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 ...
I spent a relaxing Easter weekend back in Lincolnshire, where the glorious weather meant it was very much a period to be outdoors. After a procession of chilly north-easterlies for much of the first half of the month, the weekend felt positively sweltering and much more like June than mid-April.
Despite the wall-to-wall sunshine the birding transpired to be excellent, with migration hotting up on both the passerine and non-passerine front. An indicator of how things were to be came instantly on arrival back at Baston & Langtoft Pits mid-afternoon on Good Friday, where Will Bowell had seven immaculate Little Gulls waiting for me on the Wader Pit as I set up my 'scope. It's been another great April for the species, thanks largely to the prevailing winds, and they are never to be sniffed at.
The following morning I was out early for the first of two sessions at BLGP. While nothing exceptional was recorded, I was pleased with a total of 80 species (eBird list here). A group of five Northern Wheatears in excellent habitat that I'd never previously seen the species in was the highlight. In fact, I ended up spending well over an hour crawling around trying to photograph them, getting soaked by the morning dew in the process. Otherwise, it was just nice to see and hear common summer migrants; a male Peregrine and a female Goldeneye were probably the other stand-out birds.
Mid-morning produced a message from Vin Fleming about a male Whinchat on Thurlby Fen, so I headed round there and quickly found the bird favouring a sparse hedgerow north of the small reserve. It was a bit nervous, as they often are, but eventually I managed to sneak within range by crawling about 15 metres along the edge of a ditch. What a bird.
I spent the afternoon checking various pasture fields, paddocks and meadows for Ring Ouzels, but alas couldn't find any. However, the Cattle Egret was noted at Deeping Lakes and, later on, a Tree Pipit heard several times and seen in flight at Bainton Gravel Pits was a really nice Peterborough record (I think only the second I've ever had locally). A surprise to say the least. Also in this wider area was an even more uplifting sign: two singing Turtle Doves, the first I've seen for a few years now. I decided to sit and watch them, purring away to each other, with a pang of sadness thinking about how much commoner these were even in the early 2000s, when I got keen on birding. I used to have double figures singing at BLGP but they've all gone from there now; the last failed to return in the early 2010s.
On Sunday morning I hit BLGP again and it was immediately apparent how warbler numbers had increased overnight. Among these I was thrilled to come across a reeling Grasshopper Warbler, which I think is my first at the site since about 2004/5. It was sitting out in full view at first, but as soon as I got out the car and crossed the road it clocked me and became much more elusive (though continued to sing). Again, another species I don't see enough of these days living in London and it was great to spend half an hour appreciating it.
Quite surprisingly, the quintet of Northern Wheatears was again present and it seemed rude not to point the camera at them for at least a bit of time in the morning sun.
After a fairly relaxed day I headed out looking for ouzels again late afternoon. I decided to go and check some paddocks on Woodcroft Road, north of Marholm, which I'd always thought looked good for ouzels, redstarts and other migrants. The first had about 20 Fieldfares and a single Redwing in, the second nothing and the third looked bare too ... until a harsh chak chak resonated from the horse chestnut to my right and a male Ring Ouzel flew across the gateway in front of me. It was the most pumped I'd felt about finding anything for quite a while, even if 'just' an ouzel, but it was a satisfying result given the effort put in over the previous couple of days – and because it was a spot I've always felt should produce the species, even if it never had done previously.
As it transpired there were two male ouzels together in the paddocks there and, to put the icing on the cake, both went on to perform very well indeed over the next hour – in fact giving me my best ever views (and photos) of the species in Britain. A highlight of the spring, for sure.
After a couple of early starts I had planned to have a lie in on Easter Monday, but I awoke shortly after 06:00 to see a message from Hugh Wright about a breeding-plumaged Red-necked Grebe at Deeping Lakes. It was a bird too good to miss out on, so I went down to join Mike and Will and enjoyed nice (if distant) views of the pristine grebe in beautiful light as the sun came up. A bonus came around 07:00, when a Spotted Redshank did a couple of laps of East Pit, dropped down for 10 seconds and then flew off west again.
