Saturday 31 January 2015

Two gulls and a goose 30th January 2015

Last year a first winter Kumlien's Gull decided to spend a few months at Littlehampton in West Sussex, mainly hanging around at the mouth of the River Arun which runs into the sea at Littlehampton,  It created quite a stir amongst us birding folk. In fact I went to see it no less than three times and took many photos of it last year, feeding on the beach tideline. Well, this January it decided to return to its old haunts and now in its second winter or third year of life was again frequenting the mouth of the River Arun  or loafing slightly upriver on the lifeboat slipway by the Look and Sea Visitor Centre. This year however it has proved more elusive than last year and has varied the locations it has favoured although generally remaining somewhere near to the tidal River Adur.

It now has some grey feathers appearing on its upperparts and its eye is beginning to turn pale. A gull for the birding connoisseur,  superficially it can look just like every other large immature gull hanging around the environs of the Arun or the beach,  however a closer look will reveal differences to our familiar Herring Gull. For a start its size is slightly smaller if a comparison can be made with any Herring Gull that happens to be alongside. The whole bird is more delicate with a smaller rounded head and a distinctive bi-coloured bill. Perhaps the most obvious difference is in the flight feathers which are brown on the outer four or five primaries but nowhere near the black brown of the same feathers on immature Herring Gulls of similar age.  

Kumlien's Gull is not yet a true species and may never be. Currently it is considered a hybrid between Iceland Gull which is a regular visitor to Great Britain in winter and Thayer's Gull  which is very rare in Great Britain. Kumlien's Gulls breed on Baffin Island and spend their winter on the northeast coast of America so they  are pretty scarce here, which is why it is always good to see one. This bird originating from America is now presumably settled  on this side of the Atlantic. Who knows what it will do next or where it will end up....

So another early start from Kingham was required, in the dark and wet and with the promise of a driving endurance test of nightmare proportions coping with heavy traffic all the way to Littlehampton, but after a couple of hours I was winding my way through the narrow streets of Littlehampton, finally coming to a stop in a small secluded car park a stone's throw from the slipway. 

The eastern promenade by the River Arun looking downriver to the sea in the
extreme distance.The slipway is just at the bottom left of the picture
The view from the top of the slipway where the lifeboat is launched from
The last reported sighting of the Kumlien's Gull had been from the slipway by the Visitor Centre a couple of days ago and although its behaviour is erratic and unpredictable this is the place it has been reported from most frequently so it made sense to start looking here. I walked to the slipway but disappointingly there was only a motley collection of Black headed Gulls and a couple of Herring Gulls standing around with some more large gulls circling high over the town calling loudly for no accountable reason. I used the gulls present to get my camera settings right so that all would be ready for the Kumlien's Gull if it ever showed up.

Adult Herring Gull
Second or third winter Herring Gull

One or two Black headed Gulls were already adopting their breeding plumage
I stood in the dull early morning by the Visitor Centre which at this time of year was firmly shut, the cafe dark and deserted and the ranks of outside tables, no doubt thronged on summer days, currently wet, forlorn and uninviting, their appearance somehow imparting the epitomy of a winter's weekday in a small South Coast seaside town. The promenade alongside the river where I stood outside the Visitor Centre was equally deserted. I had the place to myself. No other birders. No one at all.

The Look & Sea Visitor Centre
The lack of gulls was not a good start and something had to be done to attract the gulls to the slipway so I walked a few hundred metres to the town shops and had then to wait for ten minutes for Sainsbury's to open at 8am. The town was slowly awakening as if reluctant to embrace the cold damp morning but the forecast was good for later. My mission was to buy some cheap sliced bread and entice the gulls to come to the slipway to gobble up the slices as I lobbed them into the air from the promenade that overlooked the slipway and river. Hopefully the gulls that would be attracted might include the Kumlien's. Sainsbury's doors were duly flung open at the appointed hour and I headed for the shopping aisles and bought four sliced loaves for the gulls and then a hot chocolate for myself to keep body and soul together. That surely should be enough for both me and the gulls?

I walked back to the slipway with two loaves clutched in each hand. I need not have worried about the gulls coming to the bread. The gulls noticing what I was carrying as I approached the slipway headed for me at speed. A veritable tsunami of very excited gulls of all sizes flew around me at close range, squawking and wheeling in anticipation of being fed. They are obviously fed from here on a regular basis and judging by my experience can spot a loaf and its potential at many hundred metres. 

I scanned the gulls now squabbling over the bread I was dispensing on the sea and on the slipway, and to my delight found the Kumlien's Gull sitting demurely on the river a little way out from the vulgar scrum of gulls below me on the slipway, but still close enough to give me excellent views. 

Where it had appeared from I had no idea as I had scanned the river and found no trace of it but it was here now so any further thoughts in that direction were purely academic.

