Monday 10 February 2014

Oh I do love to be beside the seaside! 9th February 2014

Saturday evening and I contemplated the prospect of a Sunday with little to do and a bleak weather forecast. I decided late in the evening on another birding adventure despite the forecast for rain and high winds. I'm getting more than a little resigned to it now!  A Kumlien's Gull and an adult Glaucous Gull had both been seen yesterday at Littlehampton, West Sussex and it was just too much to resist. So a 5.30 early morning start found me wending my way down wet Motorways and finding the grey dawn on the Surrey/Sussex border. The rain had stopped but I was made very aware of the gale force winds as periodically the car would be shuddered by vicious gusts of wind funnelled through the embankments shouldering the road. I also periodically skirted random large tree branches hurled onto the road by the force of the wind. By the time I reached LA (Lil 'ampton - as the locals call it) there was the novelty of sunshine breaking through but the wind was still ferocious.

The Kumlien's Gull had been seen yesterday at the mouth of the River Arun as it flows through Littlehampton and out into the sea. I decided to try the west side of the river mouth for no other reason than everyone yesterday saw it from there. Driving up to the car park by the west side beach I could see some birders already cowering behind the cafe and trying to look at a mass of gulls feeding along the east side beach on the other side of the river outflow. 

I did not even bother to get out of the car as the gulls were all on the other side of the river and consequently distant. I just turned around and drove back the way I had come, back over the River Arun and headed for the east side of the river mouth. I would be much closer to the gulls as I would now be looking directly onto the beach over which they were feeding. I got out of the car in a deserted car park and was promptly blown against the car by the force of the wind. In wind such as this all sorts of inanimate objects seem to take on a life of their own. Car doors unexpectedly blow shut and anything not firmly attached suddenly takes to the air like a mad thing. Try putting on waterproof overtrousers in a Force Eight. It's not easy believe me.

Finally I got everything to my satisfaction and headed for the nearby seafront.The wind was coming from the southwest but there were some closed and shuttered cafes right on the seafront where I could shelter in the lee of the wind and hopefully use my scope on the feeding gulls. It worked a treat, the buildings providing an oasis of calm but there were hundreds of gulls to look at. Some feeding in the roiling brown surf and others sheltering on the beach, standing stoically head into the wind. The roar of the surf and the wind was incredible and exhilarating. Normally the seaside at a town like Littlehampton is a very sedate place but with weather such as today it took on a much more elemental and unpredictable character. 

There was just one other birder nearby braving the elements but between us we could not find anything resembling the Kumlien's or the Glaucous Gull. It was dizzying trying to scan through the swirling mass of gulls but we kept at it, sadly with no success whatsoever. Thirty minutes passed and I resolved to wait for as long as it would take. It was going to be attritional but so be it. The other birder, who was local came over to me and told me that he had just received a phone call telling him the Kumlien's had been found sheltering on the Golf Course. The Golf Course was, inevitably, on the west side of the river so it was back in the car, back over the river and back to where I had originally started. A short walk up a very muddy footpath resulted in my joining another ten or so birders looking forlornly at the alleged top of a Kumlien Gull's head. The rest of the bird was virtually invisible as it was hunkered down out of the wind in a fold of ground somewhere near the seventeenth tee. It appeared to be asleep in the company of about thirty other assorted gulls.

Can you see it? It's the gull asleep just left of the flying gull!
I waited and sure enough, gulls being gulls, it woke up, moved and now I saw not only its head but the top half of its body.Woooeee! Then at last the flock rose in the air, at some unknown concern and the Kumlien's was visible for a minute in flight. Its pale brown primaries almost translucent in the morning light and its body plumage slightly paler than any other juvenile gulls around it. Then it returned to earth and again sunk behind a fold in the ground rendering itself once more almost invisible. A little deflated at such brief and disappointing views, my mood was depressed even more when I learnt that the adult Glaucous Gull had been seen just minutes before I got to the Golf Course, flying over towards the East Beach.

I gave it up and decided to return to the east side of the river. Others were of the same opinion as me. Sooner or later the Kumlien's would come to the river mouth to feed and join all the other gulls or that was the theory anyway. So back I went and indulged myself in some more fruitless gull scoping. I met some young Sussex birders, the names of two I recall were Luke and Dan and we teamed up. It was so refreshing to see their enthusiasm and their friendliness and let's face it they are the future so should be encouraged as much as possible.

Littlehampton East Beach
Our combined forces nevertheless failed miserably and turned up just one partially summer plumaged Mediterranean Gull. That was it. Time dragged on, the wind remained at jet velocity and we cowered meekly behind the sheltering walls. Finally the Kumlien's was spotted by Dan coming to the river mouth to feed, joining all the other gulls in a melee of feathered forms dipping up and down above the waves. We all went out to the end of a small concrete pier as this would bring us nearer to the gull. The wind was at our backs but was so strong it made holding a scope or bins very difficult as the buffeting gusts kept blowing one forwards or sideways. It was not fun. The light was also atrocious with bright sun reflecting off the waves and wet sand. The Kumlien's, not without some difficulty, was re-found and lost again at frequent intervals amongst the feathered throng. Whoever found it  or re-found it then had to try and give directions to the others which was impossible. 'It's by an adult Herring Gull' - there were hundreds. 'It's at the edge of the waves' - there were miles of waves but what can you do, and we all did our best with some humour and birders being birders we all eventually saw it or re-found it. 

