Monday 30 January 2017

Happy Hour 30th January 2017

The first piece of original bird art I bought, many years ago, was a pen and ink drawing of a Water Rail by Chris Rose. It showed a Water Rail in typical pose walking through some reeds. I bought it because I liked Water Rails. I still do. There is much to admire in their long red bill, curiously thin body and the patterning of their plumage, a streaked rich dark brown above and slate grey below with wavy white bars on their flanks. As a boy living in a part of Surrey rapidly becoming suburbanised they were an almost exotic winter visitor, arriving in the night from who knows where, but always in my imagination from somewhere romantic and wild like Norfolk, and to be found each year on my local and decidedly prosaic River Hogsmill

I liked their mysterious ways, skulking in winter in the dead riparian vegetation spilling over from the river bank into the water  or in the sedgy marshes on the  old fashioned settling beds of my local sewage farm, forever timid and running for cover to hide in secret dark recesses in the rank vegetated banks, under reeds or tussocks of sedge. You had to work hard and be very crafty to outwit them and get anything other than a millisecond sight of them. Standing still for ages, whilst not making a sound could occasionally, just occasionally re-assure one to venture slightly into the open, wading through shallow water with its short tail flicking nervously as it picked at the surrounding plants with its long bill. This was a very secretive bird, a rail, that as with all rails needed some skill and luck to see and due to its shy, nervous nature there was never any guarantee of success.

The last rail I saw was a Bogota Rail which inhabits Colombia in South America and I saw it about this time last year. Not much different in either plumage or behaviour to our native Water Rail but very much rarer. Today I had the opportunity to go to a hide for an hour or so in the late morning to see one of our native Water Rails. Not particularly rare but so elusive that it gives the impression it is much scarcer than it really is.

I knew from prior knowledge that Water Rails could, with some effort, be seen well from this hide but it needed to be at a time that was quiet and preferably with no one else about. Monday morning at about eleven o' clock seemed to fit the bill nicely and so it was then, that I tentatively opened the door of the hide and looked inside.

View from the Hide
Empty. Not a soul. Good. I crept gently to the already open window slat and looked out onto a small area of flattened stalks, dead reeds, mud and tiny channels of water that ran away into mysterious invisibility in the surrounding reeds and sedge. There was nothing moving below the hide except a few Reed Buntings, the males now rapidly gaining their black heads and bibs, that were edging around on the mud and dead stalks, feeding on some spilt grain on the wet and rotten vegetation below. I sat silent and still as a statue knowing that if a Water Rail were to show itself this is how it had to be. Five minutes slipped  past as Great and Blue Tits flew down to join the Reed Buntings on the ground but unlike them they did not linger but searched out a seed or grain of corn and flew back up into the overhanging hazels, already dangling spirals of  insipid yellow catkins, to consume their prize.

Reed Bunting-male

Reed Bunting-female

Blue Tit

Great Ti

Just the slightest indication of a ripple troubling the mirrored surface of the water on the periphery of the reeds and sedge was my first intimation of the presence of a Water Rail. A dark brown and grey triangular shape slipped out of cover. Long reddish bill. Blue grey underparts and brown upperparts streaked with black. It was the Water Rail. I raised my camera and the rail was gone in an instant. Super sensitive to any movement, even as I thought I was adequately concealed in the hide, it had somehow caught sight of me. I moved a foot or so back from the viewing slat and settled once again onto a bench. All was quiet. A few minutes passed, the tits and buntings flew down once more to feed and shortly after the rail, gaining confidence from the other birds presence, tiptoed once more over the mess of vegetation and took its turn picking at the grain and seed.

Such a treat, almost a benediction, I cannot recall when, if ever I had such views as this of a Water Rail, just feet away. Forever nervous, it moved carefully in the tangle of reeds, broken wet stalks and leaves, constantly attuned to anything that was different and potentially harmful in its secret riparian world. The slightest extraneous noise, or an alarm call from another bird, would  propel it back into cover with anxious strides only for it to tentatively emerge a few minutes later, its constantly flicking tail betraying its innate nervous disposition.

