Monday, 23 September 2013

A Double Dip and an Interesting Gull

Over the course of the summer I've experienced an unprecedented twitching purple patch, scoring 20 lifers including such monster birds as White-throated Needletail and Bridled Tern. This incredible run has taken me over 300 for Britain, my main target for the year, and during this time I had what amounted to a 100% hit rate. A run this good was always destined to end and this weekend I came crashing back to earth with one of my worst ever twitching experiences. When news of a first-winter  Brown Shrike in Hampshire broke on Friday afternoon I frantically rang around to try to arrange a lift but none were forthcoming. Slightly desperate I put out a lift request on twitter. I wasn't expecting much to come of this so I was surprised when I got a lift offer from Joel Clegg from West Yorkshire who agreed to pick me and Alex Jones up from Stockport at 4am. Thanks to my best friend's leaving night out I had only had 20 minutes sleep so most of the 4 hour journey was spent asleep.

We arrived at Hook with Warsash LNR just after 07.30 having been told by friends on site that the bird had not yet appeared. We were still hopeful as Shrikes, which feed primarily on large insects, are typically late risers. We waited it out for a couple of hours but as the minutes ticked on it became increasingly obvious that the bird has disappeared overnight. Rather desolately we trudged bck to the car around 10.30 and started the long drive home. This was a particularly disappointing dip as we had forgone waiting for news on the grounds that Shrikes are typically long stayers. Brown Shrike, while a rare bird, has a particularly good track record with the well-twitched Staines Moor bird staying for a couple of months. Despite the dip it was nice to catch up with some of the Durham lads including Andrew Kinghorn and Kieran Lawrence.

We were almost back home when I got a call from Mark Payne telling me that Jane Turner had found an adult Semi-palmated Sandpiper on the beach at Hoylake. A juvenile Caspian Gull had also been seen, so we headed back to mine to pick up Alex's car and dashed over there as quickly as possible. Despite some impressive driving from Alex we arrived too late, the bird having been flushed to the distant tideline by a dog walker 20 minutes prior to our arrival. This was another extremely frustrating dip, especially considering last year's controversial peep which I am currently unable to tick as either Western or Semi-p. We contemplated walking out there but in my depressed and exhausted state, I couldn't summon the energy to try. Suffice to say my mood during the train journey home and over the course of the following evening was foul to say the least.

Sunday morning done and having gained slightly more perspective on the previous day, Alex and I decided to give the Semi-p another go over the high tide. Last year's peep regularly appeared in the roosting wader flocks and it wasn't  too much of a reach to suggest that this bird might do the same. It quickly became apparent that we weren't the only people to have this idea and as high tide approached, over 50 expectant birders formed a crowd along the promenade. Unfortunately the number of small waders was apparently much lower than the previous day and despite the best efforts of the assembled masses, the bird was not relocated. Several Curlew Sandpiper in with the Dunlin did provide some sort of consolation but after the previous day they did little to lift the spirits. We waited around for an hour or so after the tide on the off chance and decided to check the beach on the other side of the lifeboat station before heading home. As we were driving down the beach we stopped to check the large flocks of large gulls loafing on the shore. Within a couple of minutes I picked out a dark mantled large white-headed gull which superficially appeared to be a bog standard adult Yellow-legged Gull. This was not a particular surprise as a couple of birds had been reported in the area intermittently over the past few weeks. Alex managed to get the following shots but unfortunately the primaries were obscured by other gulls at the time.

Presumed Adult Yellow-legged Gull (c) Alex Jones

Although the bird initially seemed to be a typical adult Yellow-legged Gull and the clean headed appearance and mantle shade seemed to support this identification. However further observation caused me to pick up on a couple of anomalous characteristics. One of the most striking things about the bird was the short, stumpy bill which appeared rather fine and tapering like that of a Lesser-black Backed Gull. This is rather different from the chunky blob-tipped bill of a typical Yellow-legged Gull. Another issue was the leg colour which was a rather weak lemon yellow shade similar to that of a common gull. The leg colour issue may be due to the bird starting the transition into winter plumage causing it to lose the bright yellow colour seen in breeding plumage. Unfortunately I didn't manage to get any shots of the primaries but the white-mirrors, especially that on p10, seemed somewhat larger than I would expect. Although I didn't take particular note of the primary projection, I don't remember it appearing as long-winged as most of the Yellow-legged Gulls I have seen. Although I'm still fairly happy with my initial identification as an adult Yellow-legged Gull, examination of the photos has led me to conclude that hybrid Herring x Lesser-black Backed Gull can't be ruled out. Maybe I'm overthinking things and the bird is just an adult Yellow-legged Gull although based on these pictures I'm certainly not going to claim it as one. Any thoughts or comments on this bird would be much appreciated as it certainly isn't like anything I've seen before!

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