Having spent many years braving the wind on Newhaven Pier seawatching I decided a bit of advice might not go amiss with my young friends. "Why don't we go down on the beach and stand in the lee of the pier. That way we will be out of the wind and get much better views?" Agreed. We descended onto the sandy beach with the tide receding fast. This was much better. Perhaps because they are used to dogs and people wandering the beach the gulls here seemed less fearful of people than usual and just carried on feeding at the edge of the tide. If you were cautious you could get relatively close to them. Noting the gulls seemed unworried by some members of the public standing very close further up the beach I suggested we move across the sand to a nearby groyne as this would bring us really close and enable us to get some good views and photos of the Kumlien's Gull. Agreed again and that is what we did. 

The next hour or so was spent happily taking the  Kumlien's photo although we  had huge problems concerning the light, with dazzlingly bright reflected sun coming off  both sand and sea. The Kumlien's seemed to be less troubled by us than any of the other gulls and was usually the nearest to us, feeding frantically with the other gulls as they picked off crabs and other crustaceans from the shoreline, driven onto the sand by the strong tide and surf. It really was a feeding frenzy and in itself an incredible sight to see as gulls walked, flew and inevitably squabbled amongst themselves on the shore

Shouldn't the dark tail band be at the tip of the tail?
The Kumlien's I suppose is a birders bird. Not even a species but considered a hybrid between Iceland Gull and Thayer's Gull its subtle differences and rarity mean it is always a welcome sight. The main features of its plumage are the pale brown flight feathers, not very dark brown like a juvenile Herring Gull nor usually as pale as a juvenile Iceland Gull. They can vary tremendously in the strength of colouring on the primaries and some it has to be said cannot safely be separated from a juvenile Iceland Gull. This one however was strongly marked brown on the primaries which removed any doubts on that score

Eventually we all had our fill of the Kumlien's Gull and slowly various birders drifted off. I was left alone on the beach and contemplating whether to go to nearby Shoreham to see if I could  find the second winter Glaucous Gull that has been hanging around the Southwick Canal. I decided to look at the gulls on the beach for a few more minutes. The tide was now fully out and gulls were scattered far and wide over the exposed sand, making the most of it before the tide would shortly start to come in again. I scanned them with my scope and there was the adult Glaucous Gull stood amongst the throng of gulls.

A really mean looking gull with its pale eye and hulking presence but a real prize and no one was more delighted than me to find it. I walked slowly out on the sand, closer and closer and it did not appear to be concerned in any way. I noticed how other gulls maintained a respectful distance from it as it picked desultorily at bits of seaweed. Another birder joined me as I watched it and the Kumlien's. Half an hour with the Glaucous was enough and you know when it is time to go. For me this was the time.

From an inauspicious start I had now seen both the Kumlien's and Glaucous Gull. It was only one o' clock so I had the whole afternoon before me and decided to go to try and see the other Glaucous Gull at Shoreham. A half hour drive further east found me parking by Hove Lagoon and making the short walk to the head of the Southwick Canal in what can only be politely termed an industrial area.

Southwick Canal looking west from the head of the canal
 There is a fish shop here and the trawlers berth alongside the nearby quay to unload their catch

The Glaucous Gull apparently has sussed that there are easy pickings here and if not it can always mug a Cormorant  or two which come to fish in the canal.

Great Cormorant
I walked through the gates and up to the quay and the first bird I saw was the second winter Glaucous Gull. Startlingly white and close to the quay, riding out the choppy waves blowing up the canal. If I thought the Glaucous at Littlehampton was mean this one was in another league. It looked even bigger, a monster of a gull and fixed me with a stare that left me in no uncertainty that it was not to be trifled with. Periodically it would fly around with the other gulls, riding the wind surges with consummate ease and grace. I watched it for an hour or so, listening to the ceaseless waves slap against the trawler hulls and watching an adult Kittiwake which also came very close to me, picking scraps from the restless water. 

Glaucous Gull

A sudden stinging hail shower sent me running for cover and then the sun returned. A flock of Starlings, hurled through the sky by the wind, careered over the warehouse roofs like a demented hologram. The cause of their alarm followed upwind. A Sparrowhawk. Being Sunday all was quiet by the quay and the hustle and thrust of a weekday was temporarily stilled. I stood quietly at the back of the fish shop contemplating the world  and the  wide canal,  amongst old nets, fishing boxes, plastic buoys and all the other paraphernalia that goes with fishing at sea and watched the Glaucous Gull riding the wave chop. This one was, unlike the adult at Littlehampton almost bleached white on its upperparts, with only brown barring prominent under it's tail and occasional brown marks on its body and underwings. Its eye was only just beginning to turn pale but if anything the dark eye made it look more sinister.

I love this kind of environment. Industrial, tacky, cluttered with the junk of human endeavour but always with the romance of the sea and the boats moored along the quay to give it a semblance of difference, elevating it above the mundane. A promise of wider horizons

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