With our office upping sticks and relocating to 'work from home' mode, I left London on 18th and headed back to Lincolnshire. At the time I was thinking that it might just be for a few weeks or so ... how wrong I was.
Prior to lockdown coming in to force on 24 March, I was able to get out and do a bit of birding locally, although weather was generally clear and cold, with an at-times biting north-easterly airflow.
This wasn't exactly optimal for an early rush of migrants, which was a shame after mid-March's big push of Northern Wheatears. That said, there was a fantastic movement of Whooper Swans on 19-20th. This seemed particularly pronounced on the latter date, when I had 233 in six flocks move over Baston & Langtoft Pits (BLGP) in two short sessions, one in the morning and one in the evening. Imagine how many must've moved during the entire day! In the darkness later that evening, some time after 10.30 pm, we had a big flock fly low over the house, audible even inside.
Wildfowl was pretty much the main order of the day(s); late March is a very dynamic time for ducks especially and it was interesting to watch how numbers varied as the days passed. By the end of the month the last Goosanders had departed from local spots, particularly Deeping High Bank but also various pits.
Highlight of the pre-lockdown period, though, was a stunning juvenile Rough-legged Buzzard between Deeping St Nicholas and Deeping High Bank, first found by Jake Williams on the evening of 19th. He watched it gradually moving north-east until it was lost from view, and we all feared it was a migrant that'd never be seen again. But the chilly north-easterly was at least good for something, and that was keeping the buzzard in the area for at least a few days. Mike Weedon and I had some great views on the morning of 20th of this wide-ranging bird. A really pale individual, the head looked almost white at distance, especially when it was sat against the dark of the many tilled fields.
I had one check of the Peterborough gulls on 21st, although it was a bright and blustery day. As usual when conditions are so, the birds were nervy and restless, rarely settling and not really allowing the option for scrutiny.
Probably the best bird I saw at BLGP prior to lockdown was a male Bar-tailed Godwit at lunchtime on 21st. This was all a bit random, being the first March record I'd had at the pits and dropping in on a sunny day. It had gone by mid-afternoon. The bird was just beginning to colour up, with a reasonable amount of brick-red flecking appearing on the breast and belly.
The evening of 22nd was productive, with a female Ruff bearing a lime-coloured leg flag (identifying it as a Norwegian bird; alas I couldn't get close enough to read the lettering) and a winter-plumaged Water Pipit at Wader Pit (alas now not much of a pit for waders, with very high water levels after the winter rains), plus a migrating Short-eared Owl moving at considerable height to the north.
Then, on 23rd – the final day of 'freedom', if you like – I headed to Willow Tree Fen for dawn, with Garganey in mind. It was a stunningly crisp and clear morning, with gorgeous golden light illuminating the scrape. Very satisfying it was, too, to locate a pristine drake Garganey asleep among the mass of Teal and Wigeon. This has always been one of my favourite species, and every encounter is something to be cherished. However, frostbite was soon getting the better of my fingers, so I left fairly quickly – but not before a half-dozen Whooper Swans had moved through and a Eurasian Curlew flew overhead calling.
And then came lockdown ... naturally, birding becomes a luxury at such times and I am blessed that my short daily route can take in at least some of BLGP. So, I'm fortunate that spring is far from totally written off, even if it won't be as bird-filled as it might have been if I'd been able to get out around the Peterborough area during April and May. Any highlights from the short forays that the situation allows will appear here in due course.
Back in western Ireland
I re-visited the west coast Ireland from 13-15 March, this time heading north to Sligo and Donegal, before continuing back south to Kerry for the final day.
One bird I was really keen to see was the American Herring Gull at Sligo Harbour, found by Séamus Feeney while we were over in late February. It was actually a bit of a pain, with several visits to the harbour area throughout my first morning producing only a five-minute showing before it disappeared once more. That said, the bird was every bit as impressive as it had appeared in Séamus' photos. It was big, bulky and dark, with amazing detail in the rump, tail and upperwing. Not pretty, but spectacular nonetheless.
While I was waiting for the smiths to put in a performance, I paid a couple of brief visits to Doorly Park, on the other side of Sligo Town, where the regular adult Ring-billed Gull kept me entertained. It was a nice bonus to come across a second bird, also an adult but clearly different on head moult alone, back at the port while searching for the AHG. The decline in the species has been stark over the past five years especially, as I recently bemoaned in the February trip blog, so finding one anywhere in Europe now makes for a good day.
