Since the glut of juveniles at the beginning of August, finding a Caspian Gull in London hasn't been an easy task. Repeated visits to Erith Pier drew a blank into mid-September and the bird I had on Thursday was the first showy individual I've seen for a number of weeks. As it happened, that was a precursor to a productive Saturday afternoon at the pier, which produced no fewer than four first-winters.
The first of these was probably the least impressive. I picked it up at around 500 m range as it came to scraps being thrown out by an old lady some way upriver of the pier. In flight it looked a great Caspian Gull, with noticeable pale underwing and crisp tail band. However, by the time I'd walked round to the bird and managed closer views, I was significantly less impressed. The boldly marked greater coverts aren't typical of Caspian and my guess was that it perhaps has a bit of Herring in it somewhere. That said, everything else looks good for Caspian and the bird has even moulted a few lesser coverts already, with these apparent in the deck shot below.
I headed off to get some food for 20 minutes. In the meantime Jamie had arrived and located a first-winter Casp straight away. It transpired to be X09J, a bird that has been regular around the Thames over the past 10 days or so and had previously spent some time at Cromer, Norfolk. It's a bird from the notorious Laussig hybrid colony and isn't the best-looking Casp but, having actually seen it in the flesh for the first time, it's better than I'd been giving it credit for.
The third bird was the best of the bunch. It was absolutely stunning on the deck: beautiful white head, distinctive face, textbook plumage with diffuse pale fringing to the greater coverts and and classic tertial patterning. The retained juvenile scapulars had that uniform mouse-brown look to them, too. In flight it was quite mucky, with the underwing fairly dark and the uppertail with plenty of barring.
The fourth and final bird was an absolute unit. Jamie picked it up on the water at distance and, because of its bulk, was initially unsure on whether it was a cach or mich. Scapular and covert patterns, plus the facial expression, certainly favoured the former and that was confirmed when it did a brief fly-past at the pier.
Other bits of note during the Saturday included a Norwegian-ringed juvenile Great Black-backed Gull. Black 'JJ285' was ringed at a nest approximately 10km west of Bergen on 23 June 2019 and was still in that area on 21 July. My sighting was the first away from here.
Small numbers of Yellow-legged Gulls remain around the Thames, most of which are first- or second-winters, albeit with the occasional older bird around.
You can tell it's autumn: the weather is confused. Wet and windy for periods today, yet humid and still really quite warm in the intermittent sunshine, it was one of those days where you constantly taking layers on and off while in the field.
I headed over to Erith Pier for a few hours this morning to see what was happening with the gulls. It was a blustery day with intermittent heavy squalls, during which the wind would really pick up – but there were also sunnier and calmer periods, too. There were plenty of gulls to look through and I was only about 20 minutes in to the session when a first-winter Caspian Gull suddenly appeared, quite innocuously, among the melee, having sneaked in unannounced as they often do. It was quite a delicate bird: small, elegant and lightweight looking, with a long bill and small head. Plumage wise it was nice, with an almost complete set of moulted scaps and a very white-headed look. The underwing could have been cleaner but, overall, it was a pretty pleasant bird. Unfortunately it appeared during a dull spell and only hung around for about five minutes before flying upriver, meaning photo opportunities weren't as good as they can be here.
Shortly after the Casp, a tight flock of at least 45 terns flew past heading upriver. The calls of both Common and Arctic were clear and, while most of the birds were the former species, around a dozen of the latter were intermixed. A little later in the morning, at around 11:40, a couple of Sandwich Terns also appeared off the pier. Evidently the changeable weather had generated some sort of tern movement, something noted at other sites both around London and across the Midlands.
Yellow-legged Gull numbers have evidently fallen away but, as is typical as we go into autumn, small numbers do persist and birds of all ages were seen today, even if my total did not exceed five ... a few Common Gulls were about, too.
Both species of seal also put in appearances during the morning, with a particularly impressive bull Grey causing havoc among the gathered gulls.