After breakfast with my mother, I popped down to BLGP for the last time before heading back to London. I could see a few energetic-looking terns over Wader Pit with my naked eye and a look through the bins confirmed my suspicions that they were Black Terns. In total six were present and, as I watched them hawking over the water, Little Gulls suddenly began to appear around them. Numbers of the latter continued to build to 21 by the time I left, easily the highest number I've seen here. Watching two of my favourite species hawking in the warm April sunshine was the perfect way to round off a terrific Easter weekend.
Ask any inland patch birder what their favourite month is and the majority will say April. Growing up watching gravel pits in south Lincolnshire, I always felt that the period from 25 March through to around 15 May was most productive, with the best weeks undeniably coming in the latter half of April and the first days of May.
Thus the arrival of April (and my acquisition of a new bike) was bound to stir my birding juices and finally, on Sunday, I visited Walthamstow Wetlands for the first time, despite having lived within a couple of miles of the site for the best part of a year. While there wasn't exactly much happening, aside the drake Greater Scaup performing well on No.4 Res, I was impressed by the site, both for its size and diversity of habitats. And actually, it wasn't that busy away from the central path, which is most used by the general public (although no doubt the dreary conditions had an impact on that). I was sold, and vowed to return the following morning.
Unfortunately the weather was awful when I woke on Monday; in fact, the heavy rain showers persisted until 10:00, when it eventually brightened enough to sneak out. I can bike to the wetlands in around 10 minutes and arrived on the east bank at Lockwood Reservoir a short while before 10:30. I quite like the vantage point you have from the east side of Lockwood; plus it's the biggest expanse of water at the Wetlands and thus must look the most attractive to any overflying migrants.
It 'felt' like a good day to be out. Low cloud, occasional rumbles of thunder, odd outbreaks of rain and a mugginess to the air. The first indications of passage came at 10:35, when nine Common Terns spent 10 minutes restlessly pacing up and down the reservoir before continuing off to the north. Not long after this, seven Yellow Wagtails moved through (the first of four groups totalling 15 birds) and the first Meadow Pipits also went overhead. I'm not sure if it's normal here in murky conditions, but the birds seemed to be following the east side of Lockwood northwards and thus my position on the bank actually proved quite a decent 'vis-migging' spot. Hirundines moved through in small groups past me and the biggest flock of Meadow Pipits overhead was 24.
The sight of David Bradshaw making his way towards me was seemingly the catalyst for a memorable few hours of birding. Not long after he'd joined me, he got a call to say that at least a couple of Little Gulls had arrived on West Warwick, so he decided to head down there to see them. A couple of minutes after he left me, I noticed four waders flying north up Lockwood: two each of Dunlin and Ringed Plover. Unfortunately they didn't stick, but while we tried to relocate them at the north end, I looked back south to see that two Little Gulls had dropped in – an adult and a second-summer. Very smart, and exactly the result I been hoping for on such a day.
At around 13:00 the gulls went off high to the north, so I decided to cycle down to the south section of the reserve. The male Northern Wheatear was still present at the north end of East Warwick Reservoir and three Yellow Wagtails flew overhead as David and I convened with Eugene Dillon-Hooper. All three dropped onto the reservoir bank and so we set about enjoying them (all those I'd seen earlier were fly-bys). Much to my surprise, one of them transpired to be a pristine male Blue-headed Wagtail. The day was getting better!
The slow meander towards West Warwick recommenced, but David and I only managed about 50 metres when the local gulls went berserk. A quick glance upwards produced the almost predictable – though nonetheless hugely welcome and satisfying – shape of an Osprey hurriedly tracking north-west at remarkably low altitude, being battered by the LBBGs and HGs. We picked it up late but I managed to rummage for my camera and fire off a few shots which, on subsequent viewing, revealed the bird to be ringed ('PW' on the right leg)! Presumably a Scottish bird, but awaiting details.
The excitement continued when we eventually reached West Warwick, where we were expecting a handful of Little Gulls at best after reports that many had circled up high and departed – but in fact there were no fewer than 25! It was great to sit on the bank and watch them avidly feeding, sitting on the water and even calling to each other – not a sound you hear in Britain often. Hirundines were present in good numbers and a Little Ringed Plover flew over, concluding a truly fine day.