Leaving Sligo at lunchtime, I birded up the coast to Killybegs and saw next to nothing of interest. So, it was a relief to quickly find a couple of Iceland Gulls and a Glaucous Gull at the head of the tidal estuary on the approach road into the famous fishing town. I was starting to become a little worried that it was going to be a quiet visit prior to this, so was pleased to find the port full of trawlers and plenty of gulls about. Numbers were in to the low thousands, the vast majority being Herring Gulls. Given the dreadful winter for both white-wingers, a total of seven Iceland and three Glaucous Gulls by dusk was probably not a bad result in the end.
Despite its obvious track record and continued potential, I have to admit that I find Killybegs quite a frustrating site to work. Views are often not great: birds are mobile, often distant, and have a habit of disappearing. They're often skittish, especially in the inner harbour. If there are lots of boats in, as on this visit, viewing is quite difficult and restricted. If only you could still get in the port compound itself, where there's loads of free quay space and lobbing bread out would no doubt quickly concentrate lots of birds and views would be so much better.
I gave the area another go the following morning, but it was clear that several trawlers had left, taking a good proportion of the birds present yesterday with them. Just two apiece of Glaucous and Iceland Gulls had revealed themselves by mid-morning, so I got back on the road south. Calling in at Sligo again, the weather had deteriorated significantly and it was now dull and windy, with squally showers. Nonetheless the American Herring Gull put in a much better performance than the previous day, this time almost exclusively on the ground.
I then headed over to the Mayo coast and worked Achill Island and the south Mayo loughs until dark. It was really rather quiet everywhere; not a single winger to be found, and my efforts were saved by the continuing presence of the Green-winged Teal at Keel and Lesser Scaup on Lough Doo, both of which were additions to my non-existent Achill list. Otherwise, it was a female Greater Scaup at Lough Baun, west of Louisburgh, that represented the next-most significant bird. The sight of a massive female Peregrine finishing off a freshly caught adult Lesser Black-backed Gull was impressive, if sobering. And at least the sunset was nice.
I drove down to Kerry during the evening, arriving in Tralee a short while before 11 pm. The next morning I started at Dingle Harbour, where a subtle adult Kumlien's Gull was among the good numbers of Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls in the harbour itself. The demarcated grey was most apparent in p10 and could be seen in the field at times, but was also obvious in photos on p9 and, in the close-ups, a tiny bit was on the outer web of p8, too. Nearby Milltown produced a couple of juvenile Iceland Gulls. Unfortunately, the rest of the peninsula was a bit quiet.
Having dipped it in February, I was keen to see the adult Kumlien's Gull at Tralee, so retraced my steps back there for late morning. I saw it a couple of times, but generally overhead as it hung in the wind; it never seemed interested in coming down for the loaves. A bit more contentious was a near-adult Iceland-type here. It had been around a few days but seemed to show faintly darker outer webs to p9-10 in most photos (although not all), with an apparent darker leading edge to p10. In addition, the upper-part tone was perhaps a bit darker than typical Iceland (accounting for the bright sun at the time). On this basis it's a Kumlien's too, admittedly a pretty crap one, but it feels like it falls in a bit of a grey area and perhaps I'm looking too hard and some of these things are photo artefacts.
I spent the early afternoon covering the prime gulling sites on the Iveragh Peninsula. There were good numbers of birds at both Reenard Point and, especially, Portmagee. The regular adult Iceland was still at Reenard but, despite perhaps 400 birds present around Portmagee, no white-wingers were to be found.
Castletownbere in Cork was the next port of call, where I bumped into Fionn Moore, but the American Herring Gull appeared to have gone – two Iceland Gulls floating about there, though. A couple of Med Gulls in Bantry Creek were the best in that immediate area, but Baltimore was deathly quiet on Sunday evening. And that concluded another entertaining – if not spectacular – few days out west.
There are, as always, plenty more photos of the star birds in the photography section of my website.
March is as good a time as any to be out checking London's gulls for unusual visitors. There's always plenty of turnover at the numerous sites we keep an eye on, but especially so at this time of year as birds are very much on the move. As such, it can be particularly hit and miss along the Thames.
Rich, Dante and I met up at Greenhaven Drive, Thamesmead, on Saturday morning and after an hour's bread chucking got the feeling that, in the mild and spring-like conditions, that it wasn't going to be a 'hit' day. Aside the usual posse of Yellow-legged Gulls – 12 in total here throughout Saturday – there didn't seem to be all that much doing, so we decided to relocate to Erith Pier.
Erith is another site that suffers from patchy form in the winter months – those glory days of late summer 2019, when the surrounding river was swamped with Yellow-legged Gulls and it proved such a reliable bastion for close Casps, seemed a long time ago. Despite plenty of birds about, we'd seen nothing after the best part of an hour and so it was a bit of a surprise when Dante authoritatively announced: "Iceland in the melee!"
