Friday 29 March 2019

A Great Spotted Cuckoo on The Isle of Wight 27th March 2019

On Thursday the 21st March a Great Spotted Cuckoo was discovered at Wheeler's Bay which lies to the east side of the town of Ventnor on the Isle of Wight  but having already seen three of this very rare visitor in Britain and also breeding in Botswana, I was not too fussed and decided to leave it.

One or two Great Spotted Cuckoos arrive in Britain almost annually, appearing as an overshooting early spring migrant. Their normal range is from southern France southwards around the Mediterranean basin, then throughout southern Africa to as far as South Africa. In the European parts of their range they are migrants, spending the winter south of the Sahara where other populations are resident, and it is these birds returning from their winter quarters that are probably the ones that occasionally stray too far north and end up on Britain's southern shores.

To date there have been fifty one occurrences of Great Spotted Cuckoos in Britain and eight in Ireland. They are usually found in the southern coastal counties of Britain and this one, currently on the south coast of the Isle of Wight was a typical record.

On Saturday Mark contacted me to ask if I was going to go and see the cuckoo on Monday but I had other plans involving a visit to Hayling Island in Hampshire and then going on to the RSPB's Lodmoor Reserve in Dorset. On Tuesday evening Mark rang again and said that after seeing some nice images of the cuckoo on social media, he and Adrian were minded to go for the cuckoo on Wednesday and would I like to come too.

To cut a long story short I met them at 7am on Wednesday morning at the Wightlink Ferry Terminal in Portsmouth but not having booked Mark's car on the ferry the first sailing we could get was not until an hour later. However a cup of coffee and  a forty minute crossing on the eight o'clock ferry, found us driving off at Fishbourne and crossing the island to the pleasant little Victorian town of Ventnor which lies on the southern side of the island, possessing, if you believe the locals, its own Mediterranean micro climate. Our anxiety levels, or I should say Mark's, returned to normal as news came through that the Great Spotted Cuckoo had been seen this very morning in its usual place on the cliff at Ventnor.

The directions to the cuckoo on RBA (Rare Bird Alert) told us to park at Wheeler's Bay and walk a quarter of a mile east to 'the revetments' an upmarket word for sea defences and look for the cuckoo on the sloping grassy cliff side rising up from the promenade below, which formed part of 'the revetments'. The weather could not have been better with sun and  a slight but chilly wind. We descended a large number of steps from the car park and proceeded to walk east along an almost deserted promenade.We met a local birder on the way who showed us the general area the cuckoo frequented which was anywhere for a quarter of a mile along the cliff. 

Looking west to Ventnor from along the promenade

Looking east by and along the cliff the cuckoo was
frequenting and also home to the Glanville Fritillary
Northern Wheatear flew in off the sea and settled briefly on the cliff side before disappearing over the top.

When the cuckoo first arrived at Ventnor it had found a fairly extensive area of brambles growing on the lower part of the cliff and was eating large numbers of Brown tailed Moth larvae that were in their distinctive web like nests woven in the brambles. When these ran out it had moved slightly more to the west and was now eating the larvae of Glanville Fritillarys which posed something of a dilemna for the local conservationists as this particular cliffside is the only location in Britain where this ultra rare butterfly breeds. Obviously there was nothing that could be done and it had to be hoped the cuckoo would eventually return south.The thought did occur to me that it might well remain until the caterpillars ran out!

The Great Spotted Cuckoo's temporary home. Initially it hid from the crows
in the distant conifers
At first there was no sign of the cuckoo and we stood  staring at the steeply sloping chalk cliff covered in short grass, dead stems and various downland plants with scars of bare white chalk here and there. At the top of the cliff were one or two isolated conifers and some bushes. It should not be too hard to see the cuckoo on the cliff side if it was here.

