Monday, 17 September 2018

Update from Shawell

This is a good time, as lots of gulls are passing through Shawell at present. Over the weekend, including Friday afternoon, I read over 50 colour-rings, which is very good for the site. A few old looking colour-rings were amongst them, so I'm looking forward to receiving the replies.

It's always pleasing to photograph a gull inflight only to see it has a colour-ring. On Saturday afternoon I called out Caspian Gull as a gull sailed overhead. Steve Nichols was perhaps understandably a little un-convinced. Well when I reviewed the photo later I could see it was wearing a German colour-ring XCCL - a Caspian Gull - although I couldn't check its DNA as it flew over 😊

The next bird that flew over was a young Lesser Black-backed Gull and you guessed it, it was also sporting a nice colour-ring. DCUB ringed in Suffolk this summer.

Caspian Gull numbers are slowly increasing with first calendar-year being the most numerous (although very small numbers). A couple of adults have been around including a real beast that made even the Great Black-backed Gulls look nervous.

First Calendar-Year Caspian Gull, Shawell A5 Lagoons.

Friday, 7 September 2018

An Obsession with Baltic Gulls

Since I started watching gulls regularly at Shawell in 2012 I thought the possibility of an identifiable Baltic Gull Larus fuscus fuscus turning up there seemed good. However, only colour-ringed birds are acceptable in Britain - oh and some 2CYs. At the time no 2CYs had been accepted in Britain, but maybe it would be worth reading up on them?

From time to time a jet black adult LBBG caught my eye, but there is quite a lot of overlap in features between fuscus and intermedius and so a positive identification of a vagrant is near on impossible. My first opportunity to claim a Baltic Gull came in 2014 when I saw J727 a Norwegian ringed Baltic Gull, but I didn't nail the ID that time and I missed the full scientific name whilst entering the ring reading.

My skills were improving all the time and in July 2015 I saw a second calendar-year LBBG on the landfill that shouted Baltic Gull! It had a full set of unworn new looking primaries, many black adult  like scapulars and coverts. Its greater coverts were plain brownish with no barring. Without going on, it matched the Altenburg Criteria for the identification of Baltic Gull in 2CY plumage - the only age when, from a vagrant point of view,  they are unique enough to be identified without a colour-ring from a known breeding area. I reported the sighting to the British Birds Rarities Committee (BBRC) in the hope that it would prove acceptable.

2CY Baltic Gull at Cotesbach Landfill site July 2015

In March 2016 another go at J727 presented itself and this time I identified it as a Baltic Gull. I had forgotten about my 2014 sighting, but as the record appeared on the screen of my phone I couldn't believe I had seen it before. The scientific name was L. f. fuscus, so my ID was correct. I submitted the record to BBRC, but due to some issues over Norwegian Baltic Gulls the record sat in the pending tray. A record of a colour-ringed bird (J154) alleged to be from Horsvaer was causing some controversy due to it looking too pale for a Baltic Gull. The photograph of this bird did the rounds on Social Media, which did nothing to promote any goodwill for the 'Horsvaer gulls'. Because of this I did not submit a sighting of another Horsvaer colour-ringed bird I saw shortly after the sighting of J727.

I discussed this issue with Morten Helberg in Norway, who has ringed many of the 'Horsvaer gulls' and been involved in the study of these birds. Morten invited me to see for myself, so in early August 2017 Morten and I visited Horsvaer. We ringed over 60 chicks and looked closely at the gulls. We decided that we should report what we jointly knew about these 'Horsvaer gulls'. Our plan was to publish it in British Birds.

Baltic Gulls, Horsvaer, July 2018

Morten convinced me to be the lead author and along the way we recruited Mars Muusse from The Netherlands who knows loads about Baltic Gulls. In all it took a full year from start to finish, but I'm very pleased with the result. We submitted it to BB in January 2018 and Roger Riddington seemed very positive. He sent it to various reviewers in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. The consensus was that it should be accepted for publication. However, there was a small list of comments to address. The biggest issue was that a photograph of J154 was added to the paper with a question of how does this fit in with what we were saying!

We addressed all the issues and then a couple of really good things happened. Firstly one of the chicks we ringed in 2017 decided to visit Sheffield and it ticked all the boxes for moult strategy of 2CY Baltic Gull. Next we managed to get hold of the original photo of J154 and it turned out that the code on the colour-ring actually read JT54. It looked like J154, but not all of the code was visible and the top of the figure that was read as a 1 was missing due to the angle, but on the underneath of the colour-ring the top of the T was just visible. JT54 is an intermedius bird from southern Norway not from Horsvaer - I was very happy when I spotted the top of the T 😁. The bird claimed to be J154 never sat well with me, as on my two visits to Horsvaer I had not seen a similar looking bird.

I'm proud to say that the paper appears in this month's BB and hopefully the 'Horsvaer gulls' will now be taken seriously in Britain.

In July this year, I was checked the BBRC work in progress file for some Leicestershire & Rutland Ferruginous Duck submissions and at the same time I couldn't resist checking if there had been any movement on my Baltic Gull submissions. I gave quite a cheer when I saw that they had accepted my 2CY Baltic Gull from 2015. They had also accepted two others: one from Norfolk and another from Suffolk. At the time of writing mine is the fourth for Britain in date order.

Again I am really pleased by this.

Who knows where this story will go but Morten and I are already talking about another project...

