Monday 17 March 2014

If at first you do not succeed ... 14th March 2014

There is a really excruciating Scottish song that begins "Oh Campbeltown Loch I wish you were whisky, Campbeltown Loch. Och Aye! Oh Campbeltown Loch if you were whisky I would drink you dry". I will say no more but from early childhood I had heard this song many times and now found myself by sheer chance looking for a first year American Herring Gull at the  landward end of said Campbeltown Loch which is in fact a sea loch and sadly not full of whisky. Campbeltown itself is an unremarkable, somewhat dour town, still with a small inshore fishing fleet. Its saving grace for me are the birds and for others the magnificent and isolated scenery surrounding the town. To get to Campbeltown takes forever. You first drive north as far as Loch Lomond and then have to double back south and drive for what seems hours, back and parallel to the way you came. The Mull of Kyntyre made famous by Paul McCartney and another, dare I venture to say dubious song, is just literally a few miles down the road. In fact I believe there is even a public garden designed by the late Linda McCartney in Campbeltown,

I drove overnight for eight hours from Kingham, communing once again on the Motorways with the ghosts of Eddie Stobart lorries past, present and future. Dodging deer along the dark remote road wending for fifty miles down the penisula to Campbeltown I arrived with the dawn at Campbeltown Old Harbour and set about trying to find the American Herring Gull. This was a high risk twitch as the gull had proved singularly elusive and unpredictable and often went missing for a couple of days before showing up at random locations and times, in and around Campbeltown.

It had been seen for the previous two days, briefly, in the harbour at dawn before flying inland to the grass fields and flashes of water on the flooded fields north of the town where it loafed with other gulls. I scanned the Herring Gulls in the harbour as the light increased but failed to find anything remotely resembling the American Herring Gull. In the end I gave up on it and relaxed as dawn morphed into a glorious sunny morning with the sun twinkling off the water and a sky of blue rising up and over the surrounding hills.

The majority of the gulls in the harbour were immature Herring Gulls and a few adult Greater Black backed Gulls were mixed in with them. The latter hulking and brooding, menacing looking with their pickaxe bills. I could not help but notice that they were constantly eyeing the other birds present for any weakness and at the slightest sign of vulnerability I was in no doubt they would show no mercy. Killers to their very core.

The main attraction in the harbour however was a raft of some eighty Common Eiders, the majority adult males with a few females and some bemused first year males along for the ride. The adult males were in full courtship fervour and their evocative aaaaaahoooooh crooning calls came constantly, floating on the sea air and across the sea's rippling surface. In a tight group the males vigorously courted the females in between squabbling amongst themselves, their chests puffed out in amorous ecstacy as they crooned while the females as females all over the world do, affected supreme indifference to all this fuss while ensuring they never strayed too far from the amorous male's attentions.

Courting Eiders

First year male Eider
The males in their breeding finery were a superb sight. A plumage of  basic matt black and gleaming white being supplemented and embellished with the subtlest of pale green on the head and flush of pink on the breast. I am not religious in anyway but almost want to cry out in joy at seeing such innocent and apparently random beauty all seeming to have come about by sheer chance. Never, ever should we take this for granted but sadly we do and often abuse it horribly.

One male showed traces of  a raised scapular feather on each side of its back. This would indicate it was of the northern race borealis and not from our race mollissima. However other features were consistent with mollissima so maybe it was a hybrid.

There were other birds in the harbour too. Oystercatchers on sturdy pink legs bickered and piped their ringing calls along the stony shore. Occasional Common Redshanks cried out in hysterical alarm. Black Guillemots swam close in to the pier, their chocolate brown plumage enlivened by huge white wing patches with crimson legs and feet clearly visible in the grey green water.

Black Guillemot
A couple of winter plumaged Guillemots joined them as did a couple of Razorbills and a female Common Scoter. Both Common and Grey Seals hung around the harbour hopeful of getting something fishy discarded from the trawlers. Ever hopeful I made one last check of the gulls still present.

Common Guillemot
It was apparent that many gulls had now left the harbour to feed elsewhere. Certainly there was no sign of the AHG. Tired and dishevelled, my spirit now subdued by disappointment, the long night drive suddenly caught up with me as the adrenalin drained from my body. I sought sustenance in the local garage and after a couple of cheese rolls felt more in the land of the living.