Birders looking for the cuckoo.This constitutes a twitch on
The Isle of Wight
Twenty minutes passed and other local birders joined us. A lady came along the promenade and told us she had just been at the top of the cliff and seen the cuckoo at the top being harassed by two Magpies and it had flown down onto the cliff slope a hundred metres to the west of us. We walked back to where she thought it had flown and at that moment a dog walker pointed to a tree and said 'It's in there'. We hurried to the spot and sure enough there was the cuckoo. 

Its pale body made it obvious where it was perched in the  tree although it was partially obscured by twigs and foliage but at least the first priority to see it had now been achieved.

First views of the Great Spotted Cuckoo
The cuckoo was wise to be circumspect about showing itself as three Carrion Crows had taken exception to its presence and were harrying it at every opportunity, causing the cuckoo for its part to maintain a low profile in the cover of trees. Eventually it flew down onto the upper slope and commenced hunting for caterpillars in the short grass, again giving little opportunity to get a nice picture of it. As soon as the crows saw it they chased it back into a tree.

The cuckoo, like virtually all its tribe is parasitic, using other birds to raise its young by laying a single egg at a time in the nests of Magpies and Carrion Crows, so it is understandable why it was creating such a stir with the local corvids but it was still frustrating for us, as while the crows were around the cuckoo was unwilling to leave the sanctuary of the trees.

Eventually the crows departed and the cuckoo felt emboldened to fly down onto the cliffside once more and commence searching the grass for caterpillars. In flight it appeared slim and attenuated due to its very long tail, demonstrating a delightful fast, bounding, dipping flight similar to a Magpie. Its incredibly long tail and broad wings were particularly noticeable. 

When feeding on the ground it walked and hopped awkwardly with almost reckless abandon amongst the grass, stopping frequently for extended periods to look about, moving its head from side to side, waiting for any movement that would betray the presence of a caterpillar. 

When it saw something to eat it would bound over to it, sometimes overbalancing in its haste to seize the prey, using spread wings and tail to counteract its clumsiness.

There were occasional periods when it flew up and over the top of the cliff and out of sight but we soon learned that its main food source was here on the cliff face and it always eventually returned. Adrian spent much energy chasing after it on the cliff top but Mark and myself remained on the promenade looking up the cliff and this proved the best option.

By now quite a gathering had congregated at the bottom and the excited chatter and disturbance undoubtedly persuaded the cuckoo to remain on the higher part of the cliff but after a couple of hours most people had dispersed and Mark and myself found ourselves on our own and then the cuckoo in a series of short flights descended much lower. 

My initial impressions were of a bird similar to a magpie in size and proportions especially with the long tail but it was slimmer in build. This individual was an adult and had a dark grey face and a paler grey, punk like crest which it could raise and lower at will, a substantial bill and a creamy buff chin and throat.The rest of the underparts were white. Its name comes from the liberal white spotting on its grey brown upperparts, especially the wings. The similarly coloured tail was very long and the graduated tail feathers were extensively tipped with white apart from the central pair.

We watched it for some time trying to get an image that did not include bits of annoying vegetation.It was not easy as the cuckoo continually cased the slope looking for food, often delving deep into the leaves and dead stems. It found a hotspot for Glanville Fritillary larvae and in the space of twenty minutes I watched it consume no less than thirty four of the unfortunate black larvae, snatching them from the leaves and tossing them in the air to swallow whole. Eventually, stuffed full, it sank onto a small grass tussock and sat there, replete and content, in the sun. It must have been very pleasant up there on the  sun warmed chalky cliff and maybe reminded it of its proper home in southern Europe.

This particular cliff side as I said is the location for our rarest native fritillary butterfly and various conservation measures have been taking place to make the habitat as beneficial as possible. Alas it is obviously impossible to legislate  for or anticipate an occurrence such as this with the cuckoo and one just has to hope that the cuckoo's predation of the fritillary larvae will not have a significant long term impact.

Lunchtime arrived and we left Adrian still trying to get an image of the cuckoo he was happy with while we walked back along the promenade to a seafront cafe to sit in the sun and enjoy a coffee and a sandwich And very pleasant it was too.