I've been told that it's all downhill from here. Well, it'll probably be a while before it's this good again, but as long as the conditions are decent, you're always in the game.
I had a bit of a shock on Saturday afternoon when a female Bufflehead flew through my scope as I scanned the wader pit at my old patch of Baston & Langtoft Pits. It was a surprise, of that there is no doubt – but the excitement never really built, primarily because it took all of about three seconds to remember the long-staying and wide-ranging escaped female that has toured sites between West Yorkshire and Somerset since it first appeared in summer 2017.
At first the bird was preening its left side and repeatedly holding its (unringed) left leg out the water ... but a text from Northants birding guru Mike Alibone confirmed that I should be paying attention to the other side, as the recent escapee that he'd seen in Northants back in 2017 bore a metal ring on its right leg (more here). The bird started to feed and, on the first dive with the right leg facing in my direction, I was sure I noticed something pale and ring-like – disappointing, but hardly surprising. However, it proved difficult to see subsequently and, on reviewing images of the bird in flight later that afternoon, I couldn't see an obvious ring ... suddenly there appeared to be a glimmer of hope that somehow, just somehow, this was all a massive coincidence and the Baston bird might be wild after all.
One thing not in its favour were the white upperwing coverts, which identified it as an adult female. Had it been a second-calendar-year, I might well have been able to start believing that my luck was in. On returning to the pits with Will Bowell that evening, we managed to see the bird well in flight and several photos clearly depict the metal ring on the hanging right leg as the bird took off from the water. Balls.
So, there you have it. A wary Bufflehead, for a single afternoon, at a seemingly perfect time of year for a vagrant (lots of wildfowl on the move at the moment) ... but wearing a ring, which confirmed it as a bird present in the Midlands for the best part of two years. Oh well.
Other, 'real' birds over the weekend were in relatively short supply, although an adult Mediterranean Gull, a brief Black-tailed Godwit on Sunday afternoon, my first Sand Martins, Swallows and Little Ringed Plovers plus the resident pair of Ravens were all pleasant enough. A few northbound parties of Whooper Swans were also seen, including a group of 15 over my mum's house shortly after sunrise on Monday morning, which was a garden tick.
Lee Fuller and I had been talking daily about a potential twitch ever since the Tengmalm's Owl first turned up on Shetland. With the bird having relocated to Tresta and now showing daily, we headed up with Lee's dad Mick and Ian Wells on Thursday, taking the evening ferry sailing from Aberdeen.
It didn't take too long for Lee and myself to relocate the owl roosting in an evergreen bush on the opposite side of the garden to where it had been favouring in the previous days, largely thanks to the panicked calls of the Blackbirds and Chaffinches that had discovered it, which allowed us to identify the right bush. Initial views were rather obscured, but we were just pleased to have seen it and could now take solace in the fact that we knew where it was for the hoped-for evening showing.
We took a trip around various sites in South Mainland, seeing various bits and pieces including the resident Pied-billed Grebe at Loch of Spiggie, several Long-tailed Ducks at Grutness and two Tundra Bean Geese at Leebitten. This was my first Shetland visit outside of the migration season and it felt a bit strange to be driving past garden after garden with complete disregard! However, the weather was just about as nice as I ever remember enjoying on the isles – conditions were bright and still, complete with the occasional burst of early-spring sunshine, making it a very pleasant day indeed.
With reports of multiple white-winged gulls at the Shetland Catch fish factory in Gremista over the previous weekend, we were keen to give the site a go. Unfortunately, despite offloading six loaves into the waters at the pier there, just two juvenile Iceland Gulls made appearances and neither seemed particularly interested in the wholemeal offerings. It was in fact the Kittiwakes that provided the best larid entertainment. At least the local Black Guillemots were very confiding, albeit not particularly great for photos in the flat light.