Its red eye gave it a slightly manic look as if it were somewhat crazed and wild. This was not so fanciful on my part as they have been known in hard weather to kill birds as large as a Starling or Thrush in order to survive when their normal food source is unavailable.

Having obtained enough images I just sat and watched as another Water Rail joined the first, both of them feeding separately below the hide. My mind wandered back to my youth when out with my dog I used to see them in winter flying from our approach along a particular part of the River Hogsmill only to dive and hide further on in the thick tangles of dead vegetation that grew on the river bank. It was one of the few highlights of a winter walk alongside the river.

Later, when training as a bird ringer at Hersham Sewage Farm in Surrey, I used to catch them by hand as I awaited the arrival of my trainer who was invariably late, or maybe I was early. I would walk along the overgrown banks of the old fashioned settling beds and flush one or sometimes two Water Rails. The rail would fly a few yards and then dive into cover on the side of the bank.The secret was to keep a very close eye on where the rail flew to and settled and then walk slowly to that spot, stop and carefully look at the tangled vegetation below one's feet and by the water's edge. Sometimes you could see the rail crouched, prone in the dense vegetation, waiting for you to pass by, when it would then sneak away behind you. However if you could locate it,  the next course of action was to slowly crouch down, never making eye contact and then with a lightening quick movement of your arm, grab it with your hand. You could also do the same thing with Moorhens which, rather than hide in vegetation would use their long toes to grab some underwater stalks, which would hold them down underwater by the bank, with just the tip of their bill and nostrils showing above the water and hope you would also pass them by. So confident were they of this strategy, they never moved and you could gently bend down and lift them from the water.

My trainer, Don, was always slightly pleased on his arrival as like some conjourer I produced a couple of Moorhens and occasionally a Water Rail from my donkey jacket's spacious pockets, although him being a dour Yorkshireman you would not know it, as he would never dream of praising me or showing any emotion. My record for Moorhens was, I think four, after which I ran out of pockets.

So a very pleasant hour passed in the hide and then I heard the sound of approaching footsteps and was joined by a man and his dog whom I had not seen since last I was in this hide about a year ago. I remembered him because of his dog which is quite elderly and how last time he told me he too came to the hide hoping it would be empty so he and his dog could sit quietly and contemplate life for an hour or so. A kindred spirit, but surely I should include the dog, and say spirits 

We sat together and watched as the Water Rail ventured once more out of its secret world of aquatic stalks and reed stems, while his elderly dog sighed and took its ease on the floor of the hide. Then came the sound of more footsteps and we were joined by another man with just a large camera and lens. No binoculars.

Two's company, three's a crowd. 

'Anything about?' he enquired rather too loudly.

'Just a couple of Water Rails'

I bid a hushed farewell to my original companion and his faithful dog and left the hide.

The spell was broken but just for one hour, in my own company I had left my complex human world and entered the simpler one of the Water Rail.

'O let them be left, wildness and wet;

Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet'

From the poem Inversnaid by Gerard Manley Hopkins 1844-1889

Thursday 26 January 2017

Banana Bill 25th January 2017

White billed Diver or Yellow billed Loon? You make your choice, the first name being the one used here in Britain and the latter the preferred name in North America.Whatever the name the bird itself is majestic, and it really must be seen whenever the possibility arises in Britain. 

It is an Arctic breeding species, being found along the shores of the Arctic Ocean and wintering in sheltered coastal waters of the northern Pacific Ocean and northwestern Norway. There is also an unproven theory that a small number may winter in the Bay of Biscay which might explain the vagrants that are occasionally recorded well south of its normal wintering range.

Over the years I have been lucky enough to have had four previous encounters with these almost mythical birds and not as expected in the north of Scotland or beyond in their breeding areas in the Arctic. No. All my encounters have been, perversely, in the south of England.

My first was a summer plumaged individual that powered its way past me as I shivered on a lonely seawatch in late April 1997 at the end of Newhaven Pier in East Sussex. The second was a ridiculously tame juvenile crunching up crabs and flatfish at the Hayle Estuary in the west of Cornwall in 2007. Then it was another summer plumaged individual in West Sussex that spent a week or so offshore from Selsey Bill. My final encounter was with another juvenile in Brixham Harbour, Devon in December 2013.

