Friday, 27 March 2020

Laugh? I Could Have Cried! 14-15th March 2020

This is mostly a tale of woe and bad luck. However our disappointment contained within this blog is obviously irrelevant when compared to the crisis that we are all experiencing right now so please take it with a pinch of salt. Keep safe everybody.

Over the previous few days a couple of rare Gull species had been reported from the West Country. My mate Jim, the Standlake Birder, achieved a double whammy when he saw both birds on the same day on Friday. With the impending difficulties on the horizon regarding the Coronavirus outbreak we made plans for Saturday to at least try to see one of them while we still could. 

Having driven over 20,000 miles last year and feeling ever since more than a little bit "burnt out" by our efforts in seeing as many species as possible in 2019, we've cut our travelling back to just local excursions apart from just a couple of longer trips this year. Therefore we decided that the fine adult Ross's Gull that was frequenting a stretch of the River Plym in Plymouth was too far away so we wouldn't travel for it considering it was over 200 miles from home. The other rare Gull that had been found was a Laughing Gull which was frequenting Chew Valley Lake near Bristol. Clocking in at less than 100 miles that bird and journey seemed far more appealing. On Friday though the Laugher, as it is affectionately known by birders, had been difficult to locate and in fact was only reliably seen when it came into roost with lots of other Gulls in the last hour of daylight whereas the Ross's Gull had performed beautifully for most of the day.

We stuck to our guns though and left home just before 9 o'clock on Saturday morning with the sole intention of targeting the Laughing Gull plus a few other decent birds that were also in the vicinity. I had half a notion to twitch a Kentish Plover at Burnham on Sea but that bird was difficult to see and the species was already on my life list but we had never seen a Laughing Gull before. The roads were fairly quiet and we made good progress. Then our best made plans started unravelling a bit!

As we pulled onto the M5 news came through that the Ross's Gull had been seen and was "showing well" in the same place as usual and at that stage the Laughing Gull hadn't been reported. So on a whim we decided to change tack and go to straight to Plymouth, twitch the Ross's Gull and then get back to Chew Valley Lake to add the Laughing Gull when and if it came into roost. Then just before we reached the M4/M5 interchange another update related that the Laughing Gull was showing "now" at Chew Valley Lake (CVL) from the Herriots Road Bridge! So, working on the "See a train, get on a train" adage we changed our destination back to CVL again thinking that if we could get the Laughing Gull quickly then we'd still have plenty of time to get to Plymouth and see the Ross's Gull since it was still only 10:15 in the morning. Just before 11 we parked up alongside many other birders on the road bridge feeling extremely hopeful. I leapt out of the car and began scanning the Gulls that were resting on the water. I scanned all birds close in several times then looked further out without seeing the distinctive dark shape of the Laughing Gull, which was apparently a first winter bird and had very dark plumage which would make it very easy to pick out. I only found Black-headed and Common Gulls in over half an hour of careful scrutiny. I set the scope up and studied Gulls that were feeding far out in the open water but viewing was difficult and I couldn't see anything different. I finally asked another birder when the Laughing Gull had been seen but he knew nothing so I tried someone else who was more genned up. He told me that he'd been looking for the Laugher ever since the news came out that it had flown from Herriots Bridge in the direction of the Heron's Green Bridge which was where we were stood. So for nearly forty-five minutes I'd been in the wrong place anyway! And the bird had flown! Apparently the Gull had been seen by just a sole observer and for just two minutes before departing, We had left the motorway and a seemingly sure thing with the Ross's Gull to go and look for a bird which had disappeared almost two hours ago. You could say that I was more than a little bit peeved.

It was now midday and being at a bit of loss I began clutching at straws so drove around to Herriots Bridge. We had seen our first ever Long-billed Dowitcher from the road bridge many years ago on way home from a Cornwall holiday. The bridge divides a small lagoon from the main lake and the cut-off provides a bathing area for many Gull species and also a reedy edged refuge for Wildfowl and other birds. There was a group of Common Gulls bathing and I noticed just how dark some first winter Common Gulls can look. I compared first winter Laughing and Common Gull in the Collins Bird App and even though there shouldn't be any confusion if seen well, I could understand how the two species could be mixed up. I'm not saying that is what had happened but I was having serious doubts particularly when bearing in mind that the Laugher had only been seen coming into roost on the last three evenings and not at all during the day. I decided to do a bit of detective work and found a tweet from the chap who had reported the bird. The same chap had posted several other tweets that morning from CVL and had attached back of the camera images of every bird he'd called except for, yep you've guessed it, the Laughing Gull. Now my suspicious mind was racing, why no photo of the Laugher? The Gulls at the bridge were close in so good photos would be available for anybody with a modicum of skill and besides I'd seen decent images on the chaps Twitter feed of the Great Egrets that were also present in the same area. I deduced, probably wrongly but I just can't quell the cynic in me, that the Laughing Gull hadn't be seen at all and that it was likely a dusky plumaged Common Gull!