Back at the owl and, completely unsurprisingly, we found it sat in the exact same spot. It wasn't until around 17:30 that it became more active, looking around in alert fashion, preening, stretching, and eventually hopping out onto a more exposed perch, where it sat for a few minutes before flying off past us and into the main garden. Cue much celebration among the 30 or so gathered birders, before the crowd began to thin out. As it turned out, most birders walked right past it sat just above head height in a sycamore, right by the access track. I took a couple of record shots, but it just would not look our way, meaning my best Tengmalm's photos showed the back of the bird's head. Excellent.
After a celebratory curry in Lerwick and a welcome night in a bed, we returned to Lea Gardens on the Sunday morning, where a dozen birders were already looking for the owl. It quickly became apparent that a mass frog orgy had broken out across the gardens, with hundreds of vocal adults all over the lawns and flowerbeds, and huge piles of spawn being laid in the pond. Unfortunately there were a few under-foot casualties and the owners' dogs also took to mercilessly removing the heads of some of the hapless amphibians ...
Some time passed before the sound of an alarm-calling Blackbird saw us hone in on a bush, where we figured the owl must be. A few minutes of careful scanning and Lee once again picked it up, extremely obscured, in the middle of the bush. Cue the typical rush from birders yet to connect, excitedly lapping up just about anything they could decipher from amid the foliage. With the bird seemingly very much buried in the bush and fast asleep, we decided to leave the newly arrived birders to it and head off for pastures new.
We headed up to South Nesting Bay, where the White-billed Diver was eventually picked up at extreme distance (its bill was barely visible on a grey day). With the views leaving much to be desired, we headed back south to Lerwick harbour, although the primary excitement there proved to be a very confident Grey Seal that spent time playing 'fetch' with the slices of bread I was throwing out for the gulls. A third-winter Iceland Gull did make a brief appearance.
We made another trip south for the wintering Common Rosefinch at Cunningsburgh, but managed to dip it again (though I can't say I was particularly gutted about this), before returning to Lea Gardens for the fourth and final time. It was a pleasure to talk with owners Rosa and James, who clearly take great pride in their work here and have done a wonderful job in developing the gardens into what they are today. You have to wonder how many rares have been missed in here over the years – the habitat is fantastic. Anyway, back to the owl, and it was a pleasant surprise to find that it had shuffled out into the open and was showing very well indeed, as close as four metres away (if you were in the right position along the path).
By chance, one of the owners' dogs came over to the owl's favoured spot and started rooting around in the flowerbeds below it, generating quite a reaction from the bird. Although completely unphased by humans, this bird takes dogs to be a more serious threat ...
Although the bird wasn't particularly happy about the dog's presence, it's fair to say that the crowd was. The pooch's comings and goings ensured that the owl would regularly stir from its slumber and look down towards the crowd peering back up at it, its look varying from mildly irritated to completely and utterly seething.
Finally, after an entertaining half-hour spell, the dog retreated back to the house and the owl went back to sleep. It remained dozing until around 17:15, when it suddenly woke up and became more active, preening and looking around. A few minutes later it flew out of its roost and, astonishingly, landed on a branch no more than two metres away from the closest birders. It looked around, slightly bleary eyed, before hopping up to another branch and proceeding to preen and stretch more intensively while also keeping an eye on the terrified Blackbirds, which were alarm calling in the vicinity. Here it remained until it got too dark to see.
The above photo is barely cropped and was taken at 135 mm focal length, just to illustrate how close this bird was to the assembled 15 or so birders. An amazingly intimate experience and one that will live long in the memory – and yes, I have to admit that, in contrast to a recent tweet of mine, the owl is most definitely as good as a Caspian Gull. Needless to say it was a high-spirited ferry journey back to Aberdeen that night.
Many thanks to Lee for driving to and from Aberdeen and Ian for organising the logistics on Shetland. Everything went very smoothly and was in good company.
I had the day off today, but ignored the temptation to travel north to Shetland for the Tengmalm's and instead did the usual tour of the regular East London sites.
It was pretty foggy early on and I couldn't even see the river when I arrived at the stone barges car park at Rainham, so headed back west to Creekmouth. Although the fog lingered for much of my visit here, it was fairly mild and around 10 Chiffchaffs were seen, though there wasn't anything among the gulls at the sewage works and outfall.