Leaving the pier at midday, I did the usual tour of sub-sites along the drive back towards Central London. A Grey Seal and a 2cy Yellow-legged Gull were off Princess Alice Way, Thamesmead – the latter a bird I've seen here before – and a ringed 2cy Common Gull came to the offerings at King Henry's Wharf, Woolwich. White 'JC973' is Norwegian, having been ringed on as a chick on an island on the outskirts of Oslo, and was seen as a first-winter in February just a mile or so away at Thames Barrier Park by young Dante. It was then in The Netherlands in April.
Final stop was just upriver of the Thames Barrier by the Anchor & Hope pub. A 2cy Yellow-legged Gull put in a brief appearance but, once again, there was no Casp – bear in mind that this site sits directly opposite Thames Barrier Park, it's amazing to think none the East London gullers have seen one here yet, despite small numbers of large gulls present on every visit. Nonetheless, an adult Sandwich Tern heading upriver here at 13:04 was a real bonus and a great end to a surprisingly decent day of London birding.
The August bank holiday weekend coincided with some excellent, 'drifty' weather. With the forecast looking good for some early-autumn migration several days in advance, I planned a couple of visits to the White Cliffs/Langdon Hole area – alone on the Saturday and with Rich Bonser on the Monday.
Happily the promised conditions held true and, although it was roasting hot on both visits, migration was very much in evidence and each venture proved rewarding, with two very enjoyable mornings of birding. Pied Flycatcher was, as it was across many areas, the species of the weekend, with my Saturday visit producing five and, on Monday, an impressive seven.
Bird of the weekend, though, was a pristine young Red-backed Shrike which we found early on the Monday morning. There's a really picturesque valley just north (ie inland) of Fox Hill Down, itself above the White Cliffs car park, that is dotted with hawthorn bushes, fence lines and weedy areas, and it looks excellent for migrants. I've always fancied it for a shrike, but didn't expect one on only my fifth visit to this area. First noted perched atop a bush on the far side of the valley, right at the limits for my binoculars, I could only make out a shape and assumed it might be a Northern Wheatear sitting up to take in the first rays of the morning sun. Then it sallied, quite unlike a wheatear, and a shrike seemed the most logical conclusion ... something backed up when Rich arrived with his camera, took a record shot and zoomed in (my camera screen is still well and truly broken).
Eventually we managed considerably closer views, watching this superb bird happily feeding some 15 metres away and staying loyal to the single, isolated hawthorn. Later in the morning, by which point it had attracted a small twitch, it had moved a bit further up the valley, but still remained distant from the roadside.
We were also fortunate to be underneath a couple of Dotterel that moved eastwards and out to sea over Langdon mid-morning on 26th, with Rich hearing the call and me picking up the birds in flight simultaneously. A couple had been seen in fields the previous day but soon headed off and we presume this two to have been a different pair, given that this is a traditional exit point for the species toward staging sites on the near continent and that they seemed to go straight through and out to sea towards France.
A good selection of warblers included both Common and Lesser Whitethroats in pleasing numbers. The latter especially is a great bird in autumn, with the fresh, silvery plumage always making them look rarer than they actually are! Overhead, small numbers of Yellow Wagtails were passing on both visits, with a couple of Tree Pipits also noted on the Monday. Overall, it made for a great couple of days of early-autumn birding.
Things had quietened down somewhat by the following weekend in the Langdon Cliffs environs, with the number of migrants noticeably down. Nonetheless, a few Whinchats were seen, both in the Hole and from Reach Road, as well as one or two Common Redstarts and a Pied Flycatcher.
As an aside, it was nice to find both a single flying adult and plenty of eggs of Long-tailed Blue on the Kent coast over the bank holiday weekend. Location details unfortunately cannot be revealed due to the sensitive nature of the site.