I met some other birders who had been around for a couple of days and had seen the  gull yesterday. They told me it would be well worth looking for the gull inland on the fields. Certain fields were flooded and the gulls liked to hang about there.To do this meant driving a ten to fifteen mile circuit which covered all  the favoured gull spots. I duly did this but still met with no luck. I must have gone round many times during the day but not a sign was there of the transatlantic star attraction. I did find on separate occasions three Iceland Gulls, an adult, a third winter and a second winter but their normal delightfulness was diminished by the absence of the American Herring Gull. The sun had now long gone and the wind was getting stronger and colder as I found a flock of Greenland White fronted Geese, so much darker in plumage tone than Greater White fronted Geese, mixed in with a flock of properly wild Greylags, whilst a couple of Ravens flew over.

Greenland Whitefronts with Greylag Geese
The day slowly wore on and now in late afternoon the last remaining option was to go back to the harbour for the evening when the gulls apparently came back to the harbour before flying off to roost.

I stood and waited on the harbour wall. Life carried on around me as trawlers put to sea and others arrived bringing in their catches of prawns and shellfish. A Rock Pipit called very close behind me. I turned but could not see it. It called again, peeeeeep, shrill and peevish and there it was just a few feet away from me perched by some fishing nets. 

I and some other birders waited at the end of the pier but there was still no sign of the gull. It was not looking hopeful. It was decision time. As my wife was still in the USA there was no hurry to get back home and  I would not be missed, so I sought out a Bed and Breakfast for the night. Westgate House, just up from the harbour was ideal and I was soon settled in and Fiona directed me to the excellent Ardshiel Hotel for an evening meal and some liquid refreshment. I drowned my sorrows with a couple of seventeen year Old Pulteneys and life suddenly got much, much better. My optimism returned and the day's disappointments dissolved into a pleasing bouquet of whisky fumes and taste bud sensations. I ate my meal, read a paper and then went back to Westgate House for an early night in preparation to try for the gull at dawn tomorrow.

Six the next morning and I was back in now familiar surroundings at the end of the pier. The weather had changed overnight and drizzle was in the air. The gulls started to arrive from their roost out to sea. I scanned and scanned but there was no sign of an immature gull with a contrasting white head and brown underbody. Seven thirty arrived with nothing to show for it and I went back for some much needed breakfast and settled up with Fiona. Then it was one more visit to the harbour before yet more attritional surveying of the fields. Gulls there were aplenty but not the one I wanted. A first winter Iceland Gull showed up and the Greenland White-fronts were still mixing it with the Greylags near the airfield.  Mid morning and still not a sign. Wind, rain and a general mind numbing greyness prevailed. I gave it up and headed back homewards along the A82, stopping some nineteen miles down the road  at Tayinloan where there were reputedly two Snow Geese consorting with yet more Greenland White-fronts. At first I could only find flocks of Greylags and Greenland White-fronts and I was convinced it was going to be the much feared double dip for me. The last field on the left out of the village yielded a large white blob amongst some Greenland White-fronts. Sure enough it was a Snow Goose and next to it another, a blue morph example, something I had never seen in the wild before. Surely if ever this species is to be accepted as wild in the UK, then these two, in Scotland with Greenland White-fronts, a well known carrier species qualify, as well if not better than most.

Snow Geese white morph female and blue morph gander with Greenland Whitefronts

I watched them for half an hour feeding on the short grass, before settling down in the car for the long drive South.  A long distance dip had finally caught up with me. I had been lucky up to now so was reasonably philosophical about matters. It wasn't as if I had not enjoyed myself anyway despite not seeing the gull. It was teeming down with rain outside so I felt much happier, secure in the warmth of the car. I got home many hours later and checked RBA. The American Herring Gull had been found in the last field I had looked at some thirty minutes after I had left for the south! The feeling is indescribable. I was well and truly miffed to put it politely. All sorts of recriminations assailed me. Why did I not wait a little longer was chief amongst them but hindsight is a wondrous thing.

A few hours contemplation on the sofa at home had me thinking. I was going to Aberdeen to attend an Osteopath's seminar the following weekend. Why not go early and have another try for the gull? Whaaaat! Campbeltown is on the west coast of Scotland miles from anywhere and Aberdeen about as far east as you can get in Scotland. At first it seemed too extreme but then it became more acceptable as I thought about it and courtesy of a couple more whiskies I had formulated my plan. Drive up on Wednesday, arriving in Campbeltown at around lunchtime. Look for the gull which apparently was now regular in the evening in the harbour, arrange a  bed and breakfast in Campbeltown, hopefully see the gull that same evening or if not have the whole of Thursday as well to catch up with it, before heading across Scotland birding as I went until I got to Aberdeen for the weekend.