With the fog starting to clear by mid-morning I headed back to Rainham, where I soon picked up the juvenile Glaucous Gull floating around over the tip. Most of the gulls were going down to bathe on the river by the barges, so I headed up there. Viewing conditions were actually pretty good and it didn't take long for the 3cy Glaucous to put in an appearance, as well as a 2cy Yellow-legged Gull.
By late morning the haze was worsening and the temperature rocketing, so I headed back to the car and round to Erith Pier. Erith seems to be more of a weekend site, although gull numbers do vary with each visit. It was pretty quiet again today on the rising tide, with the six loaves dispatched into the Thames luring in very little. I'm still living in hope that the Bonaparte's might reappear, but it seems pretty unlikely now ... anyway, with nothing on show, it seemed churlish to ignore the fantastic light opportunities and I rattled off a few images of the Herring and Common Gulls drawn to the melee. I also saw the leucistic Herring Gull very distantly on the river towards the stone barges.
After establishing that Erith wasn't on song I made the short journey east to Crossness. A Eurasian Penduline Tit has been seen regularly this week, after initially being found back in November. It was showing on arrival, but was a bit distant for images ... although did eventually come closer, if only for a minute or so, before flying off out of view. It was nice to hear it both calling and (briefly) singing!
With the sun beginning to dip, I turned my attention back to gulls and headed for Princess Alice Way, Thamesmead. The tide was right up, and the customary wholemeal offerings soon brought in the usual handful of gulls. Given how few Herring and Lesser Black-backs are usually here, this spot has had a fantastic strike-rate with Yellow-legged Gull this winter and today's visit produced a new first-winter that I hadn't seen previously.
Where do you draw the line between one species and another? That is so often the burning question when it comes to large white-headed gulls.
Not only does each species tend to show great intraspecific variation in its physical characteristics, but species also routinely hybridise, further clouding the issue and eroding the recognised parameters between defined taxa. Perhaps the most recognisable example of a so-called 'hybrid swarm' among Palearctic gull-watchers is the Iceland-Kumlien's-Thayer's 'spectrum' breeding across Greenland and Arctic Canada. Of course, these are now apparently to be considered as one and the same species, but it was nonetheless a fine example of how a man-made scale, assessed on the basis of quantifying several physical features, was – rightly or wrongly – used to attach a label to any gull in question within the complex.
To some degree, the same 'problem' is rife in Central Europe. In parts of eastern Germany and Poland, and indeed to a lesser extent elsewhere, Caspian Gull has, on its westward march, come into routine contact with European Herring Gull, which itself has spread inland in recent decades. These two species seem to have no qualms about breeding with each other, as the numerous mixed colonies testify, and hybridisation between the two is very well documented through intensive studies by dedicated researchers, including long-standing ringing schemes.
Whether it's a case of increasing observer awareness or a genuine upturn in the frequency and number of hybrid pairs – or, more likely, a mixture of the two – birds exhibiting mixed characteristics seem to be on the increase in Britain. These birds show any number or combination of features of both parents, both in terms of plumage and structure. Perhaps I'm too critical with my Casps these days, but it seems to me that I'm seeing more and more of these 'unimpressive' birds – albeit a longer-term assessment of well-photographed individuals is probably sensible before leaping to surefire conclusions.
This was illustrated pretty well by the weekend's Thames gulling. On Saturday, I had a rather nice-looking first-winter Casp at Princess Alice Way, Thamesmead. It transpired that this bird, with its particularly distinctive look to the face, had been seen by Jamie and Dante at Crayford back on 31 December, but not since (Dante recognised it immediately). OK, no moulted coverts and perhaps a slightly mucky underwing, but plumage otherwise absolutely spot on for a textbook first-winter Casp.
Sunday, however, was enlivened by a couple of troublesome birds, one of which I have subsequently described more than once as a "horror show". It is perhaps no surprise that both bear German rings, to the point that Rich actually said of the first (X21A), "I bet that has a yellow ring on it" before it revealed its legs. Sure enough, it did. In terms of plumage, though, X21A – seen at Erith Pier – was the better of the two. Apart from its well-marked greater coverts, it otherwise looked fine, but structurally lacked Casp qualities in many poses. It was quite vocal, and sounded like a typical Caspian Gull.
