Thursday, 25 November 2010

Twelve Step Programme for Gull Addiction

My name is Adam Hartley (damm, I've given away the secret identity of Gnome at last) and I am a gull addict. There, I've said it and they're right, it does feel better. I don't really know how it all started, I used to be blissfully ignorant of gulls, they were just too hard to bother with. In fact I remember when I was just starting out: I'd read something about Dix Pit here in Oxon being a good spot for Caspian gull so I went along and picked out a gull with a vaguely white head. That'll do - tick! Now with my greater knowledge I feel deep shame in telling that story but it's all part of the healing process.

As a bit of background, despite being about as far from the sea as it is possible to get, Oxfordshire is blessed with more than its fair share of gulls. It has several tips which attract lots of gulls as well as a reservoir and several pits and indeed the county boasts what were described by someone as two of the top four gull experts in the country in the form of Ian Lewington and Nic Hallam. It is a real hotspot for Caspian gulls and indeed Ian knows each bird individually (by name no doubt) and apparently there were getting on for twenty different Caspians in the county last winter. All this somehow had infiltrated my sub-conscience and at some level I was taking notice.

To start with I knew nothing but I gradually got my head around the commoner ones. However, there were these difficult gulls: yellow-legged and Caspian that seemed a closed book to me so I started reading up on them. I'd study lots of photos of them and try to pick them out. I took to standing around near gull roosts at dusk videoing them and then sending the grabs to Ian asking whether it was what I thought it was - usually it wasn't but occasionally I would get it right: just enough to keep me interested and to draw me further in. This was how it all started and it's only got worse over time. Also it seems I'm not alone in my addiction. A fellow addict, Jason "Badger" Coppock recently sent me this chilling e-mail of how he got hooked:

"Yesterday, I suddenly found myself sat at the far side of Farmoor II in near darkness scanning through the roost... it then occurred to me where and how it all started... unbeknownst to me at the time... Mediterranean is a "gateway gull". I mean everyone likes the winter white-wings don't they? And well,while you're there you start looking through the black-headed gulls for a Med... I tell myself ''I'm honing my ID skills... I'm training my eye''... then, after a while... It's not enough... You start noticing that the bigger boys have moved on to harder Gulls... They let you have a look through their scopes a few times... and before you know it... I'm lying to friends and family, sat shivering in the dark wondering if I can look for Caspians just little a bit longer and still get back to the car park before they lock the gates... I mean It's no sort of life is it!!?"

Badger even told me how a few weeks ago he was stopped by the constabulary at the Appleford Tip as they were wondering what he was up to - they'd even noticed that he'd been there the previous day as well. Badger told me about the look of such pity that came across the officer's face as he'd confessed that he was watching the gulls. He told me that he wished that he'd said that he was dogging instead, he would have felt less shame!

Gull Porn
or as Badger puts it: Bad Gulls Doing Dirty Stuff

So why do I do it? Well, let me show you some photos, then you'll understand. In fact sometimes my wife comes into my office and though I try to hide the screen she can tell from my guilty look that I'm up to no good. Imagine her shame when she catches me looking not at nice healthy porn but instead at pictures of gulls. For those of you who dare, there are some pretty good sites that I've found though be warned, this is seriously hardcore content:

Birder's Playground: Gulls
Rudy's Gull Index
Gulls in the West Midlands
Yellow-legged gull: more than just a mantle

The other sign that I'm a hopeless case is that I've not only shelled out a fair chunk of money for "Gulls of Europe, Asia and North America" ( Klaus Malling Olsen and Hans Larsson, published by Helm) but I find myself constantly looking stuff up in it.

Apart from my "research" at home on the internet I've been trying to score some hot gull action out in the field as well. Luckily at this time of year even my own patch, Port Meadow gets a reasonable gull roost so most days I've been out there at dusk peering through my scope into the gloom at the assembled throng of gulls trying to pick out something interesting. Encouragingly, this year I'm finally starting to make headway with the tricky gulls and have been confidently picking out yellow-legged gulls from the roost. There's something really striking about an adult yellow-legged gull: it's wings are such a deep shade of grey but it has an extra smartness to it that really makes you sit up and take notice. I know it's sad but when I see one it's seems to "sing"- it's the only way I can describe it. Here are some grainy videograbs that I've taken recently.

Yellow-legged gulls

Aren't they great? As I wrote on one of my daily Port Meadow updates: "How can you not like a smart yellow-legged gull? They really stand out in the roost at this time of year and look really striking compared to the scruffy winter-streaked herring gulls"

I know that yellow-legged gulls are comparatively easy (though you should read the "yellow-legged gull: more than just a mantle" before you get too complacent). What I was really after was to find my own Caspian gull. I had done this before but it's the real mark of a hardcore guller to be able to do this successfully and I was keen to prove my gulling manhood. Therefore each evening there I was shivering away but determined to stay as long as the light lasted. Ian had been reporting several birds at the Appleford Tip so I knew that they were around and that they didn't roost there but came north probably to Farmoor but perhaps they might stop at the Meadow instead, you never know.