You can guess can't you? I know you can so don't be coy. Yes it worked perfectly apart from the important fact that the gull did not co-operate. The weather according to the locals had been fine and sunny for the three days prior to my Wednesday return. The day I returned was dreich, a Scots word meaning grey, dull, drizzling and just plain, all round depressing. A low mist of wet cloud hung like a malignant shroud over the town and surrounding hills, and headlights were essential to see  and avoid oncoming cars on the narrow roads. En route to Campbeltown I decided to visit Loch Caolisport, some forty or so miles north of Campbeltown where the day before the long staying Bonaparte's Gull had been showing really well at Ormsary Beach. I turned off onto the single track road to Ormsary and as soon as the road climbed higher into the hills found myself in cloud and rain with little visibility and dodging log carrying lorries of fearsome proportions hurtling at far too fast speeds along this single track road. Descending out of the rain clouds and mist to the loch, the grey waters looked devoid of birdlife. Some promising beaches of white shell sand pounded by white crested waves were apparently not to the Bonaparte's liking and only some Greylags, a Red breasted Merganser or two, four or five Wigeon and pairs of Oystercatchers seemed enthused by it. A gathering of what looked at first like gnomes in a garden by the road was somewhat surreal but I know someone who would have felt quite at home with them.

Presumably Snow White and the seven dwarfs
I drove a little further on coming to a small fish farm that was attracting many gulls. Surely it would be here, but no. Just Herring and Greater Black backed Gulls, the occasional Common Gull and a small raft of Eider with one or two Common Goldeneye amongst them. No sign of any small gulls at all. A Great Northern Diver surfaced and then another. This was no good so I headed back to the main road and drove on south to Campbeltown.

The American Herring Gull according to reports from the last few days was meant to show up at around 5.30pm in the harbour so I stationed myself on the north side of the harbour to await developments. The cloud base got lower and lower with not a breath of wind. Visibility was dropping alarmingly and large numbers of gulls just came from inland and passed over me straight out to sea. The American Herring Gull which had from all accounts been resting on a yellow buoy in the harbour for an hour or so each night was absent. The appointed time came and went. Nothing. I watched a Hooded Crow trying to smash an unfortunate whelk to pieces. I knew how it felt.

Immature Herring Gulls perched on the yellow buoys but they were not what I wanted. One of a trio of birders who had also come up in hopes of seeing the gull came over to talk to me and commiserate. We decided we were all going to stay one more night and give it another go tomorrow. It was obvious that nothing was going to show itself in this weather. I left the other birders to it and went  to find my latest B&B, Rosemount House where I was given a huge bedroom and almost as big a bathroom. Cheaper than the Westgate and better value all round looking right out onto the harbour. A return evening visit was duly made to the Ardshiel Hotel with inevitably another whisky or two, another great meal and then back to bed. An early start was required tomorrow - again. This twitch was beginning to take on epic proportions

Campbeltown Old Harbour
The weather had not improved the next day. Cold and now blustery but thankfully the rain had ceased. I set about scoping the gulls in the harbour but it was a loser. There were only a few gulls around and those that were present soon left for inland destinations. I gave up sooner rather than later and went back to Rosemount for breakfast. I would give it another day and on the spur of the moment decided to extend my stay at Rosemount for the coming night as well. Last chance now. Surely it would turn up somewhere? A hint of desperation? The all too familiar routine for me of driving round in circles looking at every damn field with a gull or gulls in it came back to haunt me. I found some large flocks of gulls feeding on newly slurry covered fields but every gull I checked was not the holy grail. Again and again I scoped them willing it to turn up. Gulls were coming and going all the time but never anything close to the American Herring Gull. I even found another two immature Iceland Gulls. Whether these were the one's from last time who knows? I was past caring. The morning passed. Bored and not a little depressed I went back to Loch Caolisport.  No sign whatsoever of the Bonaparte's Gull. It had long gone. History was ominously repeating itself.