It's no word of a lie to say that this weekend's gulling exceeded all expectations. Having seen the first juvenile Caspian Gull of the year in London the previous Sunday, I had high hopes that we might snare another this time out. Dante, who is off to North Ronaldsay next week, was keen to get a final gull fix before heading north, so we made plans to give the gulls a good grilling on both Saturday and Sunday, taking in Rainham while the tip was still working on Saturday morning before moving round to Erith for the afternoon high tide, and then focusing on the latter again on Sunday. What neither of us expected was that we'd end up with a half-dozen of juvenile Casps, plus a few others of older ages ...
The weather was both bright and warm on arrival at Rainham at 8 am, yet despite the sometimes tricky conditions we managed four Caspian Gulls – a fine adult, which was only seen mid-river, a couple of third-calendar-year birds and, lastly, a big juvenile, which drifted off upriver on the incoming tide, tantalisingly right past Erith Pier ... which made me quite restless, much to Dante's annoyance (I think he'd have happily sat at Rainham all day). At that point, little did either of us know that we'd be seeing the same bird at considerably closer range later that afternoon! At least 80 Yellow-legged Gulls were tallied; most were juveniles, with adults the second-commonest age class (as you'd expect). Otherwise, the birding was quiet, with a migrant group of three Ringed Plovers and a Dunlin arriving high from the north just about the only other noteworthy sighting.
I'll cut to the chase without further ado. An hour on from leaving Rainham, some time after 2 pm, of our first offerings were dispatched into the Thames off Erith Pier and within seconds both Dante and I heard the classic hoarse call of a close Caspian Gull – we were thrilled to see that a strikingly big and pale juvenile had come straight in! It quickly became clear that it was the bird we'd seen distantly from the Rainham side a while earlier and it went on to spend much of the next few hours around the pier, occasionally making forays off downriver, but seemingly always returning. I have to say at the time that I felt it to be one of the better juvenile Casps I've seen and I would stick to that notion having reviewed the images. Richard Smith joined us while it was on show and needless to say he was thrilled to be able to walk up and start blasting off images of a Casp at point-blank range.
We were made up with with one, so it was a pleasant surprise to double the tally a short while before packing up. Initially assumed to be the same bird as it came in from downriver, calling as it did so, 'juvenile two' then banked and revealed a clearly different tail pattern, being more barred than the first and being swarthier overall, with darker underparts. Furthermore, seeing it at rest revealed virtually no scapular moult and more extensive pale fringing to the upperwing coverts and tertials, perhaps suggesting some Herring ancestry. Nonetheless it was a real beast structurally, as good as the previous bird, and looked good in flight. It looks nice in Richard's much better selection of images, which you can see here.
With some 5-600 large gulls present around the pier, plus the ever-present Yellow-legged Gulls numbering up to 30, most of which were juveniles, it was an excellent and memorable session to end what had been a productive Saturday – five different Caspian and in excess of 100 Yellow-legged Gulls is a result never to be sniffed at.
Rich B arrived back from a family holiday in Portugal on Saturday evening and was champing at the bit to give Erith a go at high tide on Sunday. Needless to say, Dante and I were up for it and we all met up on the pier at midday. Once again, a juvenile Caspian appeared almost right away: one of the first birds that Rich clocked after chucking a slice of bread into the Thames was a rather stunning and slender female, with textbook structure and plumage. As I wrote here last week, juvenile gulls can be genuinely challenging in many instances, but sometimes they're refreshingly obvious – and this was definitely a case of the latter. Although initially proving a bit reluctant to show well, it stuck around all afternoon and eventually performed brilliantly to the gathered 'crowd' of seven.
A second, much larger bird joined the melee mid-afternoon, proving particularly aggressive and vocal and surely a male on size. Initially I thought it was going to be the first bird from the previous day but, when it settled, it was quite obviously different, being much more advanced in terms of scapular moult and having more extensive pale patterning in the coverts and tertials, as well as a larger inner primary window. As I was lying down on the jetty trying to photograph the original Casp at the time, I didn't do too well for photos, but the below nonetheless give a decent feel for it.