There are also regular pre-breeding Spring gatherings of birds off Portsoy in northeast Scotland and the Butt of Lewis in The Hebrides and birders regularly go there to see them as they are mainly in their spectacular summer plumage.

They are larger than a Great Northern Diver and have the most enormous bill. A magnificent appendage that is held slightly uptilted and is predominantly white in winter and more yellow in summer, flat on top but with a bulging lower mandible bending upwards to a point and hence the name 'banana bill' based on both the shape and colour. The rest of the plumage is fairly non descript in non breeding plumage, being a combination of smudgy grey browns and dull white and if it is a juvenile then there are brownish white fringes to its upperparts creating a marked zigzag scaled effect on its back.

Five days ago a juvenile White billed Diver was found, inland, in Lincolnshire on the River Witham which is truly exceptional.

Reports and pictures from birders over the previous five days suggested that the diver could be seen easily and photographed well, due to the relative narrowness of the river and the confiding nature of the diver. There were however slight concerns on my part, as in order to see the diver it would often appear that one had to walk considerable distances to encounter it, as it covered a five mile stretch of the river from just beyond a place called Bardney in the north to Kirkstead in the south. You could walk alongside the east bank of the river all the way but if possible it would be good to avoid such a long trek searching for the diver

I arranged with Peter to go and see it today and drove from my home through a fogbound north Oxfordshire  to meet him at 9am on the outskirts of Oxford and then we set off in his car for the three hour drive to Lincolnshire. To our relief we left the fog behind somewhere south of Coventry and in glorious sunshine but bitter cold headed for Kirkstead in Lincolnshire. I checked RBA and the latest message about the diver's whereabouts this morning suggested it was last seen near a place called Southrey and drifting north on the river towards Bardney. Originally we had set the Satnav for Kirkstead further south but this would now be pointless as the diver was some three miles north of there.  The Satnav was reset for Southrey but then went on the blink so we had to navigate using a combination of an intermittently functioning Satnav and my roadmap reading.

Sadly our spirits took a dip as within half an hour of Southrey we hit more fog and this time it looked highly unlikely that it would burn off anytime soon, if at all. There is nothing one can do in such situations but have a good old moan and then get on with it.  We eventually came to Bardney, crossed the River Witham onto the east side and then drove a couple of miles beyond to access the river at Southrey.

Leaving the car, the sheer awfulness of the cold damp fog and chilling wind hit me. It was impossible not to feel  downcast in the all pervading gloom and grey and restricted visibility but we were here, the weather was not going to change and so we had to make the best of it. I stood with Peter by the river and shivered to my bones as a few other disconsolate birders congregated around us.Some had walked miles along the river and spent hours seeing nothing, and at a loss we all just stood and wondered. What now?

Ten minutes of dithering and milling about passed and then a message came through from RBA. The diver had just been seen at Bardney, beyond the bridge and drifting north! We had, only twenty minutes ago driven over the same bridge and in jest I had said to Peter, 'I bet it's under the bridge.

We got back to the bridge in double quick time, parked the car and set off apace along the path running by the east bank of the river. There was a birder on the other side of the river who waved to us and said it was further up the river and pointed. It was hard to see any distance in the gloom and fog but we walked another two hundred metres and focused on the river and there it was. Huge and pale, even in the gloom, its white bill stood out as it floated mid river in the company of a Cormorant

At this time only a few other birders were with us as we were virtually the first to get to Bardney and
we followed the diver as it swam and dived in the slow moving river. When underwater it covered prodigious distances and we raced ahead trying to anticipate where it would surface. And so it went on, the diver submerging with a silk smooth glide that only divers can achieve and we racing  fifty metres ahead to hopefully position ourselves where it surfaced. It was supremely adapted to its life on water, at times appearing to be almost part of the water itself as it submerged its body so the water washed over its hindneck. At other times it would snorkle, a trait much favoured by all species of divers where they swim along with their head and bill partially submerged under the water. Its shape would change with its behaviour, at times relaxed and compact it would then compress its feathers and elongate its neck to snake like proportions before submerging without a ripple under the water's surface

Eventually we came to a barrage across the river and I watched as the diver surfaced and then turned as if to go back upriver and that was when I lost sight of it. By now many other birders responding to the alert on RBA were heading our way but there was no sign of the diver on the river.