Refreshed we rejoined Adrian, taking a sandwich and a drink for him and then we returned to the cliff and took yet more images of the cuckoo. The numbers of people began to build up again, both birders and curious passers by, even a group of excited school children on an outing joined us. Noise levels inevitably increased and the cuckoo just as inevitably maintained its distance high up on the cliff.

Tired of craning my neck I decided to go and look for Wall Lizards, a non native lizard species but common in Europe, which were introduced to Ventnor  in the late 1860's and now thrive there. I found three separate individuals basking on the sun warmed concrete steps of a currently closed cafe. This was a first for me and I was especially pleased to see them.

Wall Lizards
Rejoining the others and a now ever increasing gathering of curious people we came to the conclusion we were not going to get any better images or views than we  had already achieved and so made our way back to the car.

What a lovely day it had turned out to be, in a beautiful location by the seaside and in great company.

Thursday 28 March 2019

More on the Med Gulls at Hayling Island 25th March 2019

Two weeks ago I went to the defunct Hayling Oyster Beds, which are now part of the North Hayling Local Nature Reserve owned by Havant Council but managed on their behalf by the RSPB. I went  to see the annual pre-breeding gathering of hundreds of Mediterranean Gulls that is centred on the oyster beds. Unfortunately the weather was hardly conducive to viewing the gulls and photographing this splendid natural spectacle in the teeth of a  howling gale and vicious rain squalls made life very difficult and unpleasant both for me and the gulls.

I persevered despite the foul weather but the outcome from my point of view was not entirely satisfactory as I struggled to get any decent images of these most beautiful of gulls.

Spring arrived this Sunday and with sun and relatively benign conditions forecast for the entire coming week I made hurried plans to head back to the oyster beds at Hayling Island on Monday to hopefully achieve some better results, knowing that this lovely looking gull would be highly photogenic in such sunny conditions.

A monumental traffic jam due to an accident held me up for forty minutes on the M27 west of Portsmouth, so my arrival at Hayling Island was about an hour later than planned but once I was parked in the reserve's tiny car park  I stepped out into a morning of full and pleasant sunshine although a  northerly breeze kept the temperature down.

I walked out to the rocky bunds, all that remains now of the oyster beds and was delighted to find the gull colony in full swing. A raucous and all action blizzard of flying and perched Mediterranean and Black headed Gulls greeted me as I stood on the track opposite the bunds to assess where best to go to view the birds.

The Black headed Gulls were by far the more numerous and noisiest of the two, their grating irascible vocalisations a constant background, almost drowning out the more diffident  yodelling, exclamatory calls of the Mediterranean Gulls. It was hard not to compare the two and find favour with the almost aristocratic demeanour of the Med Gulls, standing slightly taller amongst the Black headed Gulls, the latter their noisy, forever bickering neighbours from hell. In plumage and looks the Med Gulls also scored heavily with ghostly white bodies and wings and the softest of grey upperparts set off by a jet black hood and bright red bill, legs and feet. The Black headed Gulls looked almost dowdy by comparison with their chocolate brown hood, dull brownish red bills and legs and more marked grey and white plumage but they were the gull which would breed here whilst only a few pairs of Med Gulls would remain to breed amongst them. Later, Common Terns would arrive to breed on rafts put out by the RSPB on the sea near to the bunds. 

A pair each of Med Gulls and Black headed Gulls
I started at the western bund but with the wind blowing almost into my face it did not seem so good an idea so I soon moved to the easternmost of the two bunds on which the colony is based. Here it was more sheltered and soon, ensconced on the pebbly beach in the lee of an overhanging bank I was happily clicking away and watching the ceaseless activity of the gull colony.

A trio of Med Gulls the centre bird being a second year bird whilst
the other two are full adults and therefore three or more years old

Adult (centre) and Second year (right) Med Gulls
I defy anyone not to be enthralled by the sight of an active gull colony such as this. On coming round the corner from the car park, the sheer volume of sound, initially muted by the contours of the land as you walk out, is unexpected and immediately hits your senses, quickly followed by a constant bewilderment of movement from this teeming city of gulls. It is a living kaleidoscope of  beautiful creatures, arraigned in their finest plumage, indulging in endless instinctive activity, with never a quiet or still moment. It just goes on and on, sound and movement, mesmerising and fascinating in equal measure as the birds bicker, threaten, court and pose on the bunds or the sea.