However, if you thought X21A was bad ... then allow me introduce you to X90A. From the same colony as the above, this confusing mess of a Larus again sounds like a classic Caspian Gull, with the hoarse call often announced as this bird throws its weight arounds. And, at many angles, looks good for a cachinnans, with its rangy structure and various plumage features looking fine. But just take a look at those greater coverts, the extensive inner primary window, the well-marked tertials, the Herring-like scapulars, the comparatively uniform (and extensively pale-fringed) upperwing, the streaked head, the tail pattern ... suddenly you realise things aren't exactly looking great for a pure Casp. And, when you see it on the deck, it's enough to make you have nightmares.
X90A has been seen a Thamesmead twice and was also noted off Erith Pier in January, so it seems to have taken a liking to the Thames – perhaps we'll get the chance to see it develop in the coming months and years, as it'd be fascinating to see what it ends up looking like as a mature bird.
Sightings from the weekend otherwise included the usual mix of Yellow-legged Gulls, including this cracking adult against a typical Thames background at King Henry's Wharf, Woolwich. You don't see too many adults in winter, so always nice.
I had to pop up to Lincolnshire at the back end of the week, which gave me a small window to get some local birding in. Although I'm sure the cold snap probably helped a bit, I came back to London really enthused by winter birding in the area – it's only when you get back to the murky grey streets of the capital, where gulls are the primary order of the day, that you truly appreciate the wider avian opportunities of the Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire fenlands.
That said, I nonetheless tried the gulls at Tanholt first thing on Friday. Actually it was overwhelmingly disappointing for larids, with large gull numbers low at the landfill site, where there wasn't much tipping activity going on. However the Hooded Crow was showing on arrival, although it dropped out of view before I could get my 'scope on it and it was only about 45 minutes later that it popped back up. Quite a smart bird really.
A quick zip around the Deepings area brought good birds at all sites visited. Deeping Lakes must now be the 'best' (at least most reliable) Long-eared Owl roost in the country, with five birds showing on the island on the main lake during my visit. Subsequently, six have been counted. It's come a long way since these were intermittent visitors to the nearby 'Gulley' area, although we have found nests of the species here in the past.
Deeping High Bank was also alive with birds, with upwards of 30 Goosanders along the Welland itself and a couple of separate flocks of Whooper Swans amassing to around 25 birds. I was happy to find a family of five Bewick's (the three juveniles were particularly pleasing) towards Deeping St Nicholas, while another 'family' (an adult and a juvenile) had arrived by Saturday. Marsh Harriers are also an ever-present fixture over the fields here these days and a Pink-footed Goose was with Mute Swans on the Friday.
My old patch at Baston & Langtoft Pits always has a few birds of interest, and a couple of visits on Friday and SAturday produced an adult Bewick's and up to a dozen Whooper Swans – the former being the first I've seen here since the big freeze in 2009/10. Even better still was a flock of 15 Eurasian White-fronted Geese, which looked pretty epic feeding among the wild swans on the frosted fen.
The new year commenced in very much the same manner in which the previous finished, with gulls providing the staple for winter birding along the Thames in East London. The 3rd produced a couple of Caspian Gulls at Crayford, followed by a couple of first-winter Yellow-legged Gulls off Erith Pier. The obligatory brief stop at Princess Alice Wharf, Thamesmead, produced a further first-winter Yellow-legged, this bird being quite distinctive for the amount of covert moult it had already completed.
Final stop on 3rd was a regulation check of the Caspian Gull at Eagle Pond, Snaresbrook, which had successfully navigating into 2019 and was still specialising in stealing bread off the Black-heads on the pond mid-afternoon. Photo opportunities are always quite limited here - you need to visit on a dull day as the pond faces south, and then the lack of perches mean that either flight shots or photos of it swimming are the order of the day. Having already done it to death over the three times I've seen it this winter, I decided to try something a bit more experimental ...