As it had not passed me I surmised it had reached the end of its range and was now going back up the river. I said' Wait here Peter and I will go back towards Bardney and if either of us see it we can let each other know by phone'. This we agreed.

I walked back to Bardney Bridge, encountering many birders heading to where I had just come from.
'Is it showing?' was the anxious enquiry from them but not one of them was checking the river as they passed. I was reluctant to relay my theory about the diver's potential movement back downriver in case I was wrong so just told them to go where all the other birders were as that was where it had last been seen. 

I reached Bardney Bridge and there was the diver, now south of the bridge. It must have moved at considerable speed from where I last saw it and the frustrating thing was that of all the other birders heading north past me not one had bothered to check the river. If they had done they would have had a great chance of discovering the diver.

I called Peter and we decided to go back to Southrey to try and intercept the diver as it came downriver. Fifteen minutes later found us stood on the landing stage at Southrey and freezing once again. Lord it was cold and bleak, and the wind chill was ferocious. My fingers and toes, despite being well insulated were beginning to ache with the cold. Other birders joined us on the landing stage, the majority still not having seen the diver, whilst others set off on the two mile path running alongside the river to Bardney.  Some ducks and gulls landed distantly on the river, appearing larger than life in the cloying mist and a Little Grebe made a hesitant dash out and then back to the river bank. 

The River Witham in the fog as seen from
the landing stage at Southrey
An hour of supreme discomfort from the cold passed very slowly but there was no sign of the diver and at two thirty we gave up.

One final abortive attempt was made to see the diver at Kirkstead but if we were honest both of us were too chilled to the bone and disheartened by the weather to pursue the diver with any enthusiasm. 

I was happy enough, as despite the awful light and weather conditions I got some reasonable images and Peter had got another lifer, although due to a missing memory card for his camera, sadly had no images of the bird itself.

We called time and headed for home.

Tuesday 24 January 2017

Fog on the Tyne 22nd January 2017

I went to see the first ever Pacific Diver in Britain when one arrived on a small lake in South Yorkshire back in January 2007, so you can understand my interest when another one was found on Sunday, frequenting Ladyburn Lake which is part of  the Druridge Bay Country Park in Northumberland 

However, I had already planned to go to Newhaven in East Sussex to see a male Serin that has been spending the winter there. In bed on Saturday night my mind veered wildly between the two options with first one and then the other being preferred but I finally settled on Newhaven as it was only a two hour drive as opposed to a five hour odyssey to Northumberland, and if I went to Newhaven there was no need to get up extra early.

Currently, I am suffering a bit with a bad shoulder which, whilst not troubling me during the day when I am upright becomes painful at night after I have been asleep and prone for a few hours. So much so that the pain is usually bad enough to waken me in the middle of the night and it is impossible to get back to sleep.

Thus, in the early hours of Sunday morning I found myself awake and staring at the bedroom wall and in some discomfort. Dazed and miserable I mulled over my birding options once more  and in the end decided to go to Northumberland, as although it was a five hour drive, at least I  would be doing something other than lying or sitting in bed, wide awake and in pain.

It was, as it always is in such situations, a huge gamble as I had no idea whether the diver would still be there but I had a back up plan if it wasn't, in that there was a Pine Bunting further south in North Yorkshire and if not that then a White billed Diver in Lincolnshire, both good birds to see.

Sitting up and driving, my shoulder gives me no pain, so I steadily drove my way northwards on very quiet roads and wondered just what exactly I had let myself in for. It is a very long way to Ladyburn Lake, longer than I had anticipated but the adventure was now on and there was no going back. Hours later I passed the huge rusted sculpture that is The Angel of the North at Gateshead and when I was passing Newcastle checked RBA(Rare Bird Alert). My luck was in, as there was a report on my phone's screen that the Pacific Diver was still present at Ladyburn Lake at seven thirty this very morning

Thirty minutes of driving north of Newcastle, I turned onto an empty rural road and after a few twists and turns found myself in a free car park by Ladyburn Lake at just after nine am. In complete contrast to the freezing and icy weather when I left home, here it was cold, damp but well above freezing, although needless to say there was no sign of any of the forecast sunshine. Already there were considerable numbers of people here, assembling to go on morning constitutionals, jogging in lycra or walking dogs but there was plenty of space around the large lake for everyone to lose themselves. I expected that quite a  crowd of birders would have come to see the diver, as judging by the images I had seen on the internet yesterday, it was remarkably confiding and allowing close approach.