Second winter Kumlien's Gull

The Kumlien's Gull showing pale grey feathers on the mantle beginning to appear 
and on a few upper scapulars. Note how the darker brown outer primaries have 
whitish fringes and conceal the much paler inner primaries
I continued the supply of bread in between taking pictures of the Kumlien's Gull.  It was easy to pick out when flying due to all the flight feathers being pale milky brown, almost white apart from the outermost four or five, but when settled on the sea you had to look twice as the browner outer feathers covered the paler ones. 

The above two images show to good effect the contrasting pale inner flight feathers
and the outer primaries with their darker brown outer webs giving a stripey look to
the outer wing
Compare this image of the Kumlien's Gull with that of the similar aged
Herring Gull below

Second winter Herring Gull. Note the almost black flight and tail feathers, the
different tertial pattern and the different shaped, coarser and browner markings
on the wing coverts. The bill is also not so markedly bi-coloured and the head
shape is subtly different
Despite this it was also possible to pick it out due to its overall paler plumage. Most of the time the Kumlien's seemed somewhat overawed by the heavier more aggressive Herring Gulls and the sheer numbers of Black headed Gulls, but as time wore on it too finally plucked up courage and entered the fray to grab a slice of bread which it then carried off to swallow in flight pursued by a couple of ever hopeful Black headed Gulls.

Eventually the bread ran out and to my delight the Kumlien's settled on the wet concrete slipway and wandered around for ten or so minutes before flying off downriver towards the rivermouth. 

I made another visit to Sainsbury's and subsequent coaxing with a fresh supply of bread brought back many of the gulls but the Kumlien's Gull was not among them and so it appeared that the hour long show was well and truly over.

This unexpected success meant that I had achieved the purpose of my visit by 10am which was a pleasant surprise. Relaxed I decided to go and look at another American, a Ring billed Gull which was spending its twelth winter at Gosport, just forty minutes drive west of Littlehampton.

A gentle drive down the M27 and then through the shambles of housing, military buildings and roadworks leading to Gosport, found me parking by Walpole Park Boating Lake on what was now, due to the persistent northwest wind, a sunny but cold and blustery late morning.

Walpole Park looked even more derelict and uncared for than normal as both the lakes have been drained in an effort to improve and upgrade the area, so I was met with a large area of mud, pipes and machinery with patches of water lying on the muddy bottoms of the lakes. I found the Ring billed Gull easily, it was floating in the only reasonable sized area of water left but it soon flew off to its favourite site, the grass bank beside the road and then after some minutes flew off over the town and was not seen again.

Adult Ring billed Gull
It was still not lunchtime, so before leaving for home I decided to drive the short distance to the western edge of Gosport to HMS Sultan, a naval training base whose playing fields attract a large flock of Dark bellied Brent Geese at this time of year.  I was here with Badger a month ago and we found an adult Black Brant, the North American version of our familiar Dark bellied Brent Goose species, feeding with them.

I scanned the flock of geese and in a short while found the Black Brant, its pure white flanks gleaming distinctively in the sunshine. Even more interesting for me was the fact the Black Brant had two hybrid young with it so it had obviously bred with a Dark bellied Brent Goose last year and brought itself and its progeny to the exotic climes of Gosport! Why I had not noticed this on my previous visit is one of life's mysteries or maybe it was a different Black Brant we saw then? 

The adult, from its behaviour, appeared to be a female but sadly there was no sign of a mate but the juveniles stuck closely to the adult Black Brant so there was no doubt it was their parent. The juveniles were interesting in their own right showing obvious evidence of their hybrid origin being much paler on the flanks than a normal juvenile Dark bellied Brent and also showing a large white necklace of feathers around their neck as large as can be seen on some adult Dark bellied Brent Geese.

Adult Black Brant with a juvenile. Note on the latter the huge white necklace
of feathers around the neck and the very pale flanks
Adult Black Brant with two juveniles both showing the large white necklace
of feathers around the neck and  very pale flanks
So my day with its unwitting North American theme came to an end at just after 1pm and I luxuriated in the knowledge that I would be back home well before becoming entangled in the Friday evening rush hour traffic. Gosport decided to inflict one final indignity on me, for as I fled it took me over an hour to get clear due to major roadworks on the only road out of Gosport to the Motorway. 

Tuesday 27 January 2015

Pom my soul 24th January 2014

A Great Grey Shrike near Enstone in Oxfordshire was proving a diverting distraction for my Oxfordshire birding colleagues but I could not countenance the prospect of standing on the verge of a road and probably waiting hours for the chance of seeing the shrike. I had already seen another, twice, at Great Barrington last week and that was just a few minutes drive from my home.

