Saturday 22 November 2014

It is a Ring billed Gull 22nd November 2014

In January this year I went to Gosport in Hampshire to see the Ring billed Gull that has been spending its winters there for more years than I can remember. Gosport on that day, or at least the part that I visited, was probably looking at its worst, as was the weather and I found the whole experience thoroughly disheartening and depressing.

Today at the other end of the year the weather was equally awful. A grey murk had settled on the land erasing horizons, lowering visibility and imparting an almost claustrophobic feel to the countryside. Faced with the prospect of either wandering around the concrete wastes of an inevitably almost birdless Farmoor Reservoir or going to Otmoor RSPB which would also be similarly uninspiring but with a few more birds than Farmoor, I decided to go to a former haunt of mine, West Wittering in Sussex. It was beside the sea and with high tide at ten forty in the morning there would be lots of Dark bellied Brent Geese feeding on the farm fields and many waders of various sorts roosting  while they waited for the tide to turn.

I set off south and as I progressed down the A34 a soft mizzle descended around Newbury and I found myself driving with headlights full on into increasingly unfavourable weather. It became so bad that I was soon contemplating turning the car round and heading back for home but in the end decided to carry on in the forlorn hope the inclement weather and low cloud would lift by the time I reached the South Coast.

Turning onto the M27 it did not look likely as I drove through the clouds of spray issuing from the wheels of three lanes of vehicles moving at high speed on a very wet Motorway surface. Nearing Southampton a shaft of light radiated from the heavens, it stopped raining and indeed the clouds went from dark to an almost bearable whiter shade of grey. I was by now approaching the turnoff for Gosport and for some reason found myself boxed in on the inside lane of the Motorway and being a creature of impulse I took the slip road, deciding to forego West Wittering and revisit Gosport to see the Ring billed Gull which had returned for yet another winter's stay in Walpole Park near the centre of Gosport.

As I progressed in a long, slow moving line of traffic down the only main road into Gosport, through a thoroughly urban landscape of used car lots, garages, fast food outlets, dubious pubs and faded shop fronts I wondered just what had possessed me. Eventually I came to Gosport, which even though it had stopped raining was still looking singularly unattractive as I circumvented the huge towerblocks of flats and came to rest in the large car park by Walpole Park.

Gosport from across Walpole Park and the boating lake
Walpole Park
Still bearing the mental scars from my previous visit I nevertheless determined to see the Ring billed Gull and then leave as soon as possible. Unfortunately for me the gull was not there, just the usual flock of Black headed Gulls, a few Common Gulls, Mute Swans and a trio of sleepy Mallards, all hanging around waiting for someone to arrive to throw them bread. I therefore went on a walkabout to look for the errant Ring billed Gull.

Black headed Gull

Adult Common Gulls
I strolled around the lake not once but twice and then I walked around the edges of the adjacent Haslar Creek but could find nothing apart from a family of five Dark bellied Brent Geese feeding on the grass by the lake, two Little Grebes right out in the middle of the creek and a Rock Pipit which fled with a peevish squeak from the muddy foreshore below me and across the creek.

Adult Dark bellied Brent Goose
I walked back around the creek to the lower car park to be confronted by a mute line of white vans. So Gosport is also home to white van man. Suspicions confirmed.

White vans!
Gosport - a back street

My prejudice about Gosport was being rapidly enhanced with this depressing vision but then a chance encounter in the grey damp car park turned my perception of Gosport on its head or at least this part of it. I was taking a picture of the vans when an elderly couple approached and politely excusing their curiosity asked me why on earth I was taking pictures of a collection of non descript white vans. I explained about my blog and the Ring billed Gull, diplomatically neglecting to say what I felt about Gosport. We chatted inconsequentially about the technological wonders of the internet and they then proceeded to tell me how they had been the unfortunate victims of an online fraud, had their bank account hacked, resulting in them losing a thousand pounds and how it had been so traumatic they now had disposed of their computer and TV and would have nothing to do with technology.

Our conversation went on for quite some time and suddenly a ray of metaphorical sunshine lit up Gosport. I had viewed the place as an impersonal entity but here I was talking to two charming and friendly residents of Gosport. So fickle of me I know but the impersonable had now become the personal. So sorry Gosport, maybe you are not so bad as I thought. The couple then told me about a Glossy Ibis that was frequenting a place called Priddy's Hard which was not far away over The Gosport Millenium Bridge and I resolved to go there and look for the ibis hoping the gull would have arrived by the time I returned.

We parted and following their directions I drove the short distance to the Millenium Bridge by driving back into Gosport and away from Walpole Park, turning right by the Royal George Barracks and The Officers Quarters and arriving in a large free car park. The buildings around it were I believe a former huge military hospital but are now converted into what looked like an upmarket area of apartments with a totally different air about them to the rest of Gosport which lay on the other side of the main road. You could be in two separate towns so different was the ambience. I left the car here and traversed the pedestrianised Millenium Bridge which leads to The Explosion Museum, I kid you not, which is dedicated to Royal Naval Firepower and is housed in 18th century buildings that used to be where the Royal Navy stored their armaments and munitions. I love these old military buildings with their history and unique atmosphere so redolent of the years past - you could almost hear Dame Vera Lynn singing The White Cliffs of Dover. 

The Gosport Millenium Bridge
The path from the bridge leads through the Museum buildings and I passed some old naval guns by the Museum as I rejoined  the road on the other side of the Museum with yet more expensive apartments overlooking Portsmouth Harbour and the naval warships moored across the water at Portsmouth Dockyard. As I looked across, a huge warship arrived, grey and sinister, accompanied by a flotilla of fussy escorting tugs. Even though quite distant you could hear an officer barking out his orders over the tannoy as the vessel slowly moved in to its berth.

Royal Navy Warships
The Explosion Museum and some outside naval gun exhibits

Carols and Guns! Such a contrast!
I then walked a little way further up the road but as the tide was now at its highest saw no sign of the Glossy Ibis just a couple of roosting Little Egrets. On the way back I purchased a hot chocolate and a very tasty slice of coffee and walnut cake from the Museum cafe and made my way back to the car resolving to come back some day and look around the Museum. It had now begun to drizzle again. I drove back to Walpole Park and the lake but it was not looking good as there was still no sign of the Ring billed Gull. I decided to give it one more hour and then leave.

I wandered around on the bleak concrete surrounds of the lake, tip toeing through the swan turds and abandoned lager cans. The Black headed Gulls were now amassed on the grassy bank leading up to the road from the lake, waiting to mug anyone carrying anything remotely resembling bread. One unfortunate man departed Morrisons and crossing the road entered the park taking a sandwich from its wrapper as he crossed the park and was thoroughly alarmed when he was immediately engulfed by a swarm of squawking white gulls circling low over his head like giant snowflakes. After watching this sight with wry amusement I turned back to the grassy bank and the Ring billed Gull must have arrived un-noticed as there it was standing in splendid isolation on the bank.

Ring billed Gull
The Ring billed Gull allowed me to approach it closely and for half an hour I happily took its picture as it wandered around on the grass noting its subtle differences to the similar looking Common Gulls

A couple of dads and their offspring arrived to feed bread to the gulls and swans by the lake's edge and I watched the Ring billed Gull mixing it with the smaller Black headed Gulls as they squabbled over each slice of bread thrown to them. Things must be looking up in Gosport as the bread was now brown and wholemeal.

Feeding the birds

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