I looked around the lake and at first could see very few birders but closer inspection revealed scattered groups of birders stationed at the far end of the lake where gaps in a narrow border of dead reeds allowed an open view of the lake and I could see that the birders were obviously looking at the diver. 

Ladyburn Lake and the reeds and water at the eastern end
where the Pacific Diver was to be found
There could not have been more than thirty birders present this morning whereas the diver in Yorkshire had attracted hundreds. Admittedly the Yorkshire bird was the first for Britain but this individual on Ladyburn Lake was only the eighth record of this species in Britain so I would have thought it merited far more attention, especially as it was a weekend.

Some of the birders that came to admire the Pacific Diver
Never mind, I got all my optics gathered up and set off to walk along the grass bank of the lake to the far end, putting up a mixed flock of Oystercatchers and Common Redshanks which noisily complained as they flew in unison across the lake, the strident kleep kleep calls of the Oystercatchers jarring with the more mellifluous calls of the redshanks.

I met several birders coming towards me who obviously had already seen enough of the diver and they confirmed that it was extremely obliging and coming very close at times. So all was well and I made as much haste as I could to get nearer to the diver.

I got to the first small group of birders and could see the diver some way offshore and asleep. I was told not to worry as the diver would soon come closer when it started feeding. Five minutes later it woke up and commenced to preen, rolling over on its side in the water and exposing its silky white underparts and waving a large foot with lobed toes in the air as it spun in the water preening its belly feathers.

Once it had finished preening, it dived, commenced feeding and as predicted started coming closer and closer to the shore. Soon it was just a few metres from us and cameras went into overdrive recording superb views of a major rarity.

The diver seemed to have a preferred routine whereby it would feed just beyond the narrow band of dead reeds by the lake shore. Frustratingly, apart from the one earlier, memorable moment when it came very close, it kept to just beyond the reeds and often hidden out of sight behind them. I waited, hoping that sooner or later it would give me my opportunity to see it well as it came past one of the gaps in the reeds and with a little luck this would allow me to get a nice photo.

I was joined by a very nice gentleman with a huge lens and a very strange accent.We got talking whilst waiting for the diver to co-operate and I just could not place his accent until he told me he was from Germany but had been living in Newcastle for the last fifteen years and his accent was a combination of both places. We waited and talked as birders do. Another local and very friendly birder by the name of Sean joined us and we formed a harmonious trio all intent on seeing the diver well, just once more.

A skein of Pink Footed Geese flew over, the pig like squeals and chattering of the geese clearly audible, high in a dull grey sky that was thankfully fog free but still nowhere near realising the sunny day that had been predicted. A Kingfisher flashed past the gap in the reeds, showing such a strange missile like profile, their enormous head and long bill dwarfing their small body.

The diver still did not co-operate but tantalisingly either just briefly allowed a clear view of it behind the reeds or swam further out on the lake and then slept and preened. Finally it made another approach to the reeds and this time instead of remaining behind the reeds dived and fed in the open and allowed very close views of it for about ten minutes before it dived once more and surfaced back near the reeds.

My patience and that of many others who had waited had now been amply rewarded with brilliant views of the diver. It was a juvenile, now in its second calendar year as evidenced by the buff fringes to its upperparts giving it a scaly appearance.

Pacific Divers look very much like our Black throated Diver and are the North American equivalent but there are diagnostic differences if you apply careful scrutiny. The flanks of Pacific Divers are entirely black whereas there is usually a large bulging white spot visible at the rear of the Black throated Diver's flanks and the ear coverts are smudged grey whereas they are white on Black throated Divers. Structurally Pacific Divers are slightly smaller, with a finer, shorter bill, steeper forehead and more rounded head and fuller neck. There is also a thin strap like line across the upper throat although this can be absent on some juveniles. I could just about see the semblance of one on this particular bird but only just. There is also another bolder strap line across the vent which was clearly visible when this individual was roll preening.