Friday, 10 August 2018

Update From Shawell

July was a good month with lots of colour-rings read. Pride of place goes to a juvenile Mediterranean Gull which had a yellow colour-ring with the code AYKL. It was ringed on the 18 June 2018 at Rehbach Gravel Pit, Leipzig, Sachsen, Germany.

Juvenile Mediterranean Gull AYKL - Photo by Jürgen Steudtner
A few juvenile Yellow-legged Gulls were seen around the pool in the sandpit off Gibbet Lane, but it hasn't been a classic year for juv YLGs. Maybe more around the tip, but I can't get a good view of that at present.

On August 1st a monster juvenile Caspian Gull was at the sandpit. I had forgotten my scope adapter, but I managed to get a flight shot of it, as it flew away.

The pool down in the sandpit is attracting in waders, so far in July and Augustwe have had five Black-tailed Godwits, up to six Green Sandpipers, five Common Sandpipers and one each of Sanderling and Dunlin plus a few Oystercatchers and Redshanks.

Sunday, 5 August 2018

Horsvaer Trip

I have just returned from another excellent trip to Horsvaer, in Nordland, Norway with Morten Helberg. For a second time Morten had invited me back to help him colour-ring the chicks of the Baltic Gulls that nest around the Horsvaer archipelago. We also visited Hortvaer and Fjordholmen.

Baltic Gulls Larus fuscus fuscus

Baltic Gull Larus fuscus fuscus

To reach Horsvaer, I flew from Stanstead to Oslo where I teamed up with Morten and then we flew north to Trondheim and on to Brønnøysund. A quick dash to the small shop for provisions was in order and then we boarded our boat Teist (Norwegian for Black Guillemot).


Despite it being overcast the sea was flat calm so Runar our captain soon had us at the mooring in a sheltered natural harbour at Horsvaer. Picture the scene, three White-tailed Eagles roosting a couple of hundred metres away; Short-eared Owls quartering the island, Black Guillemots splashing about a few metres from our boat, a pair of Red-throated Divers off our stern and several Arctic Skuas were harassing the Arctic Terns that were raising their chicks all around us.

We woke to dreary skies and as we eat our breakfast it started to rain. After it stopped raining we began our search for Baltic Gull chicks.

Presumed L. f. fuscus Chick

Most of the chicks hide in thick vegetation, but on some of the islands there are fewer hiding places, which made our task a little easier. Morten is the ringer and he worked tirelessly to ring just over 280 birds. Below you can see him taking measurements.

Morten Helberg Busy Ringing a Chick

Due to the vegetation it is not so easy to find the chicks on some islands.

The Baltic Gulls of Horsvaer are the subject of a paper written by Morten Helberg, Mars Muusse and myself which will be published in British Birds next month. The paper explains why we believe these birds should be treated as Baltic Gulls. Some controversy surrounds the birds due to concerns in Britain that the colonies are mixed - pale- and black-mantled birds. However, we have only seen two pale-mantled birds amongst hundreds of Black-mantled ones. The paper explains in detail the identification, moult and migration of these birds from Horsvaer. The mixed colonies are found further north in Troms and Finnmark.

Baltic Gulls Larus fuscus fuscus

Baltic Gull Larus fuscus fuscus

On the second day we put in a long shift, finishing at midnight. The scenery is top draw at Horsvaer, but the scene at midnight was a real treat to the eyes.

Roosting Baltic Gulls at Midnight

Whilst we spent most of our time searching for Baltic Gull chicks and ringing them, we also got to see some great birds. We saw seven Great Northern Divers including an adult; on one of the islands a juvenile Red-throated Diver was on a small pool and plenty of massive White-tailed Eagles kept their eyes on us.

It appears to have been a good breeding season on Horsvaer. Several pairs of Turnstone were behaving as though they had chicks.

The Arctic Skuas were also doing well.

In all we slept three nights on Teist, although I didn't sleep that well, as it got light really early. The two Norwegians didn't seem to suffer the same problem.

The sun appeared on our second full day and it got hotter and hotter, so much so that we found ourselves breaking into a sweat as we worked :-)

Hortvaer was a new site for me and it had been 10 years since Morten was there last. The gull colony was very healthy and the chicks were maturer than those at Horsvaer.

The last part of our trip was spent at Fjorholmen. This island is close to the mainland and it supports a splendid Baltic Gull colony. One of the chicks we ringed there in 2017 has recently been seen in Sheffield. This one ticked the boxes for first-summer Baltic Gull.



Sunday, 15 July 2018

Small Red-eyed Damselflies

My only previous sighting of a Small Red-eyed Damselfly (SRED) in Leicestershire was of a male and female at Brascote Pits. However, that pit has been out of bounds for two years. With all this lovely sunshine surely this summer is going to be as good as any to find more?

Well last weekend Adey Baker and I found a small number at Croft Quarry Nature Trail pond. They were out on the small lillypads and so distant for photography.

SRED is a recent colonist to the UK with the first sighting dating back to 1999. The first Leicestershire record was in 2006 at Priory Water.

Yesterday I located at least thirty individuals on two newish ponds near Cotesbach. The ponds are quite shallow, so I went for a paddle and got very close to some of these tiny little beauties. Today I made more discoveries at Mere Lane Lake, Bittesby where there may have been over 100 and Shawell GP where I saw half a dozen and also a few Large Red-eyed Damselflies as well.

Male Small Red-eyed Damselfly

Female Small Red-eyed Damselfly
A few Emerald Damselflies were frequenting a small pond at Cotesbach Landfill site, which was a new record for the site.

Emerald Damselfly