So on Friday night I hatched a little plan of my own. I had seen some impressive images on the internet of a juvenile Pomarine Skua which was spending its time on a saltmarsh at Pilling in Lancashire rather than gobbling up Grey Phalaropes in its normal wintering area, at sea off the coast of West Africa. Increasingly, although still in very small numbers, Pomarine Skuas, mainly juveniles are opting to spend their winters in northern waters such as around Britain, as would appear to be the case with this individual.

The images I saw indicated the skua was allowing a close approach and this proved irresistible as there was a good chance I too might get some really good pictures or at least have the opportunity to try. Any opportunity to get close to such a bird was just too much to ignore.

So on Saturday morning, not without a little trepidation at the journey before me, I embarked on a three and a half hour trip up t'north to Pilling, to see if I too could get close and personal with a Pomarine Skua, one of my all time favourite species of seabird. The drive up the Motorway was, if not pleasant at least uneventful and I finally turned off the great highway of hell onto smaller single carriageway roads taking me to join the Saturday morning scrum of vehicles heading for Supermarkets or wherever people generally go on a Saturday morning. I knew I was near the coast as a couple of skeins of Pink-footed Geese passed high overhead.

Following the instructions on my RBA app that directed me to park by 'the pheasant pens in Pilling and then take the track to the seawall', I had covered half the distance to the seawall when I encountered a birder walking the other way. I enquired about the  skua but was told it had just been flushed by a dog walker, yes they have them up here too, and had flown a mile up the coast and was now sitting out on the saltmarsh at a place called Fluke Hall. The birder, who was a local was friendly and told me that I could either walk the mile along the sea wall or follow him in his car to the car park at Fluke Hall which, handily, was situated right beside the sea wall. Heroically I opted for the latter.

We snaked around narrow lanes until some ten minutes later we were at the car park at Fluke Hall and a few minutes after that I was looking at a juvenile Pomarine Skua sitting cosily in the saltmarsh grass by a large piece of wood. 

Two other birders were already there, standing out on the saltmarsh taking photos but we all kept our distance whilst the skua sat, alternately dozing or casually looking about. We waited patiently to get some pictures of it standing up but it just sat there perfectly content. Time drifted by not unpleasantly, with the sea and sky as always filling me with a joyous celebration of being alive and we were entertained for a little while by a flock of some forty Twite which landed on the saltmarsh close to us to feed. They did not remain for long and ever restless soon flew onwards along the saltings but they were nice to see nonetheless.

Twite on the saltmarsh
I got chatting to one of the other birders and he told me a nightmarish tale of near disaster for the skua that had happened only yesterday. So confiding was the skua it showed no fear of dogs or humans alike. Yesterday a woman with a Dalmatian allowed her dog to seize the skua in its mouth and but for the actions of the birders present  there would have been no skua to see today. Fortunately the skua was not unduly harmed by its encounter although its left wing was slightly strained causing it to droop every so often but despite this minor affliction the skua could still fly strongly. So a lucky escape and yet another sorry tale to add to the litany of unfortunate encounters between birders and dog owners.

After about forty minutes the skua perked up and began showing signs of wanting to move which soon resulted in it rising to its feet, using its wings to balance and then somewhat unsteadily it rose a few feet into the air and flew back along the sand towards Pilling, where it had originally come from when it was flushed by a dog earlier.

We watched its unhurried progress across the saltmarsh until it was hidden from view. There was only one thing to do now and I retraced my tortuous route in the car and parking yet again by the hallowed pheasant pens at Pilling took the two hundred metres of track to the sea wall. As I got to the wall I could see a small huddle of birders standing on top of the wall obviously looking down from the wall onto the rock reinforcements that acted as a sea defence. Presumably they were looking at the skua. No other bird would be that close.

The saltmarsh and sea beyond from the seawall at Pilling
The seawall and path along the top with birders looking at the skua below
I walked along the seawall to join them and the skua was indeed there, feeding on what looked like a long dead Pink footed Goose wedged into the rocks.

The sight of the skua was indeed highly satisfactory but what it was eating was not quite so appealing.The goose had obviously been dead for quite some time but this seemed no deterrent to the skua's appetite and it gleefully and energetically tore at the goose's intestines, tugging them out using its wings to balance and bracing its feet on the rocks as it pulled and pulled. Nature red in tooth and claw before my very eyes but the photo opportunities despite the circumstances were excellent. There is nothing like some action shots!

The Pom fed for at least half an hour, its crop becoming more and more distended as it gorged itself on its unsavoury meal. Every so often it would desist from feeding and take a few steps away as if sated but then you could almost see it thinking 'Why not, just one more beakful' and it would return for another bout of intestine pulling.

All the time the tide was coming in apace and flocks of waders, Oystercatchers, Curlew, Grey Plover and Dunlin were rising and falling from the tide's edge as the water encroached ever further onto the saltmarsh and disturbed them.

