In keeping with a lot of birders I struggle with identifying Gulls. True I can distinguish most in adult plumage but the myriad of progressive states, juvenile, first-winter, second-winter, sub-adult, near adult etc etc is a minefield for the inexperienced and I find it all a bit overwhelming. You need to spend a long time with Gulls and study each and every bird with a fine tooth comb to differentiate between some of them and my attention span doesn't stretch that far. A good friend and very experienced birder said to me the other day that Gulls should be classified into just three types, namely small Gulls, medium Gulls and large Gulls. Whereas I wouldn't personally compress them that to that extent, I get exactly what he meant! Then there are the experts, the Larophiles, as they like to be known, who have learnt, or are attempting to learn, just about every discernible plumage and structural feature of all Gulls and talk about things such as P5-10 and gonys angles and other intricate details. Despite being almost hopeless at differentiating between certain members of the Gull family, I like the family group, finding them both graceful and boisterous at the same time and they have loads of character which always makes watching them interesting.
The Glaucous Gull is a bird that I've still only seen once, a juvenile bird that was easy to connect with at Pitlochry a couple of years ago. Rare Gulls, such as the Glaucous, are very hard to come by in Oxfordshire and its surrounds and the only way to see them is usually to visit a reservoir or large lake just before dark when Gulls go to roost. Gull roosts attract the Larophiles but not me. During the daylight hours Gulls disperse to feed at salubrious outlets like rubbish dumps, where access is usually denied to the public, and are more difficult to find. So when a Glaucous Gull, and also an Iceland Gull had been found at a major waste and recycling plant just north of Rugby, where roadside viewing of an adjacent quarry where Gulls congregate is possible, I just had to give it a go at seeing them. We tried and failed at the start of the year but armed with more information I cajoled Mrs Caley, she doesn't do Gulls, into making a return visit to Shawell on Saturday morning.
|Glaucous Gull, juvenile, Pitlochry, February 2018
Listening to the chap who was talking away to a couple of the others, it was very clear that he knew his Gulls extremely well indeed and I continued hoping that he'd be able to point out a few to us. Disappointingly though he wasn't that forthcoming and for the most part we had to plough along unaided which was never going to be fruitful. We spent quite a few hours towards the end of last year trying to find a Caspian Gull for our 2019 year list without success so when I overheard a Caspian being described I just had to ask "where?". For the one and only time I was allowed to look through the expert's scope to view the plainly white-headed Gull with a black eye and long bill which was afloat on the water. No doubt that it was a Caspian and a terrific addition to this years list. Strange then that I felt both a tinge of unhappiness that I was looking at one now and not last year and also a distinct lack of excitement. If I'd seen it last year then I'd have been dancing through hoops! I searched for the bird with my own scope, managed to find it and shared the view with Mrs Caley. I reached for my camera to gain a record shot just as the whole gang of birds took to the air again and swirled around. The Caspian is probably in the photo below but I wouldn't bet on it, good luck and well done if you can pick it out.
|A small portion of the Gull flock.
A Great Grey Shrike had taken up territory just a few miles away at DIRFT industrial area and had showed very well over the previous few weeks. In fact we had meant to look for it on the 2nd but had completely forgot at the time and had only remembered too late after we driven past. Frustratingly the Shrike hadn't been reported on Friday and I figured that it most probably had departed since there was usually someone looking for it. I knew where it would be, if still present, after gaining information from my friend Kyle (Birdwatch Britannia) and I reckoned that the area would be visible at distance from the lay-by along the main road that passes the development. I set up the scope and panned around the rough ground but only found Magpies perched prominently. I spotted a birder walking back alone the track towards me so waited for him at the lay-by. He had scoured the whole area for a couple of hours and hadn't found the Shrike so we agreed that it had indeed left the area. At least it saved us a walk.
We had made plans to drive elsewhere, maybe for the Gloucestershire Short-eared Owls but after a few moments of reflection thought we'd leave it for another day and decided instead to go home and relax. It had been a bit of a frustrating day, continuing on a worrying trend this year, which so far hasn't been very profitable at all, Desert Wheatear excepted.
Sunday morning promised to be a beautiful wall to wall sunny one so we got out early and headed to Otmoor which is always a fabulous place to be when the sun shines. We aimed to be parked up before it got light so we could get to the action areas just as the sun rose over the reserve. Unfortunately I had forgotten that our usual route was subject to a road closure so we had to take a big detour via the Oxford ring road and arrived twenty minutes after we had hoped to. The sun was already peeping over the horizon to the East. There was only one other vehicle in the carpark though and that belonged to our good friend and eminent photographer Mark, aka The Early Birder, so at least we knew it wasn't too late. I was hopeful of seeing one of the resident Barn Owls that generally only appear early and late over the reedbed so we kept pleasantries brief and headed out along the frozen bridleway. The reserve was sparking into life and there was lots of noise from the flocks of Geese and Ducks but we didn't linger anywhere and kept to our mission. Another birder, walking much quicker than us, overtook us so we wouldn't have the place to ourselves. When we reached the first screen that overlooks the lagoon and reedbeds , he was already ensconced on one of the benches. "You've just missed a Barn Owl" he said and then proceeded to share a couple of photos that he'd taken. You can imagine my response then, although in keeping with my New Years resolution, it was muttered under my breath. We were happier a few moments later when the Barn owl reappeared along the hedgerow at the far end of the reedbed and was then on view for fifteen minutes or so. It's always pleasing when a plan comes off. Everybody loves a Barnie, even grumpy old me. The Owl was never very close so my photos were hardly showstoppers but enjoying its slow and languid but direct flight, in what was now the promised bright sunny morning, was just perfect.
|Common Redshank (centre) with Lapwings and Golden Plovers
|Lapwings and Golden Plovers
|Reed Bunting, female