Worst of all I now felt cheated since if I hadn't detoured to CVL then I would have been adding a splendid Ross's Gull to my life list since that was still showing well down in Plymouth. In the event I was now facing the prospect of seeing neither of the Gulls since the Laughing Gull had done a bunk, if it had ever been present in the first place. We were in the right, or maybe not, place and had to at least try and find the Laugher so for the next two hours we drove between the two road bridges and to Woodford Lodge as well, checking every Gull that moved with no success. I managed to work myself into a right old state while continually checking the time to see how late we could leave for Plymouth and still have a chance of seeing the Ross's Gull. While taking some lunch and a calming coffee at a nearby pub I checked Twitter and all of the previous reports of both Gulls. The Ross's Gull always disappeared around four in the afternoon after pre-roosting at a place called Oreston Quay on the River Plym. It was now gone two o'clock so we were, it appeared, stymied with that one. It would be a waste of time even contemplating going for it now. I was gutted because, despite saying yesterday that I wouldn't go for the Ross's, I had really wanted to see it. I was also fed up with driving from one end of CVL to the other in the search for the Laughing Gull and realised that we'd have to wait until later and then go to Woodford Lodge and hope that it would come into the Gull roost. That meant we'd have to find something else to do for the next few hours.

Having paid for a couple of day permits we drove the short distance to Barrow Gurney Reservoirs where there were potentially a couple of year ticks. The three reservoirs, known as Tanks 1, 2 and 3 are split by a busy road. Firstly we checked the largest Tank, number 1, which lays to the north of the road. There were supposed to be both a Great Northern Diver and a Black-throated Diver on the reservoir but we could only find Great Crested Grebes and Cormorants. The reservoir is a big open bowl of water so there could be no way that we could miss them if present so we could only assume that they'd flown off elsewhere for a while. Our luck appeared to be well and truly out! We crossed the busy thoroughfare and made our way up to Tank number 2 which was pretty much devoid of any birds apart from a pair of Gadwall and headed towards Tank 3. This was where the bird we most wanted to see was supposed to be. In contrast to the other two reservoirs, Tank 3 has vegetated banks on the western side rather than steep concrete and close to that bank was a small flock of Tufted Ducks and a few Mallards but no sign of our target. For ten minutes I scanned the water and found nothing different. I was done in, well and truly fed up, and wondered why I bother birding at all. I was ready to chuck it all in and go home, blow the Laughing Gull, when a final scan revealed the drake Long-tailed Duck that we'd come to see. My sigh of relief was palpable and probably audible and I'm sure the Bankside fishermen all looked in my direction. At last I had managed to find something worth seeing!

drake Long-tailed Duck
We made our way around to the far bank for closer views of the Duck although it was difficult to approach because of the lack of cover. Drake Long-tailed Ducks are one of the few birds that look better in winter, or non-breeding, plumage than they do in summer. When breeding they are mainly  a plain brown looking bird albeit with a black head, neck and breast. We don't see Long-tailed Ducks in breeding plumage because they nest and rear their young in the High Arctic Tundra region. This bird in its non-breeding winter plumage was a startling mix of grey, black and white with a lovely soft pastel pink bill. The most noticeable feature though was the tail which was split into two long pointed black feathers.

The Long-tailed Duck was hanging out with a pair of Tufted Ducks which made for unlikely bedfellows I thought. Mostly the three ducks made out to be asleep and they drifted on the water although at all times they kept a careful eye on us on the bank. At times when the Long-tailed Duck turned to put his back to us I felt like it was using those two long tail feathers to tell me something: "Up Yours Loser!"

Having clawed out something from a frustrating day we returned to Woodford Lodge and were astounded by the number of birders who had turned up to see the Laughing Gull. Many eyes make seeing a rare bird easier so I was pleased that we'd have all the extra help. It was pretty cold as we all stood staring at the Gull roost that was forming on the open water. Unfortunately all birds were a long way out and appeared to be continually unsettled by the many fishing boats that came chugging back to the nearby marina and pontoons. Luckily it was clear that we some highly competent birders alongside us and after a few false alarms somebody spotted the Laughing Gull which had somehow sneaked into the roost unnoticed. Next the few moments of panic when I couldn't find the bird in my own scope and then the relief when I did. The Laugher was indeed a very dark looking bird and showed up prominently in the flock of Gulls. Problem was it must have been half a mile away and my camera and lens just wasn't up to the job in the late afternoon gloom.

1st winter Laughing Gull
Had we been able to get decent views of the Laugher then we'd have seen a dusky plumaged Gull with a distinctly long bill. My friend Cliff captured some rather better images to at least give you an idea of what the bird really looks like.

courtesy of Cliff Smith
We drove home having at least added a bird to the Old Caley life list and my annoyance at the days events had been a little bit reduced although I still had that very unhealthy cynicism nagging away at me that I been deliberately misled by that Tweet of earlier. When I looked at Twitter later that evening I saw a fine photo of the Laughing Gull taken by the chap who had seen it at 10 o'clock! My wholehearted apologies go out to that man, I should never have doubted him and I wish him well, the lucky sod. I'm a disbelieving old git too often it would seem and that awful trait is something I must work much harder to suppress in future although I think it's just too inherent.