You can clearly see the strap line across the vent in this image

The diver went back to its now familiar routine behind the reeds and I realised that I had been watching the diver for ninety minutes  which seemed to have gone in a flash. I chatted to Sean about other local places to go birding before heading South and he suggested East Chevington NWT as there was a flock of seven Shorelarks wintering there plus a good flock of Twite, and then if I had time I should go a little further south to North Shields to see the Glaucous Gulls at a place called Fish Quay. Both  East Chevington and North Shields were within one hour's drive from Ladyburn Lake so this was ideal and would hopefully make the day an even greater success.

Sean said he would come with me and I could follow him to East Chevington in my car as it would be easier than him giving me complicated instructions. Not only that, he offered to drive me to my car which was in a more distant car park at Ladyburn Lake than his. What a nice gesture and one that made my day all the more pleasurable.You see, just a little kindness like this, unheralded and of no great consequence can have such a major positive impact on one's outlook for the rest of the day and beyond.

I duly followed Sean to East Chevington and it is just as well I did as I would certainly have got lost on my own. We turned off the main road and took a seriously potholed track for about a mile to where we parked, walked into the dunes and after about half a mile, onto a largely deserted beach. 

East Chevington Beach
A flock of about fifty or sixty Twite were the first birds we saw off to our right and then looking left we saw the distinctive sight of seven Shorelarks running in that scuffling, halting manner of theirs across the sand and patches of dead seaweed on the beach.

We spent some time stalking the Shorelarks which were reasonably confiding before transferring our attention to the flock of Twite feeding on the sand near the dunes. It was obvious that the sand had been scattered with seed to tempt the flock to remain in that particular area and sure enough there was a photographer crouched where the beach joined the dunes, waiting until the flock came close. We joined him and watched as the Twite would regularly take alarm and rise in a compact twittering flock to sweep around the beach in bouncing flight but always returned to the seeded area.

They soon came fairly close and I could see their yellow bills and butterscotch coloured faces and breasts as they hopped along on the sand, forever active and busying themselves finding a seed which they would then manipulate by rapid movements of their mandibles until the husk was removed.

A flock of Sanderling passed behind the Twite flock, black feet pattering on the sand, their grey upperparts and white underparts, the colours of the surf they love to patrol. These, for some reason had decided to feed much further up the beach but were no less energetic than the few of their kind which  in more traditional Sanderling fashion were running before the waves on the distant shore. 

An occasional Turnstone and a single Grey Plover were the only other occupants of the beach. For a while we had the beach to ourselves but soon birders and non birders alike walked the beach. Most non birders on seeing us ranged with telescopes and cameras a short distance from the Twite flock understood that they should give us some space but there is always someone that is ignorant and uncaring and a family duly arrived with a dog and proceeded to walk, in full knowledge of our presence, right across the Twite's feeding area and flushed every bird to the far corners of the sky. We said nothing and quietly cussed but soon they were gone and the Twite returned to resume their feeding.

An hour or so passed happily in the company of Sean, both of us photographing and looking at the Twite but then it was time for me to bid farewell to the estimable Sean and be on my way to my last stop in the northeast, which was Fish Quay at North Shields. Here was the considerable incentive of possibly finding no less than two juvenile Glaucous Gulls. I will confess to having a bit of a thing about Glaucous Gulls, their size, unpredictable appearances in Britain and their sheer chutzpah all make them irresistible.

I survived a repeat of the pothole experience and regained the main road, then headed south for twenty minutes before turning off and into a depressing area of run down housing estates, all the while following the brown tourist signs for Fish Quay, which is located at the mouth of the mighty River Tyne and dates back to the 13th century. I was none too sure what to find at Fish Quay but for some reason had an image of a small, run down fishing area where trawlers came in from the North Sea.