Well a few days ago I came across a white-headed gull that had the trademark long parallel-sided washed-out pale yellow bill rather than a chunky bright yellow one that the yellow-legged gull sports. Hoping that I was on to something I took loads of video footage so that I could get all the diagnostic features. I didn't bore my Port Meadow readers with the full nerdfest of all the photos but if you're still reading this far then you must at least have a passing interest in gulls so here's the Full Monty:

Note the kind expression with small bullet-hole eyes...

...the long parallel-sided washed-out pale yellow bill...

...the long fingers of grey eating into the black of the outer primaries...

...and the diagnostic small black "lozenge" created by the long grey area on the inner web of the underside of the P10 primary. This is not mentioned so much in the literature but was taught to me by Gull Guru Ian Lewington himself as a clincher for the ID.

Some video of it preening. The Port Meadow readers got a short version at just under a minute of video I felt that this just wasn't long enough so this one runs at almost three minutes footage of a preening Caspian gull. What more could you want?

Nice Gulls vs. Evil Gulls
I made a bit of a breakthrough on the gull-understanding front when I managed to find the same bird again the next night. I'd just spotted a yellow-legged gull with it's striking mantle and I started to video it when I noticed a second white headed gull which turned out to be the returning adult Caspian. The video footage is rather brief but it does nicely illustrate the differences between the two birds including their differing facial expressions.

Comparison footage of a yellow-legged and a Caspian gull

This idea of differing facial expressions is actually key to identifying gulls. So now I have to try and get into the mind of these gulls and work out how they feel! Notice how gentle and kind the Caspian gull looks compared to the yellow-legged gull. I feel that there's a "kind, sad aloofness" to a Caspian gull whereas with a yellow-legged gull they can look quite fierce whilst still looking very smart. For herring gulls argentatus look very fierce whereas argenteus can look rather wimpy. This test is also useful for other gulls: common gulls of course look nice unlike the otherwise similar ring-billed gull.

This yellow-legged gull looks rather sullen but to me it's very much a case of "I'm just biding my time until I can I'll get you".

Here's a wider shot of the same gull with it's argentatus companion. Note how evil the latter looks. Note also the darker and bluer tones of the yellow-legged wings compared to the argentatus and how the wings just look really smart and neat by comparison.

So there you have it, the confessions of a gull addict. The truth is that I've only just started on this subject and there's a whole lot more to learn about still such as when exactly each species moults and which feathers. Then there are aberrant gulls and hybrid gulls, that's when gulls studying really gets nasty. There's still some time before the herring gulls start to lose their streaky heads and it gets much harder to pick out the interesting ones from the throng so until then I'll be out there staring into the darkness trying to decide whether some distant blob looks nice or evil. Be warned, it can become a compulsion!

Friday, 19 November 2010

A Visit to Farmoor

I was just staring blankly at my computer screen feeling rather less than inspired when I got a text through on the Oxon birding grapevine saying that there was a black-necked grebe at Farmoor, found as ever by Dai John on his morning rounds. The perfect antidote to my boredom I decided and got my gear together and headed out the door. A quick call to Dai ascertained that the grebe was on the west side of Farmoor I so I parked at Lower Whiteley farm and made my way up to the reservoir side where I met up with Jason "Badger" Coppock who was looking at the goldeneye ducks. The weather was absolutely gorgeous with bright sunshine and not a breath of wind and I soon started to feel rather warm with all my layers on. We wandered over to Farmoor I and scanned the reservoir from the end of the causeway where Jason soon picked out the grebe on the far side and swimming quite vigourously east. We made our way over to the other side but the grebe was intent on leading us a merry dance and was by now half way down the bank of the reservoir. We eventually caught up with it though we were now facing right into the sun so viewing and photos were difficult to say the least. The bird was still swimming away and we followed it round until we were at the east end of the reservoir where it seemed to slow down and we managed to take some record shots.

The black-necked grebe, still largely into the sun and by this time rather distant

Given how far we'd come we thought that we might as well walk back along the causeway and this would give us a chance to look for the sanderling the Dai has also seen that morning. This was another "red" bird in my list in that it was a county year tick for the list that I'm not doing. In fact the black-necked grebe had also been a "red" bird as I'd missed one earlier in the year. About three quarters of the way along the causeway we found the sanderling as it flew past and behind us though it soon came back again and sped off to the far shore of the reservoir. Having already been led a merry dance by one bird we weren't going to walk around the reservoir again and so we left that bird unphotographed.

We decided to walk back along the track from Pinkhill towards Lower Whiteley via the Pinkhill hide. As usual there was nothing on the scrape there but a nice barn owl was hunting in the long grass behind it and it even posed in a tree long enough for some digiscoping to take place though unfortunately it was in deep shade so it was poorly lit.

Barn owl, always a nice bird to see

As we left the hide Jason got a call from Dai asking if we'd managed to see the "birds". As we'd only known about the grebe he queried Dai's use of the plural only to be told that there'd also been a great northern diver on the reservoir at well. Somehow this second bird had got lost in the chinese whispers of text messages between Dai and Jason and myself. Jason made a crack about how we were the birding ninja's of the county, being so sharp as to walk right past a great northern diver without spotting it and we made our way back to the reservoir where we soon picked it out really close in to the shore though it moved out more as we came closer. This time the light was perfect being right behind us and we were able to take some reasonable shots.

