Thursday, 19 March 2020

The Impressive Worm-Eater! 7th March 2020

For the past few weeks a juvenile Glaucous Gull had been seen both coming into roost in the late afternoons and then leaving again in the early mornings at Upton Warren reserve near Worcester. It wasn't known where the Gull went to during the day but then it was spotted last Sunday in a field some ten miles to the South at Upton Snodsbury. The Gull had then been seen in fields in the same area for the rest of the week. Ironically we had been just a few miles away when watching the Waxwing at Blackminster last Saturday. A week on and we finally had our chance to travel back to Worcestershire and have our go at seeing the bird. Birdguides had received an early report of the Glaucous Gulls presence that morning so we knew it should be there.

The only Glaucous Gull that we had on our list was another juvenile that we saw at Pitlochry on our way up to the Cairngorms a couple of years back. I was extremely impressed by that bird at the time. Glaucous Gulls are big birds, as large as a Common Buzzard, and look more than a little menacing. I've always loved birds with attitude and Glaucous Gulls have that in spades. We had already tried without success to see a juvenile Glaucous Gull earlier this year in Leicestershire and there would be a distinct possibility that this was the same bird that had relocated. It often strikes me as strange that you can try to see a species of bird in one place and fail and then get another totally unexpected chance of redemption a month or two down the line.

The Glaucous Gull had been reported on Saturday morning as being in a field 800 metres north of the A422 in Upton Snodsbury so after doing the weekly shop, already the supermarket was busier than usual owing to the panic buying of loo rolls, we headed out on the hour or so drive. As we entered the surrounds of the village you can imagine my surprise when I immediately spotted the Glaucous Gull stood in a field right next to the road and only about 30 metres away! I hurriedly parked the car in the entrance to a building site on the opposite side of the road, quickly grabbed the camera and ran over to grab a few initial record shots in case the Gull flew off. Mrs Caley was still in the car!

Glaucous Gull, Upton Snodsbury, 07/03/2020
Having made sure that I'd seen and photographed the Gull, I more casually sauntered back and collected my wife! We set up stall in a gateway to the field and enjoyed unsurpassed views, for us anyway, of the large and brutish looking Glaucous Gull. I say brutish but I really see Glaucous Gulls as things of beauty, they are huge, comparable in size to the well known Great Black-backed Gull, and are clearly extremely confident. The juveniles pinkish-white plumage is only really shared with the similar Iceland Gull, which is also really the only confusion species, but that bird is a smaller Herring Gull sized bird and has a much more gentle expression. As I fired away with my camera the Glaucous Gull regarded us with it's piercing beady black eye.

The Gull had been attracted to the field by a never-ending supply of worms that had been raised to the surface by the recent heavy rain. All the bird had to do was wander around picking the worms off of the surface. Glaucous Gulls are largely scavengers and I've seen lots of photos of them feeding on the carcasses of Whales, Dolphins and even Deers so the fact that this one was feasting on Worms seemed a little bit pathetic but of course animals and birds will take whatever comes easily to them just as the Pomarine Skua in Lincolnshire last year fed heartily on Seal placenta and common garden birds readily accept peanuts and sunflower seeds from feeders. I concentrated on catching the Gull in the act of securing a worm and found that it wasn't selective, worms of all sizes, big and small, were devoured.

The Glaucous Gull had no conjoiners except for a few Corvids that occasionally made careful sorties into the same field. Outwardly the Crows and Glaucous Gull didn't appear to have any regard for each other but the Crows definitely seemed to be stalking the larger Gull, perhaps hoping to steal an easy snack for themselves.

After ten minutes or so of worm harvesting the Glaucous Gull wandered slowly over to a deep riveted tractor track and drank from the puddles there. I imagine the Glaucous Gull was also able to wash some worm slime off of its bill too. After a drink and a clean the Gull had a quick preen and brush up. Even though I knew that it would stretch its wings at some point and have a flap, I still managed to miss it since my attention was diverted by some shouting going on further down the street. One day I'll learn to concentrate. No, I won't.

The only time the Glaucous Gull looked mildly interested in anything other than feasting and resting was when some, unseen to our eyes, aerial threat or interest passed over. Then the Gull would cock its head to one side in that comical way that birds do and look skywards. Glaucous Gulls must be pretty much untouchable owing to their size but I guess that in their more usual Arctic homes they must have predatory threats, particularly when young, such as White-tailed Eagles and Snowy Owls as well as land based enemies such as Polar Bears hence this birds alertness.

When the Glaucous Gull plopped down on the grass and didn't look like it would move again for a while we decided to leave. It had been a pleasure to be in such close company with such an impressive beast!