I stopped once more to admire the Snow Geese at Tayinloan on the way back to Campbeltown.  At least they were showing well. I got back to Campbeltown at around four in the afternoon. Tired now from too much driving, frustrated and disconsolate at missing out again I shrugged and headed for the pier in one last forlorn hope. The wind had now risen to almost gale force and rain was definitely in the wind. It was hopeless. I was alone on the pier. Most of the fishing fleet had returned to harbour. No gull in its right mind would settle on the wind and wave lashed, exposed yellow buoys. I cowered in the lee of the Lifeboat Station out of the wind and rain

Campbeltown Lifeboat
The tide was on the turn and slowly covering the shallow, currently exposed rocky outcrop just offshore from the stony beach of the Old Harbour. A group of some twenty Herring Gulls hunkered into the wind on the rocks waiting for the time to go to roost. Untroubled by the wind they stood unperturbed as the wind buffeted them and the tide slowly rose.

There was nothing else to look at apart from these twenty gulls. Less in hope and more in desperation I looked at them in my bins. "That one looks like its got quite a white head" I muttered. I was grasping at straws and knew it. I got the scope on it for a closer look. My heart duly sunk. It was just an immature Herring Gull with a slightly whiter head than normal. Just about to turn the scope away I noticed that two gulls up from this one was a Herring Gull that had darker brown upper part plumage than the others. The white tips to the wing coverts formed a much more delicate pattern of lines and edges than the more blotchy markings on the other Herring Gulls around it. The head was pure white with a shawl of brown running up the hindneck and then the clincher, its bill was dull ochre with a prominent black tip. F***! This was it! Serendipity!  By sheer chance I had found the American Herring Gull. Looking at it now it was all so obvious. Relatively close to me I could now scope it at my leisure noting progressively one by one  the unique details of its plumage that confirmed its identity. Methodically I went through all the identification features. I waited for it to lift into the wind to move position and when it did noted the  dark brown almost black tail with only black and white marbling on the base half of the outermost two tail feathers. The unmarked dark brown bases to the greater coverts formed a distinct dark brown bar across the closed wing. The underparts were smooth greyish brown and the undertail coverts densely barred as were the uppertail coverts. I was all on my own. I had done it on my own. A minor triumph. A gull for the connoisseur.

American Herring Gull
I estimated I first found it at around 5pm although it could have been there earlier before I noticed it and then I continually watched it standing, usually on its own, as the sea slowly rose and floated the gulls off their rocky, seaweed strewn perches. They floated on the sea, face on into the wind. One by one the gulls lifted into the wind and headed off to their roost. The American Herring Gull was left on its own. Now on the sea and in failing light its identity was not so obvious. I could see how it could be easily missed. Finally at nineteen minutes past six it too flew up and caught by the wind  turned downwind, tacked right and was finally lost to view behind the moored trawlers.

A very close run thing indeed but persistence paid off and, let's face it, a lot of luck. A seventeen year Old Pulteney never tasted better.

Birds seen

Common Buzzard/ Common Kestrel/ Common Raven/ Hooded Crow/ Carrion Crow/ Rook/ Jackdaw/ Magpie/ Grey Heron/ Great Cormorant/ European Shag/ Black Guillemot/ Common Guillemot/ Razorbill/ Great Black backed Gull/ Lesser Black backed Gull/ Iceland Gull/ Herring Gull/ American Herring Gull/ Yellow legged Gull/ Common Gull/ Black headed Gull/ Great Northern Diver/ Mute Swan/ Greylag Goose/ Canada Goose/ Greenland White fronted Goose/ Pink footed Goose/ Snow Goose (blue and white morph)/ Common Shelduck/ Red breasted Merganser/ Common Eider / Mallard/ Eurasian Wigeon/ Northern Pintail/ Common Teal/ Common Goldeneye/ Eurasian Curlew/ Oystercatcher/ Lapwing/ Common Redshank/ Turnstone/  Dunlin/ Woodpigeon/ Rock Dove/ Common Pheasant/ Red legged Partridge/ Dipper/ Eurasian Skylark/ Common Starling/ Mistle Thrush/  Blackbird/ Robin/ Pied Wagtail/ Grey Wagtail/ Rock Pipit/ Meadow Pipit/ Chaffinch/ Siskin/ Yellowhammer/ Corn Bunting/ Reed Bunting/ Great Tit/ Blue Tit/ Coal Tit


Red Deer
Common Seal
Grey Seal


  1. Congratulations Ewan, you really earned that one!

  2. I have been busy and only caught up with your latest adventure this evening - usual high quality story telling and although i've not a great deal of interest in gulls the final triumph of success over adversity was a credit to your apparently indomitable character. I think the return of your wife is long overdue and her return is the only thing that might keep you out of potential trouble.
    The Oxon Feather.