas greetings, gossip and we watched her on the computer monitor, as she opened the Christmas presents we had sent her, before she goes to San Francisco for Christmas. It was kind of nice to share this personal moment and not a little poignant. I wish she was here with us to enjoy Christmas as a family. It is such a sentimental time of year and I miss her.

I rendezvoused with Badger, Andy and Terry at 5am on Saturday at Kidlington in a violent rainstorm and we were immediately off on the three hour journey to Patrington Haven. I suppose both the Arctic and Hull are desolate in their own individual ways but having slept cocooned in the warmth of Badger's car most of the way north, I awoke as we traversed a Hull looking at its depressing worst. We passed a huge chemical works with derelict houses on the other side of the road, the windows smashed by vandals and now rendering the homes somehow faceless and sinister. I shuddered and sank back into the corner of the car and closed my eyes. Christmas cheer seemed an awfully distant prospect  in Hull at this very moment.

Fairly soon though we were out of Hull and into open country that was flat, windy and waterlogged from earlier rain. The sky was now clear and a thin winter sun was permeating the landscape, reflecting off the water flashes in the fields and the puddles in the road. The forecast  for here predicted no rain but strong southwesterly winds.

We found Patrington Haven fairly easily and soon joined a long line of precariously parked cars on the muddy verge of a narrow, wet road called  Outstray Lane, surrounded by large flat wolds bordered by skeletal windblown hedges. The sun, still low on the horizon, became a dazzling, brilliant white light in our eyes as we walked up the lane towards the sea and past Outstray Farm. Through a gate and we were now on a muddy track running between a wide water filled dyke on our left and a raised grassy sea defence bank on our right. Beyond the sea defence was the huge Humber Estuary stretching right across to Lincolnshire. A mile walk along the track would bring us to the Pumping Station which was the area that the Ivory Gull favoured. We could see an already impressive line of birders on top of the sea defence bank as we walked onwards, obviously looking at the gull. 

Other birders passed us, coming back along the track and who had already seen the gull. Twenty minutes later at the end of the track, we joined the scattered crowd of  some eighty birders watching the Ivory Gull

Terry and Badger in action
We looked out onto a wide expanse of windswept saltmarsh and sea that formed the beginning of the Humber Estuary. 

Can you see the gull?
The Ivory Gull was immediately apparent, a white blob, a long way out but easily identifiable in the telescope, sat on rocks, preening. Periodically it would fly around and settle on the water but, always restless in the strong wind, would return to the rocks to preen. 

Our first views of the Ivory Gull
The saltmarsh was teeming with birdlife. Great swirls of Dunlin and Knot rose and fell like drifting smoke in the wide skies over the sea. Hundreds of Common Redshanks, ever restless, crowded by the water's edge together with impressive numbers of Common Shelduck and Curlew. Mallard, Wigeon and Teal bobbed in and out of view in the wave troughs of a restless, wind troubled sea. The wind blew relentlessly off the sea directly into our faces. It was wild, raw and cold.

The Ivory Gull had developed a routine of remaining at a distance out on the estuary but at two to three hourly intervals would fly inland to feed on a muddy shoulder of the track right by the dyke and adjacent to the Pumping Station. We had just missed it feeding here earlier, at very close range, so now had to anticipate a long unpredictable wait for it to become hungry again and return for another feeding session. To entice the gull the muddy bank had been strewn, by birders, with various whole fish or fillets of fish such as Cod or Mackerel. 

Birders putting out fish for the Ivory Gull. The bank on which they are
standing is where the gull came to feed
After an hour or so I grew tired of watching the distant gull in the strong, chilling wind and went and stood in the lee of the Pumping Station which also, conveniently, gave me a grandstand view of the bank where the gull came to feed. The bank was some ten metres from my slightly elevated position and other birders and photographers soon had the same idea as me. Badger, Terry and Andy also joined me as the wind chill took effect and slowly the numbers of birders seeking shelter from the wind built up around us but the gull steadfastly refused to leave its distant, windswept perch on the rocks.

Sign on wall of pumping house where we sought shelter
I regularly scanned the flat fields and marshes beyond the Pumping Station. Three Peregrines flew over me, high and fast, interacting with each other in a now grey and cloudy sky. Later a Merlin perched precariously on the only branch sticking up from a vast swathe of waterlogged, winter dead reeds. Buffeted by the wind it faced head on into the relentless airflow but eventually gave up the unequal struggle and flew low and away. A huge flock comprising of thousands of Golden Plover flew high above me, their melancholy windswept calls descending from the sky and their myriad forms making stella patterns against the pale grey clouds. Disturbed or taking alarm at some unknown peril, Lapwings rose from the seashore in a cloud of alternate black and white joining the intricate manouevres of many thousands of Dunlin. 