A week before we had spent a few hours watching and photographing a Waxwing a few miles away in Blackminster so it seemed churlish not to go back for another look. As we drove over the railway crossing we saw the Waxwing still in its favoured Rowan tree and it was still attracting a few admirers. Firstly though we took some lunch at the excellent Potted Pantry nearby which was well worth the return visit. When we went back to the Rowan the Waxwing was gone as were all of the attendant birdwatchers. Oh well we thought, we had a great couple of hours with the bird last Saturday. But as always we gave it the standard five minutes and for once it paid off when at the last turn of the clock the Waxwing flew in and landed in the tree. The Waxwings behaviour hadn't changed during the prior week either, it perched for a while making sure everything was good and then set to devouring some of the berries once more. Berries for Waxwings and Worms for Glaucous Gulls, birds take what they can. 

What had changed since last Saturday was the number of berries on the Rowan. A week ago the tree was festooned with them, now there were just a few left. I found it amazing just how many berries a single Waxwing had eaten in a week! I'm definitely not inviting one round to dinner. Well, actually I am since I've planted four Rowan trees in my own garden with the sole aim of attracting Waxwings. If one Waxwing can strip a Rowan of its berries in just over a week then you can appreciate how quickly a flock of them can and why flocks move on so quickly too. 

We watched the Waxwing for ten minutes or so and I took just a few photos. Last week I had fired off nearly 400 frames so there didn't seem much point in taking too many this time.

Considering that we were out and about in the Cotswolds it seemed sensible to revisit the famous Owl fields a few miles to the South. On the way we stopped at Snowshill and made yet another failed attempt to see a Great Grey Shrike, that's four tries this year and four failures! 

Our hope was to see the Barn Owl this time at close quarters so I positioned our car at the western end of the fields. From there you can also see the rough scrub that the Short-eared Owls roost in. We had arrived at just after 3 o'clock, all Owls were out hunting by that time last week, but for now the fields were quiet. I chatted to Bob, a chap we'd met the week before and who regularly keeps tabs on the Owls. He reckoned that the Shorties would be leaving soon although I seem to remember at least three still be present in April a couple of years ago, ironically in tandem with a Great Grey Shrike! In the event the only birds of note that flew over the fields in the next hour and a half while we stood there, were a couple of Ravens!

When I'm at the Owl fields I always have a good look at an area of scrubby bushes that lie scattered in an overgrown patch of land that used to serve as a stone quarry. This small triangle of land has remained unimproved because of the stoneworks and offers a safe roosting spot for the Short-eared Owls. It was here that the Shrike wintered a couple of years ago. On most of our visits, including last weeks, we have seen at least one Short-eared Owl suddenly appear, flying up out of the long grass and then flying over the road to hunt in the fields. With little happening I scrutinised the bushes a bit more thoroughly than usual. I noticed a pale blob in one of the bushes at almost the furthest point from where we had parked. I knew it was an Owl and supposed that it would be a Shortie since this place is, well, famous for Shorties! I set up the scope and focussed on the Owl and was staggered to see a fine set of ear tufts, surely much too long for a Short-eared Owl. It had to be a Long-eared Owl, a bird that I'd always wanted to find myself.

We moved to a better and closer viewpoint and studied the Owl. The Owl was secreted in the bush but plainly visible. Getting a decent photo was tricky owing to the tree branches affecting the focussing but by sliding through the focus manually I was able to get a couple that worked. Unfortunately, as I am prone to do, I then talked myself out of the Long-eared ID and somehow managed to assign the Owl as a Short-eared, probably because that's what I expected to be present and I never thought for one minute that I'd find a Long-eared. Despite checking my Collins Bird App via my phone, I was fooled by the apparent pale un-streaked belly and overall beige colour. I expected that a Long-eared Owl would be much more orange in colour and less bulky than this bird.

Luckily though one of Oxfordshire's and indeed the UK's most eminent bird experts, Ian Lewington saw my photo and corrected my ID back to the original conclusion of Long-eared Owl. I've been birding for almost thirty years now and it would appear that I still have a lot to learn! The pale "belly" was in fact some ruffled feathers, the Owl had been actively preening while we watched it, and I should have noticed the transverse bars to the body streaking. My worst mistake though was, and this was despite knowing that the face pattern belonged to a Long-eared and not a Short-eared, was being duped by the colouring. And of course those ear tufts, I'd read that Shorties can show raised ear feathering but never are they as big as this birds.

Long-eared Owl
Still onwards and upwards as they say and as long as I learn from this for another time then no harm done, except for losing a bit of face and self respect! But I can live with that. The man who has never made a mistake has never made anything and will never learn.

Just as it started to rain, unexpectedly since it wasn't forecast, a flock of ten Yellowhammers alighted in a tree which added another splash of colour to the day.

I was happy, it's not everyday that you get to see the impressive Glaucous Gull up close. Glaucous Gull eluded us last year during our attempt to see as many species as possible so it was good to see one now. It would be good if it could just hop over to Oxfordshire in the coming weeks so that I could add it to my Oxon list.

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