To paraphrase the ‘good Doctor’ the indulgence of a serious gull roosting habit requires time and lots of it. If you spend enough time looking at gulls in huge numbers, which is where roosts are useful although the views are often distant and the light poor, then you should eventually start to get used to the idea that they are ceaselessly variable. This is why, if you have an appropriately perverse mind set, they are interesting. It is a challenge and if you live in the Midlands it gives you something to do in the dull winter months and actually constitutes one of your best options for finding something good. Draycote Water is about as far inland as it is possible to get yet the roost has produced two Franklin’s Gulls, a Bonaparte’s Gull, a Ring-billed Gull and four Kumlien’s Gulls. There will usually be two to four Iceland Gulls and one to four Glaucous Gulls a year there. In 2012 there were thirteen Iceland and five Glaucous Gulls with several multiple occurrences and ‘white-wingers’ present every day the roost was done from early Jan. to mid. March. The record Yellow-legged Gull count stands at forty one and Caspian Gulls are regular with peak counts of two or three from a single roost.
A corollary of these observations is that you will, with all the time at your disposal, start to frame questions relating to the welter of variation staring you in the face. This way lies madness but it is inescapable. This winter has been a slow one, notwithstanding the juvenile Kumlien’s Gull which was present for a week or so in January, and there have been many oddballs to consider.
The bird in the photo below is too pale for a graellsii Lesser Black-backed Gull but pretty much identical to one in structure and is presumably a Lesser Black-backed Gull x Herring Gull hybrid. John Judge and I saw a similar bird in December and I have seen two or three since this one was photographed at Draycote Water on 02/02/15. All of these birds were a shade darker than Yellow-legged Gulls but second generation birds would not necessarily be, in which case structure and the presence of head streaking outside the period it is shown by Yellow-legged Gull would be the features to check. I have seen all mine in the water at Draycote but Martin Elliott confirms that they often show pink legs. So how frequent are they? Given the sightings listed above and the fact that Martin found two in a single afternoon at Shawell whilst I was birding with him recently I suspect there could easily be several in any large roost on any night. Many of them probably come from the south-west but some could even originate locally as Herring Gulls start to occur in the increasing number of Lesser Black-backed Gull colonies found on buildings in the Midlands.
Presumed Lesser Black-backed Gull x Herring Gull hybrid Draycote Water
Of late, as every year at this time, I have been encountering two Herring Gull variants. The more commonly encountered are the often large, rangy pale first winters with pale primary tips which I refer to as ‘caramel coloured’. They show no definitive Glaucous Gull structural or plumage features, which would suggest they are pale argentatus perhaps from the north of that forms range. But do they have hyperboreus genes in their ancestry? Every year we pose the question and every year individuals are touted around the UK as everything from Viking and Nelson’s Gull to Kumlien’s and even Thayer’s Gull. And if they are argentatus why do so many show up in the New Year? It is probably just a simple function of fading, many immature birds appearing ‘bleached’ in February and March. An alternative explanation may be that they simply stand out more as the number of Herring Gulls in the roosts decreases. Less frequent are the extremely dark rather juvenile birds which I refer to as ‘molasses coloured’. Martin Elliott has pointed out that these may resemble birds from the eastern Baltic and if that were the case it might suggest a late arrival from the north and east.
We have also had a spate of partial albino Herring Gulls and I have seen three at Draycote Water in as many weeks. The first, an adult, had entirely white primaries on the left side and had normal primaries on the right. It was followed by a third winter bird which did a fair job of impersonating an Iceland Gull with very long, narrow and entirely white primaries. Finally came another third winter bird intermediate between the two with entirely white primaries on the left wing and the black on the right wing confined to the innermost four or five. Were it not that the roost is so large it would be tempting to speculate that these birds were related.
Finally on 11/02/15 I found an Iceland Gull. It was a fairly dark bird with a dark bill and probably a juvenile but impossible to age with certainty at the range involved. It flew and I went round to try relocating it. I failed but the change in position put me in front of a fairly large, chunky third winter Iceland Gull. I spent a while soaking that one up and shortly after I resumed searching I found a third winter Iceland Gull some distance to the right which was smaller, with a much smaller bill and less streaking on the head and breast sides. This bird was in line with a bouy making it easy to return to and thus easy to pan between the two double checking they were different birds. One of the third winters was seen briefly at Weston Landfill the following afternoon and both were back at Draycote Water that night but again did not come in until last gasp. I have also seen a couple of Caspian Gulls and adult Mediterranean Gulls in the last three weeks.
Ad. Caspian Gull Draycote Water
The cavalcade of genetic failure continued with a new one for me, a Black-headed Gull x Mediterranean Gull hybrid (very similar to birds here http://www.birdersplayground.co.uk/Hybrid%20Gulls%20-%20adults%20UK.html) pulled out of the roost by John Judge on 14/02.
Elsewhere the female Merlin was at Toft Farm again on 08/02 and Steve Haynes found it harassing a Barn Owl just down the road from my house that same evening. On this subject Steve also saw a male near Grandborough in January which I forgot to mention in previous posts. The most significant record in the Upper Leam Valley though was a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker I heard calling one still sunny morning, the first in the area for many years. Jack Snipe and European Golden Plover appear to have wintered whilst Peregrine and Little Egret have been regular visitors.
Little Egret along the Rainsbrook
I predicted either Greater Scaup or Black-necked Grebe off the back of the last NW gales and the latter duly arrived at Draycote Water a couple of days later on 01/02. I have only been out after it a couple of times and it remained stubbornly distant, the image below being the best I have managed.
Black-necked Grebe Draycote Water