The time passed slowly. A continuous stream of birders came and went. The birders assembled around the Pumping Station and who, like us, had opted to wait it out for the gull to come and feed blathered on about birding, lists of species seen, recent holidays and all the usual drivel of the bored and over anxious birder. For some it seems impossible to remain quiet. Talking inconsequentially obviously relieves the tension, for others like me it becomes immensely tiresome as, like a captive audience, I must listen to it whilst awaiting the gull's  possible arrival or lose my favourable position if I move away. It's an unavoidable annoyance so I put up with it.  One hour passed, then another. It was now eleven o' clock. A local birder told me that yesterday this was when the gull flew in to feed. Not today however. Eleven thirty came and went. Andy, obviously bored and cold asked us 'How much longer are we going to give it?' I suggested an hour and we settled for this. Twelve o' clock. A stirring amongst the birders looking out to sea alerted us. The Ivory Gull was on the move. It was coming inland. A concerted rush of birders joined us forming an orderly semi circle around the muddy, fish strewn bank nearby. No one misbehaved. The gull appeared high over the grassy sea defence bank and did a couple of passes before us over the dyke and Pumping Station. 

Camera shutters started clicking. I held my fire. Were we too close? Would it get spooked by all the birders present? Too late now to do anything. No one was going to move. The gull passed to and fro in front of us for what seemed an age but was not really long at all and then, flying into the wind came towards us, over the dyke, flying lower and lower still, and finally settled on the muddy bank. Camera shutters were now going nine to the dozen. Volleys of clicks recording the moment for posterity and for individual savouring back in the warmth of home.

The gull, heedless of its star status, stood and regarded us. Satisfied we were not a threat it  then proceeded to examine and peck at what I at first assumed was some orange paper or rags but on closer inspection proved to be smoked salmon! Some twitchers obviously have more money than sense. It dropped the salmon after a quick nibble and then went on to examine each and every one of the random fish, in various states of decomposition, strewn around and about on the mud. 

It appeared dissatisfied and returned to the smoked salmon and promptly proceeded to swallow the lot, in whole pieces, the salmon disappearing down its maw in a series of convulsive swallowing gulps. Pretty it was not. Effective it was. All the salmon pieces went down rapidly and its crop bulged alarmingly. 

It stood four square on sturdy black legs and attempted lift off. The gull rose unsteadily, front heavy and barely airborne but buoyed by the wind it was lifted higher and flew past us, back out onto the distant saltmarsh, presumably to contemplate life and spend some quality time digesting its luxury meal.

The gull was present on the muddy bank for between ten and fifteen minutes appearing to be untroubled by the close proximity of around eighty admirers. It was stockier, more thickset than I had imagined, about the size of a Common Gull with sturdy, short black legs and broad based wings. The entire plumage was snow white except the tips of the flight feathers, coverts and tail  which were individually spotted with black creating a delicate necklacing across the wing  and tip of the tail. An area of grey brown feathers around the base of the bill ruined any impression of a pristine snow white gull and gave the erroneous suggestion that it had been down and dirty in amongst rubbish somewhere and got it's head stained.

The relief amongst the throng once the gull flew off was palpable. Birders, us included, exchanged their experiences with broad smiles whilst others examined the images they had recorded on their cameras. Everyone seemed very pleased and most, like us satisfied, headed back to their cars delighted that an anxious and long wait had been rewarded with such close and spectacular views of this very rare visitor from the far north

Birders departing after the Ivory Gull experience
The shortest day in the annual calendar was now waning but there was just time to go back through Hull, down the Motorway a little distance to the North Cave Wetlands Reserve where a Green Winged Teal had been reported earlier that morning. No news had been heard of it since 8.30am but on finding the Turrett Hide we opened the door to find a scrum of birders all looking at the teal. We joined them and soon Andy and Terry had yet another lifer each as we watched a beautiful drake sitting on an island and then swimming about surrounded by Common Teal. The subtle differences were there as plain as can be. The green flash on the head without the delicate pencil thin buff line around it, the white vertical stripe dividing the breast sides from the flanks. and the lack of any white horizontal stripe on the side of the body

Drake Green winged Teal c Andy Last
We watched it for an hour or so and then it was back to the car to make the long haul home. The drive was no hardship after such a day and with enormous thanks to Badger for kindly doing all the driving. I even managed to stay awake and get home in time to watch the final of Strictly Come Dancing.

Tess Daley was showing really well too! Happy Christmas everyone!

From the left - Yours truly, Badger, Terry & Andy


  1. Ewan,
    Another really excellent write-up as usual, I always find your writing riveting as you capture the essence of twitching - and a superb bird, I saw it the day before you......

    1. Many thanks, it really was a stunner.
      All the best