Descending a steep hill down to Fish Quay I found my imaginings were far from the reality. Large blocks of expensive and tastefully built flats lined the steep sides either side of the road leading to Fish Quay, which itself turned out to be very much modernised and now had become a popular tourist attraction with many of the old buildings alongside the road converted into bistros, restaurants, brasseries and pubs. Further on, other old historic buildings had been refurbished, provided with plaques and returned to their former glory, and I should imagine the whole area is very popular in the summer months. Fish Quay although now re-generating into a thriving business community and tourist area is still a working fishing port as two long sheds either side of a small harbour on the northern side of the Tyne testify. The sheds represent what remains of the fishing industry with buoys, nets and machinery stacked neatly opposite each of the currently closed fish merchant stores and the few trawlers moored alongside the concrete walls.

The harbour area

One of the shed roofs to be found either side of the harbour with gulls in situ

Trawler moored by the concrete promenade
A wide concrete promenade ran alongside the Tyne up to as far as the two sheds and it was the sheds that drew my attention as this was where some large gulls were loafing on the roofs. I soon found one juvenile Glaucous Gull perched on the corrugated roof of one of the sheds in the company of Greater Black backed Gulls, Herring Gulls and a single Common Gull.

Glaucous Gull-juvenile/ 2nd calendar year
Looking beyond and out over the cold waters of the Tyne, I soon found another juvenile Glaucous Gull bathing in mid river, its milky coffee coloured plumage distinctive in the fast moving grey waters. 

Two pairs of Eider Ducks swam into the dock and the males began their evocative cooing courtship calls as some more females and a first winter male joined them.The adult males are really beautiful, their plumage cold ice cream colours of white, green and pink offset by a black cap, flanks and tail.

Common Eider - a juvenile male and two females
Common Eider-males
Two Greater Black backed Gulls, an adult and a first year landed in the harbour intent on mugging an unfortunate Cormorant that was fishing there. The largest of our gulls they really are mean looking brutes with a huge pickaxe of a bill capable of doing serious harm to any bird unfortunate enough to attract their attention.

Greater Black backed Gull-adult
Greater Black backed Gull- juvenile/2nd calendar year
I took several pictures of the Glaucous Gulls on the shed roofs but really they needed to be closer. There were a few other birders present but they seemed disinclined to want to do anything about tempting the gulls to come closer. Now, over the years I have learned a thing or two about gulls and one fact is that they are never averse to a  free meal. I used two loaves of white bread to good effect with Andy to tempt an Iceland Gull into close range on the River Taff in Cardiff a couple of years ago. Fish Quay did not have anywhere remotely like a general store that sold bread but it did have a fish and chip shop, currently from what I could see, doing a roaring trade from all the visitors.

This would do nicely and I joined the queue and duly purchased a cod and two portions of chips to take away in a handy box. I retraced the hundred metres or so to the harbour enclosed by the fishing sheds.  I kept the cod for myself not having eaten since I left the house at 4am but flung some chips out onto the water. In an instant every gull on the shed roofs headed down to the water but they were beaten by a blizzard of Black headed Gulls. Smaller and more manouevrable they grabbed the chips before the larger gulls could but there were plenty more chips available. I scooped up some more chips, hurling them onto the water and this time one of the Glaucous Gulls threw itself into the gull frenzy that had ensued on the water below me . 

It really was that easy. I now got more cunning and instead of throwing the chips onto the water threw them down onto the concrete before me. The result was just as I hoped. The Glaucous Gull flew and perched within a few feet of me, as bold as you like. 

A lovely creamy brown with darker brown vermiculations all over its plumage and pale creamy white flight feathers it regarded me with its dark eye. The black tipped pink bill, similarly pink legs and feet were the perfect foil for its pale plumage. It was huge. A monster. Much bigger and paler than two other juvenile Glaucous I had seen last week at a landfill in Leicestershire. I suppose therefore it could possibly be of the race L. hyperboreus pallidissimus which is the largest and palest race of Glaucous Gull and comes from Eastern Siberia. I kept feeding chips and the gulls continued scoffing them until they were all gone and the cackling, wailing cries and thrashing wings of the gulls were stilled. The gulls departed for the security of the shed roofs leaving a lone Turnstone to fuss over the concrete, picking at the minute morsels of chips left by the gulls.

A long drive home awaited me but having experienced a day like this I knew I would be happy in body and soul 

Who wouldn't be?