As we were watching this bird, a third juvenile arrived to the party. We all felt that this was the least impressive of the three, although its gingery basal colour was both striking and attractive. It also had the muckiest underwing and was quite small and placid compared to the previous individual – on size and structure, we assume another female. It was also the only of the three to pose at close range on the jetty ...
With excitement tailing off a little at Erith by late afternoon despite the continued presence of up to 30 Yellow-legged Gulls, Rich, Dante and I made the executive decision to head back in towards Central London. Rich is the most dedicated of us to a series of 'lesser' sites along the Thames, where lobbing out the odd bit of bread usually brings in a handful of gulls including regular Yellow-legged and – occasionally – a Caspian. He suggested a stop at King Henry's Wharf, one of said sites (in Woolwich), which quickly produced three juvenile Yellow-leggeds and then, amazingly, a juvenile Caspian came in calling; our fourth of the day! By this point the light had gone very dull and the bird probably looks darker in the following photos than it would have done had it been at Erith earlier in the day, but it was definitely a swarthier bird – albeit nonetheless looking fine for a fresh juvenile Casp. A great way to end a fantastic weekend of late summer gulling.
I've been championing Erith Pier for some time now as the potential spot for good looks at a juvenile Caspian Gull this summer and it was great to for the prediction to ring true this weekend. The pier is a productive site, jutting out into the Thames Estuary opposite Rainham landfill site and attracting plenty of gulls, particularly on Saturday afternoons and Sundays when the tip is closed.
I hadn't been at Erith long on the morning of Sunday 28th when I picked up an interesting bird settled on the water. While not a 'classic' the bird evidently showed several Caspian Gull features, looking large and long necked when settled on the water. A couple of slices of bread soon got the bird in the air, revealing a nice, pale underwing and, typically for a Casp, it was vocal and aggressive, giving the distinctive harsh call of the species.
While the bill (quite heavy and stubby looking) and extensively fringed pale greater coverts (and perhaps scapulars too) have attracted criticism from some quarters, I can't personally see anything other than a Caspian Gull here and, actually, when you take into account a bit of moult and wear, I think this bird will look really quite decent. While cachinnans averages a long and slimmer-looking bill than both Yellow-legged and Herring Gulls, this feature is quite variable and birds like this pop up more regularly than most would think (see this one I photographed last year in Norfolk, for example). Of course, there's no way of knowing for sure if this bird has Herring Gull genes in its ancestry, but the vast majority of features range from 'acceptable' to 'good' for a cachinnans and I don't see any reason to label it a hybrid.
Others have asked why this isn't a Yellow-legged Gull. Perhaps the first thing to look at is the head. It's small and rounded, not robust and angular like a michahellis. Facial expression is also important here: it's open-faced, lacking the 'evil' look of a Yellow-legged that is accentuated by the eye mask. I also find the white eyelids of Caspian are much more prominent (although these obviously aren't easy to see once they become white headed) and give the face a distinct look. Bill structure is also slightly different. Yellow-legged has a more angular and 'pointy' bill, often appearing quite bulbous towards the tip. The wing coverts and tertials of Yellow-legged are generally very sharply fringed with pale and uniform on the interior, with very strong notching on the inner coverts (though this can vary, with some having almost none at all). This bird's diffuse markings on the inner greaters is much more Caspian-like. Tail band varies, but less tapering towards the outer tail feathers is better suited to Caspian. Underwing is also variable, with some Yellow-legged being very pale (although this clearly favouring Caspian). Most significant, though, is the call – Caspian sounds very different to Yellow-legged. I posted a photo on Twitter of this bird perched next to a Yellow-legged Gull to illustrate what a different beast it was; you can see that here.
When it comes to juvenile gulls, I think it's best not to over-analyse whether a single feature is acceptable or not. The more and more you look at these birds, the clearer it is that individual aspects of a bird's plumage (especially) and structure are extremely variable and routinely overlap. Judging holistically, assessing behaviour, taking into account what you see and hear is so much more valuable than concluding from a single photo.