On the sea a raft of Shelduck rose and fell on the waves, their red bills gleaming in the sunlight, the sea churned up by the stiff southwesterly wind. A cloud of Common Gulls, washing powder white in the bright sun flew in a haphazard wind blown array above them before settling amongst them on the turbulent sea.

The Pom having had its fill finally gave up feeding on the goose, stood for a minute or two on the rocks and then wandered out onto the green grass of the saltmarsh. It selected a soft spot, sat down and slept for a minute or two but was clearly unhappy with its position so walked further to select another area more to its liking. The rapidly incoming tide was obviously making it restless and it finally selected the highest point it could find on the saltmarsh remaining here until it was literally washed off by the rising seawater which by now had submerged the entire saltmarsh and was about to commence beating at the sea defences.

A good view of the diagnostic double white wing patches on the underwing

When the sea was almost up to its belly it flew up and away downwind but then turned and came back, flying over our heads. Its portly tummy and barred underwings were all too evident as it flew back over us and then crossing the seawall it pitched down in an adjacent horse paddock on the landward side of the seawall.

The Pom showing to good effect its bulky body and barring on tail and underwing

The horse paddock with the Pomarine Skua standing in the field
Sheltered from the wind it stood quietly no doubt intending to remain here for a while digesting its meal of goose innards. I walked up to the fence and it walked towards me! It was as close as six feet from me at one point and showed absolutely no fear at all. No need for binoculars so I just stood and admired it. For no particular reason its legs and feet particularly struck me. Pale, powder blue legs with natty black webbed feet as if it had been walking in tar supported an impressively bulky and powerful brown body, the upperpart feathers tipped and fringed with burnt umber whilst its underparts were indistinctly and diffusely barred with greyish brown. More striking were the distinctive black and white bars above and below its tail. Every so often its damaged left wing would droop slightly but it would soon flick it back into position. We stood and looked at each other, both in our own very different worlds but physically, at least together for this brief moment in our lives.

The Pom's left wing drooping slightly but not inhibiting it from flight
A man came along clutching a polythene bag which he informed me contained manageable squares of prime ham for the skua, prepared by his wife. He proceeded to throw them over the fence to the skua which  waddled towards us and tried to eat the pieces of ham. Unfortunately it was so full of goose it had some difficulty in accomplishing this but eventually it managed to cram the ham down its gullet. I asked the man if he could throw the ham further out into the field as the skua was now too close for my lens!

Consuming some prime cuts of ham
Note the black feet and knees

Can I manage just one last piece?
Note the distended crop absolutely bulging with goose and ham
He obliged, so the skua was now all of twelve feet away! So it went on for another half an hour with the man occasionally feeding the skua and me happily clicking away with my camera. Another person arrived along the seawall with three spaniels and the skua instantly headed for the middle of the field. It seemed it had learnt a lesson from its encounter yesterday which can only be good for the skua's future welfare. The sun shone on the wild sea, the skua and myself. I had been here for two blissful hours but now came the moment when I recognised it was time to depart,

Fortunately the local birder I had met at the outset had told me of several other places nearby to go to see other birds in the area so I followed his instructions and first went to Cockerham where there was a field by the road containing around two thousand Pink-footed Geese. Scanning through these I discovered a Pale bellied Brent Goose amongst them and an aberrant Pinkfoot whose plumage was much paler than normal appearing to be pale grey with an overlying ginger tone.

Aberrant Pink footed Goose
Many of the large fields were waterlogged and in places held flashes of water and were being utilised by huge numbers of waders to carry on feeding whilst the high tide covered the mud and sand of the seashore. Curlews, Common Redshanks and Lapwings were present in large numbers as were smaller flocks of Dunlin scuttling about amongst the larger waders. Further down the coast a group of swans in another field consisted of  twenty two Whooper Swans, three Bewick's Swans and two Mute Swans.

Whooper Swans
One last stop and the furthest away, but not really that far, was Glasson Dock where an adult drake Scaup was spending the winter in the company of some Common Goldeneye and Tufted Ducks.

I was told that I probably would have difficulty in accessing Glasson Dock as the high tide would result in the sea covering the road but venturing down the road there was no problem and on parking the car by the dock, there was the Scaup feeding with the other ducks just as it had been described to me

Glasson Dock
The Lantern O'er Lune Cafe opposite Glasson Dock
So my big gamble had paid off. Indeed so much more than I could ever imagine. I had some excellent pictures of the Pomarine Skua to relish back at home over a large whisky and had also managed to do some unexpected but excellent birding into the bargain.  I celebrated in restrained fashion with two jam scones and a hot chocolate in the intriguingly named Lantern O'er Lune Cafe at Glasson Dock and then turned the Audi south for the long drive home.