A small bird, this dainty, dove-like glaucoides is a very similar but nonetheless different juvenile to that seen at Thamesmead earlier in the year (which was also found by Dante at Erith). It had been at Rainham on a couple of days in the week, so it wasn't hugely surprising to see it come in and chow down on the sliced wholemeal. Naturally, views were decent, if a bit frustrating for photos, and it even had the decency to pose on the famous jetty for a short period.
Buoyed by this, it was back to Greenhaven Drive for high tide. As is normal, it took a while to concentrate birds and it was only after a half-hour or so, just after Rich left us for afternoon family duties, that the first Caspian Gull came in. A first-winter with strongly marked scaps and distinctive covert moult, I quickly recognised it as a bird I'd seen on Rainham tip on 28 January but not since.
A short while later a second arrived, a year older this time. Quite crisp and pallid in appearance, it only had the faintest residual markings on p10 but otherwise looked pretty nice.
Final stop of the day was Jolly Farmers at Crayford, which has been more miss than hit this winter. However, among the big numbers of gulls present (perhaps the most we've seen here this winter), two different second-winter Caspian Gulls were found, including the returning P:895 – the first time I've seen it since at Rainham in early December.
After the success of Saturday, hopes were high for Sunday. And it really felt like Greenhaven was going to come into its own at any moment, with more large gulls there than any of us had seen previously. But, despite lots of turnover and hundreds of Herrings, we could only muster a handful of Yellow-legged Gulls. Such is the fickle nature of London gulling.
In fact it was just as we were packing up that bird of the day appeared, a near-pristine adult Mediterranean Gull. This superb bird transpired to be sporting colour rings (as this species so often is!) and the red ring had us excited – ZHJ9 was a Czech bird! This is the first Czech Med Gull that any of us have seen, and the data indicates that it was ringed as a chick at the nest near Šenov, in the far east of the country, on 8 June 2017. So, a young adult only in its third winter, and the final of nine gull species seen over the weekend. Not bad at all, and a good advertisement for March gulling in the capital.
Ireland, February 2020
It had been a number of years since I'd done any winter birding in Ireland, so it was with anticipation that I headed over to Cork and Kerry for a couple of days at the end of February – along with Dante Shepherd, for whom it was a first trip to Ireland.
All in all it proved a decent trip, with a good selection of gulls in addition to a couple of Ring-necked Duck, the Pacific Diver at Crookhaven, some fantastic Badger views and, of course, the superb Irish scenery and hospitality. The arrival of Storm Jorge on Saturday more or less wiped out that afternoon for birding; it was hard enough to stand up at times, let alone raise the binoculars.
The visit had partly inspired by the appearance of a couple of American Herring Gulls, one in Cork and and the other in Devon, which suggested that the incessant storms of recent weeks had produced a small arrival of the species – as one of those on my 'most wanted' list of finds, it seemed a good option to get in the mix out west and see what happened.
Alas there was no quality find, but the Castletownbere American Herring Gull, found by Fionn Moore back at the beginning of February, showed about as well as it could have done. A few photos can be seen below, but plenty more can be found in the Photography section of this website.
This largely mild winter has proven another poor one for white-winged gulls, so our tally of 13 birds wasn't all that shabby considering the overall lack of either species in most areas. Glaucous Gull was the more numerous, with eight seen compared to just five Iceland Gulls. Both are always good value and throwing bread produced good views of almost every individual seen, even those on some of the more remote beaches. Needless to say, there were some fantastic photo opportunities and I think Dante was pretty blown away by how co-operative they are out here, particularly when compared to the distant views usually endured at Rainham Tip.
One thing that has changed very rapidly in the time that I've been birding is the number of Ring-billed Gulls around. Even on some of my trips in the early 2010s, 'Ringers' could be relied on at multiple sites along the west coast of Ireland, often in their multiples and usually involving birds of all ages. For a younger birder like Dante, what was once reality for us elders now seems like utter fantasy. We just about scraped a single adult out of the trip – the regular individual at Tralee – despite intensively covering just about every notable gull site between Clonakilty and Limerick via Dingle. Even a decade ago, you could have expected close to 10 birds on this same stretch of coast (click here for more on the changing status of Ring-billed Gull in Europe). These Irish trips just aren't the same now that these charming North American visitors are less conspicuous.
Despite not being the most vintage of Irish trips, and being somewhat brief in its nature, it was a nice reminder of how enjoyable winter birding out west can be, even in an 'average' year. No doubt Dante will be back again, too ...
Lots more photos from the trip can be found at joshrjones.smugmug.com/Birds/British-and-irish-birding/2020/.
The musings of a wildlife enthusiast, usually armed with his camera.