On 5th I went down to Dungeness with Jamie and Dante. We only arrived in the early afternoon, so headed straight for the fishing boats. On arrival, Richard Smith had a nice second-winter Caspian around his feet. Quite a small and demure bird, it also lacked p10 mirrors, but otherwise was quite striking.
A quick visit to WWT London on the afternoon of 6th produced a 3cy Yellow-legged Gull and a 2cy Herring x Caspian Gull. The latter initially struck me as a Herring with several moulted coverts, but at more than one angle it had a strong whiff of Casp about it, and the underwing was quite pale. Much more tasteful were the two Water Pipits that showed well on the grazing marsh.
Dante S scored hefty totals of 12 and 17 Caspian Gulls at Rainham Tip on Tuesday and Wednesday respectively – both exceptionally high counts for this site, with the latter in fact comfortably beating the previous record single-site count (of 13) from the London area.
With Thursday morning free, I met up with Dante and we headed over to Rainham for 8 am. It was a grey morning with bouts of drizzle and a strong southerly wind that was gusting up to gale force at times for a couple of hours around lunchtime – not exactly optimal for viewing along the exposed riverside footpath towards Coldharbour Point. Nonetheless the Casps soon started flowing with a flyover first-winter quickly followed by three more on the river itself, including a particularly fine bird with moulted coverts and tertials on the rocks by Coldharbour Point lighthouse, pictured below.
The setup is currently pretty good at Rainham. Veolia are currently actively tipping on the river side of the landfill site, which means the birds are more inclined to wash and loaf on the river. While the tip face is a tad distant to view from the riverside footpath, the views are generally pretty good when they come down to the river itself, usually just to the east of Coldharbour Point. At low tide, there are usually a few birds along the foreshore as far as Aveley Bay, with a roost of up to a few hundred birds just west of the lighthouse. Add the fact that there is plenty of turnover as birds commute between the tip and river and it's reasonable to assume that you'll be getting views of a good proportion of the birds present if you're willing to give it long enough. It's worth pointing out that numbers are by far best on weekdays, with Saturday mornings much quieter and Sunday more or a less a write off.
Our Caspian Gull total steadily rose throughout the morning and we were in double figures by lunchtime, despite the odd half-hour lull where few birds were using the river. In the afternoon were joined by Rainham stalwart Andy Tweed, with the three of us ensuring good coverage of the large numbers of birds commuting between the river and tip face as the afternoon wore on. I don't think we were missing any birds that came down on the river itself, but of course it's always difficult to gauge just how what percentage of the birds you've looked through – bear in mind that we were still seeing new Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls by the time we left (recognised by distinctive stains, plumage etc).
When Dante picked out a smart second-winter on the river a little after 3 pm, it signalled the end of a memorable session. Our final total of 19 individuals was very much conservative. We managed some sort of record shot of at least 12 of these birds, with detailed plumage and structural notes taken for the remainder. Some individuals were definitely seen more than one, while we also had sightings of birds which may (or may not) have been different that ultimately did not count towards the final total. The breakdown was as follows: 13+ first-winters, two second-winters, two third-winters (both birds seen on our trip the previous week), a fourth-winter and an adult. A few terrible phonescoped shots of some of the birds follow in a slideshow ...
I'm not sure what the British record single-site count is for Caspian Gull (there was a report of 23 from Rufforth, North Yorkshire, a few winters ago, but I'm not sure if this was ever verified), but surely 19 must one of the highest ever made? Answers on a postcard please.
As for Rainham ... well, this is something of a renaissance for a site that Dominic Mitchell has occasionally mourned as nigh on finished while talking gulls in the Birdwatch-BirdGuides office in recent months. In the three chastening days Dante spent on the riverside footpath, he notched up a minimum of 28 different Casps (again conservative, with the figure more likely at 30+), which suggests that a day count exceeding 20 is comfortably within the realms of possibility if the stars align. Perhaps there's life in the old dog yet – as long as birders keep chucking their food waste in the general household bins, there'll be at least some food going into landfill for the gulls!
The musings of a wildlife enthusiast, usually armed with his camera.