The great northern diver. The "scalloping" on its back indicates that it's a juvenile

After drinking our fill of this great bird we headed back to the track to the farm, looking out for the brambling that was supposed to be around but the best we came up with was a goldcrest in the hedge. All in all a nice visit to the reservoir which has had a rather poor year for good birds so far and with the diver I'd managed three ticks for the county year list that I'm not doing.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Grey Phalarope

I realise that I've not posted a blog entry for a while now. Unfortunately this has been because there's not been much to write about. I'm still visiting the Meadow each day and now that it's gull season I've been grilling the roost each day hoping for something interesting though so far yellow-legged gulls have been the best that I've been able to come up with. I was contemplating finally getting round to doing the last part of my Birding USA summer holiday report but fortunately you and I have both been spared this tedium by the events of yesterday evening.

I was out at the Meadow again for the last hour of daylight so I could check out the gathering gulls as well as the wader selection du jour. Whilst scanning through the birds I spotted something small grey and white fluttering about near some lesser black-backed gulls in the middle of the flood water. Given it's tiny size and colouring I was first wondering about a little gull but it was far too small for that. It was also an extremely long distance away and as it was nearing dusk there was not much light but I could make out from the way that it was moving that it was a phalarope species of some sort. Having recently seen the Wilson's at Dowdeswell I knew that it wasn't one of those but I was wondering (or perhaps just hoping) if it might be a red-necked rather than the usual grey. The latter seems to be an annual occurrence in Oxfordshire, well at least in the last few years. Unfortunately it was so far away that I couldn't really see much detail. I tried taking some video footage but that wasn't really helping so in the end I cranked the scope up to x60 and zoomed right in on the camera so the total magnification must have been well over x200. I managed to track it for a short while but it was rather flighty and kept flying off a short distance before resuming its manic feeding. After a while I lost track of it and couldn't find it again so I went back to grilling the gulls (one or two yellow-legged again but little else of note).

Back in the comfort of my study I went through the video footage and thought that it was probably a grey phalarope but uploaded it to youTube and send Ian Lewington (the Oxon county recorder) a link in case he wished to contradict me and tell me that actually it was a red-necked. Unfortunately this was not the case though a grey phalarope on the patch is still a nice find, especially at this time of year when there's not much else around apart from the usual winter birds. I noticed that there were a few other grey phalaropes seen yesterday about the country so there was clearly a small overland passage going on.

The videograb record shot of the grey phalarope. Given the magnification and the gloom it's come out remarkably well.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

I'm Not Doing a County Year List But...

I'm definitely not doing a county year list this year. After last year's efforts, exciting though they were, I've been enjoying not having to go for birds. Having said all that I have been keeping a tally on what's been seen in the county and have been keeping tabs in a spreadsheet (I run my life with spreadsheets!) of which birds I've yet to see in the county (marked in red). What this means is that if I fancy going somewhere a little further than the local patch I can look up to see what's marked in red and then have a go for it.

One bird which I didn't hesitate over however was water pipit. Readers may remember that last year I infamously strung my water pipit and had to retract the sighting later on in the year. I'd even posted a photo at the time which clearly was a meadow pipit though it appears my readership is either too polite or too dozy to notice (surely the former)! I was keen therefore when one turned up at Farmoor to make amends for this and decided to go for a run around Farmoor to see if I could find it. It was a glorious autumn day with very bright sunshine as I arrived. I parked along the road to Lower Whitely Farm as I'd been told that it was at the southern end of F2. Within a few yards of starting off I came across the bird, hanging out with a pied wagtail. It soon flew off making its buzzing pipit call. I ran all the way around Farmoor II and when I got back to the car there it was again so I too a rubbish record shot with my point & shoot camera (I don't of course take my digiscoping gear with me when I go running). Such was the brightness of the light that by contrast the bird was left in the very deep shade of the reservoir wall so the photo is absolute crap but at least you can tell what it is.

You can just make out that this is in fact a water pipit

On another occasion, a lot of mandarin ducks had been seen in their usual small pond in Blenheim Palace near Combe Gate. As this was a bird I'd not yet seen this year I thought that a run around the grounds would make a nice change. It was also nice to see some woodland birds such as treecreeper, nuthatch, marsh tit etc. and there were 27 mandarins on the pond lurking at the very back.

Another rubbish point & shoot shot

In between going for the odd "red bird" I've been dutifully checking out Port Meadow each day. Amazingly the lesser yellowlegs is still there for it's 21st day now and seems quite at home. I know that they can be long stayers but all the same it's really great to be able to see a genuine rare each day on your own patch.

Least you think all my photos are complete pants here are some better digiscoped efforts of the lesser yellowlegs though they have a slightly surreal air to them which I rather like actually though they're not a patch on the fantastic DSLR shots that proper photographers have been taking (see Port Meadow Birding for examples)