There were definitely less Mediterranean Gulls than on my last visit as presumably many of the adults had already paired and dispersed to their breeding areas around and about the harbour or even further east and west. A number of  the Med Gulls were second year birds, so possibly not planning to breed this year, their age told by the fact they still sported the black chevrons on their white outer primaries although many had already acquired a full black hood. The full adults remaining were going through their courtship rituals, bowing and contorting their body and head into their stylised poses.

Displaying Mediterranean Gulls
I saw only two first winter/second calendar year birds, distinctive in not having a black hood but just a smudged highwayman's mask around the eyes, a band of brown at the tip of the tail  and with wings much patterned with grey and brown

Second calendar year Mediterranean Gull
Gulls are notorious for showing variations from the norm and the gull below was in what appeared to be second year plumage but unlike the other second year birds present which had fully black heads this one had a head pattern suggesting it was a first winter bird.

I watched this on going spectacle that continues day and night, as if sleep is something not required, the gulls consumed by the urge to procreate. The gulls and particularly the Med Gulls were constantly taking to the air, restless, as if being on the ground, shoulder to shoulder with other gulls, was almost too much to bear. They would rise and make a wide circuit out over the sea and then come back to the bund, sweeping into the northerly breeze and with much hesitant fluttering and obvious dislike from those already on the ground, land in the throng once more before others would rise to perform the same routine.

A man stood along from me on the beach and producing a plastic bag of bread proceeded to throw slices of bread out onto the water. A tsunami of gulls, virtually all Black headed  hurtled off the bunds and in a frenzy of wings and loud calls descended on the bread. It was quite a sight but the Med Gulls kept their distance, just a first year bird and briefly one adult joining them, but then thinking better of it they retreated to the periphery of the scrum.

Spot the Med Gull!
Spending a lot of time with the gulls you tend to notice things that a casual glance would miss. I noticed that some of the second year Med Gulls were paired with a full adult and were going through courtship rituals, so the question arose would they breed this year or was this just a full dress rehearsal? Conversely it could be their moult had been suspended so really they were full adults but they just had not moulted their outer second year primaries.

Second year Mediterranean Gulls showing the distinctive
black chevrons on their outer primaries

Also the full adult Med Gulls seemed to vary in their bill tip pattern with some sporting the yellow tip on the bill whilst others, no different in plumage, had all red bills. Would they acquire the yellow tip in a few days or was this just a variation possibly with age? The gulls with yellow tips being older? 

I also found an adult Med Gull that had been ringed and researching the code on the ring 36BF I learned it had been ringed at Antwerp Belgium on 20th of May 2017 and was subsequently seen at Antwerp on 29th June and 3rd July 2017 and was not seen again until I saw it today. 

The ringed adult Med Gull
That is the fun and fascination of birding, well for me anyway, as the more you observe and study the more questions arise that often do not have an immediate answer.

I must add that having slightly disparaged the Black headed Gulls I should say that in their own way they are appealing. I would not call them elegant but the courting and aggressive attitudes they strike are fascinating and more extreme than the Med Gulls, and when looked at closely their plumage is also attractive but less obviously so, lacking the strong colours and subtle beauty of the Mediterranean Gulls. 

Black headed Gulls
After three hours I left the gull colony, not without some regret but with uplifted spirits. There is always next year to come and see them again and later, in a month or so,  I will pick another sunny day to return here to see the breeding Common Terns and if I am really lucky maybe Little Terns also.

For now I will leave you with some images of the Hayling Island Mediterranean Gulls in flight.  Seen against a background of blue sky or sea is there any creature more beautiful and sublime in our still wonderful natural world that is now so in peril.

                  Please take the time to click on any image to view a larger version