Seven years ago, Rich Bonser and I saw a yellow-ringed juvenile Yellow-legged Gull at Rainham Tip. That bird came from a rooftop colony in Frankfurt (a bit more about it here) and, until this weekend, it was the only ringed individual of the species that I've seen in Britain.
So it was interesting that seven years on, almost to the day, a ringed juvenile Yellow-legged at Erith Pier proved to be German. This time the bird was wearing a red band marked '92T' (rather than the usual yellow of German birds), signalling that it emanated from a different area to our usual flow of Caspian and Herring hybrids that we tend to see from early autumn onward.
The bird showed a few interesting features, not least the pale underwing and a harsh call, reminiscent of Caspian Gull (but probably not as harsh as that species), although otherwise looked like a Yellow-legged. Nonetheless, knowing that it was likely from south Germany, the possibility of mixed heritage always looms large and I was keen to find out more.
A bit of research and rapid responses from Martin Boschert and Kirsten Krätzel established that the bird had been ringed as a nestling on 18 May 2019 at a colony on an island in the Danube River near Straubing, Bavaria, in south-east Germany. This colony is almost exclusively Yellow-legged Gulls, although the odd pair of Caspian Gull has nested since 2016 and some single adult Caspian (and apparent hybrids) are present in the breeding seaon. However, no hybrid pair has yet been recorded at the colony, so it's fairly safe to assume that this is a pure Yellow-legged Gull.
The bird was present on both Saturday and Sunday over the weekend among good numbers of Yellow-legged Gulls – Rich and I managed at least 45 between us from the pier on Sunday.
I visited Homefield Wood and Hartslock with my mum on the morning of 27 May. There were plenty of Military Orchids flowering at the former, although they were smaller and weedier than I recall them being in the past – as with the Kent Lady Orchids, presumably a result of the dry conditions in the run up to this spring.
From past visits I always remembered a few impressive spikes of Greater Butterfly Orchid, so it was disappointing to see that one of the plants I've seen in previous years also looked quite feeble. However, close-up images of the flowers made for an interesting subject with the early-morning dew.
However, the Fly Orchids put on a fine show, with some impressively robust specimens in the meadows. Also plenty of small White Helleborines in the shaded beech woodland.
Nearby Hartslock was enjoyable. A few White Helleborines were in the wood, while the swarm of Monkey x Lady hybrids were just past their peak. A handful of Monkey Orchids were looking nice, albeit tiny when compared to their progeny.
My mum's newly reignited interest in UK orchids meant that we'd pencilled in a trip around Kent's top sites in mid-May, with several target species in mind. She got plenty of ticks during a great day on Saturday 18th, while for me it was a nice opportunity to see various species that I'd not seen for anything between three and five years.
Our first stop, early in the morning, was Marden Meadow – a new site for me. It didn't disappoint, with a spectacular showing of thousands of Green-winged Orchids, including a few paler examples among the predominately dark-purple carpet.
Having had our fill at Marden, we headed down to the south coast at Samphire Hoe. While it was getting late for Early Spider Orchids, I hoped that we might still find a few in flower – and so it proved. Although the vast majority were long dead, a few flowers remained and we found a handful still in relatively respectable condition. I've only visited this site once before, again in mid-May, so I'm yet to see the Early Spiders here in all their glory. On the bird front, a Ring Ouzel chakking from the undercliff was a slight surprise, but migrants were otherwise non-existent.
I had confidently predicted that it was "too early" for the nearby Late Spider Orchids at Folkestone to be flowering, yet we decided to call in anyway. The spot has changed since I was last there a few years back, with electric fences now erected to protect the small and sensitive colony of Late Spiders from trampling – they are, after all, situated right next to a busy footpath. It was ironic, then, that the only obvious spike was happily flowering outside the fence, perfectly positioned for photos! An unexpected bonus, especially for mum, who'd not seen the species before, and an indication that we were on to clear up on all possible targets. Also here were several small Man Orchids.