For most of the journey home I had been thinking of the Ross's Gull. For the first few miles of the journey I had tried to persuade Mrs Caley that we should book into a hotel so that we could drive to Plymouth in the morning and get the Ross's but she very wisely disagreed with that suggestion quite rightly pointing out that, "I'd had my chance and had blown it". I carried on thinking about that Ross's Gull all night and wondered how I could convince her into going for it on Sunday morning. So at breakfast I was astounded when my wife said suddenly, "Why don't we have a tilt at seeing the Ross's Gull?". I was ready in less than five minutes flat and we were on the road by 8 o'clock. The SatNav said it was 202 miles to The Ride in Plymouth which seemed to be the most likely place to catch up with the Gull and would take around three and half hours. We stopped at a service station on the M5 just as news came through that the Ross's Gull had been seen already. I also noticed that Cliff was there so sent him a message and asked him for regular updates on the Gulls location.

The journey sped by and we neared the outskirts of Plymouth in double quick time. The Gull had relocated a bit further up river to a place called Blaxton Meadows which could still be reached from The Ride carpark. We parked up at 11:15, ahead of schedule, and started on the walk to the meadows. A couple of returning birders told us that the Ross's Gull was still there, stood preening on a post and appeared settled. They told us it was about a twenty minute walk. For us that would be more like half an hour even at full speed. Midway there another returning and happy birder also told us that the bird was still there. A message from Cliff confirmed it. I wore a big grin, after all we were about to add a second life tick Gull in as many days. We turned a corner and could see the Gull flock, the Ross's Gull was accompanying a flock of Black-headed Gulls, all resting on a marshy area about a quarter of a mile further on. Too far to pick out anything from where we were so I urged Mrs Caley to stretch her tired legs a bit more, we'd already walked as quick as we could for half an hour. We had halved the distance when suddenly and with no discernible reason the whole flock of Gulls took to the air. Panic set in and I frantically scanned the whirling flock of Gulls but every bird I picked out turned into a Black-headed Gull. But thankfully the Gulls landed again and I breathed a sigh of relief. We soldiered on and were met by a birder who very tactlessly told us that, "The Ross's Gull has just flown" and "Did you see it as it flew past?" Aaargghhhhhh! I kicked the nearest tree and swore loudly more than once. We had missed the Ross's Gull by a minute. Sixty bloody measly seconds too late! 

Where the Ross's Gull had been.....a minute before!
We met Cliff by the hide and he ruefully repeated the, "Really sorry mate but you've just missed it" story. I was gutted and even a Ring-necked Parakeet flying by couldn't lift my spirits. More hopefully though the Ross's Gull had flown down river so may have returned to its feeding area off the carpark. Cliff left to look for it there, promising to let me know if he saw it, while we sat disconsolately and looked out onto the marsh. There were good year ticks in the shape of some Greenshanks and a Common Sandpiper and a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers swam past but I barely looked at them and stared forlornly at the river instead. I had driven for over three hours and walked bloody hard for another forty minutes for nothing. I vowed there and then to give up twitching, it's too stressful. To add insult it started to rain!

Some Black-headed Gulls flew back in and I momentarily regained some hope but there was no sign of the Ross's. After half an hour we gave up and trudged back to the carpark although I kept looking at every single Gull that flew past. We rejoined Cliff by the carpark but he'd not see the Gull from there. I thought that maybe it had flown even further down the river so drove to Oreston Quay to have a look from there. There was no sign, it was now nearly one o'clock and I was beginning to realise that we weren't going to see the bird. In an attempt to change our luck we took a break and some Sunday lunch at a nearby pub. In the past, most notably when twitching a Rose-coloured Starling in Scotland, a break had worked wonders when, after a fruitless three hour search before a coffee and sandwich break, we had connected with that bird immediately after. It didn't work this time! Another hour and a half of watching from the Quay only offered up Black-headed Gulls (and a Great Northern Diver). The Ross's Gull was nowhere to be seen. 

I couldn't believe how unlucky we'd been. It's one thing to twitch a bird and find out that it's gone and not been seen on the day you go but to be a few hundred yards away and actually see the flock of birds of which it's a part of take to the air and fly away is particularly galling. As I drove home I wondered what terrible things I must have done in a previous life to deserve such rotten luck. I briefly tried to blame Mrs Caley, "If only we'd stayed in a hotel" I said but of course it wasn't her fault. I should have stuck to my guns and gone for the Ross's Gull on the Saturday but didn't. It was my own bad decisions and pure rotten luck that cost us the bird. We'll just have to wait for another one to turn up sometime. Interestingly that Ross's Gull has not been seen again since it flew off from its perch on the marsh just before we got there.

Ross's Gull courtesy of Cliff Smith

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