It was then on to Yockletts Bank, a pretty little reserve on the Kent Downs that supports good numbers of Lady and Fly Orchids, as well as plenty of Common Twayblade and various other species in small numbers. The Ladies duly obliged, with several large specimens on show.
But it was an unusual form that stole the show. It took some finding, but the ochroleuca Fly Orchid was stunning. As I understand it, this form is only known from a handful of sites in the country.
After a spot of lunch, we headed for two nearby sites. Unfortunately the Monkey Orchids at Park Gate Down were only just coming out (although there were many more spikes than I remember seeing on my previous visit) so didn't look particularly great, but there were some nice Early Purples on show. The Lady Orchids at Bonsai Bank weren't in particularly fantastic fettle, with the dry spring presumably to blame for the relatively small size of most of the plants. However, good numbers of Duke of Burgundy butterflies were a joy to watch, with the pugnacious males taking on anything and everything that had the audacity to wander into their territories.
In fact, if an image could sum up gung-ho toughness of the species, it's probably that below. Despite a predator attack having left him with half his wings, this feisty chap wasn't letting his disadvantage get the better of him. He had no problems flying and was even resolutely defending his territory against other wanderers ... fair play!
The past couple of days has seen a reasonable (if not spectacular) movement of Arctic Terns through the Midlands – the first decent passage of the year of the species, which is always eagerly awaited by inland patchers every late April and early May. With murky conditions dominating throughout Friday and small flocks popping up elsewhere in Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire, it felt like was very much on the cards for Baston & Langtoft Pits as the day progressed.
I had a quick check at lunch but no terns were present, so I headed on to Willow Tree Fen, the excellent LWT reserve towards Spalding. It was cold, windy and started to drizzle as I grilled the scrape there, which held nothing but the usual breeding waders, so I decided to head back home. A quick look at BLGP Wader Pit on the way back revealed the welcome sight of four Arctic Terns battling the breeze among several Common Terns – what a difference half an hour can make at peak migration season.
Arctic Tern is a species that I never used to see at BLGP anywhere near as regularly as I probably should have when I watched the site regularly in my teens, given that they must pass through each year. Sure, I used to get the odd one or two, but it was rare for them to linger, and it's testament to the open expanse of Wader Pit and the feeding opportunities that it provides that they now seem to be more of a fixture here, along with Little Gulls, Black Terns and other aerial feeders.
I sat by the edge of the pit and enjoyed brilliant views of the Arctics as they fed along the pit margins, alongside large numbers of hirundines (mainly Sand Martins and Swallows) and several Common Terns. Apparently another five or six Arctics dropped in after I left mid-afternoon, but quickly departed north again. And, on returning after work in the evening, I was treated to two further Arctic Terns dropping in and circling Wader Pit for a couple of minutes before continuing off to the north.
Watching the Arctics feeding alongside the local Common Terns was a great way to reacquaint myself with the subtle differences between the two taxa. Common Tern is an elegant bird, but Arctic Terns somehow manage to make them look mildly cumbersome. Arctics are so buoyant and delicate, with the longer tail streamers exacerbating their gracefulness. Then there are plumage and other structural differences, including the shorter neck, shorter, deeper red bill (with either no or minimal black dip), darker, more uniform grey below, shorter legs and translucent underwing extending to the outer primaries. A couple of comparisons below.
It's fascinating to let your mind wander and think about where these birds, arguably the greatest travellers of all living creatures, have come from, and indeed where they might be going. Their annual movements are nothing short of epic (see here) and it's remarkable to think these terns may still have hundreds, if not thousands, of kilometres left to complete before they reach their breeding grounds. Just imagine what they will have witnessed on their travels across the world's oceans! Superlatives are often banded about too freely in life, birding included, but Arctic Terns are worthy of all the praise they get – and plenty more besides.
It's taken me an embarrassingly long time to get this sorted and added to the Photography section of my website, but a photo album for my India trip in January of this year is now online. To view, click here or alternatively on the Indian Courser below ...