Monday 8 August 2022

7th August 2022; A Cape Crusade

Mrs Caley and I were toiling away in the heat of the mid-morning, trying to track down a couple of Great Bustards that had recently been found close to The Ridgeway near Wantage. We had tried and failed to find a reported Great Bustard in the same area before and now here we were again despite seeing one extremely well on the edge of a neighbouring village a couple of years back. The Bustards, being from a reintroduced population on Salisbury Plain, shouldn't really count on any lists either but are unusual and impressive birds to see and there was nothing else around to get for our year list (yes I know but we have to count something) owing to our recent good run of connecting with just about everything that we could.

We had received precise details of the Bustards likely hangout since a local birder and friend, Geoff, had found them a week or so before and had been keeping tabs on them ever since. Birding in the area is difficult though, the area of the Oxfordshire Downs is huge and even though, from high vantage points along the ridgeway, you can see for miles, there are still a multitude of hidden places that you can only see into by walking to them and those walks can be lengthy. Geoff had messaged me early to tell me that the two Bustards were still present and exactly where there were but despite that help I couldn't locate them so before long we tired of our task and began heading home. We would possibly try again on a cooler day, not that we get many of those these days, when heat shimmer would be less of an issue. 

Halfway back to the car, messages began to hit my phone from a "Twitchers" WhatsApp group that I'd recently joined. WhatsApp seems to be the new preferred way of disseminating bird news, it's instant and many people can join in a discussion at once. The amount of traffic on the group declared that the potential Cape Gull that had been discovered at Grafham Water was interesting to say the least. It would be a first for Britain, a bird that had never been seen here before, so was sure to spark a huge twitch. 

Grafham Water is a huge reservoir in Cambridgeshire close to the Bedfordshire border and is only around an hour from our home. So it was unfortunate that we were another forty-five minutes drive away on the wrong side and we were also a half hour walk away from our car. It was a no brainer though, we abandoned our fruitless search for the Bustards and decided that as soon as confirmation of the solid identity of the Gull was established we'd go for it. By the time we had reached the car, most experts were satisfied that the Cape Gull was the real deal and the countries keenest twitchers had galvanised into action and were firing up the collective Quattro's primed and ready to go.

It would be around a two hour drive from The Ridgeway so it was pointless rushing. Mrs Caley kept check on the WhatsApp gossip and updated me as we drove. We learned a lot about the Cape Gull, a bird that I am happy to admit, I had never heard about until an hour before! I had heard of Kelp Gull though which I knew was a species found in the southern oceans from South America through to South Africa and Australia. The Cape Gull (Larus dominicanus vetula) it transpired was one of five subspecies of Kelp Gull and was the South African version. Recently I learned that Cape Gulls had migrated northwards along the western coast of Africa and there were now breeding colonies in The Gambia and Morocco. Since that colonisation some Cape Gulls had been seen in Portugal and Spain and amazingly one had been found at a rubbish dump near Paris. So a few Gull experts had predicted that soon one would be found in Britain and here it was, a second calendar year individual, in middle England a long, long way from South Africa. It's records like this that helps to make birds and birding so fascinating!

We stopped briefly at home, snatched some snacks to eat and continued on the journey, arriving at a very busy carpark next to Grafham Water at around half past one. Birders were arriving en masse and we joined several on the ten minute walk to join another hundred and fifty or so already lined up at the reservoir wall. We found a gap in the throng and stared out at a very dry looking "beach" and some assorted wildfowl and a few Gulls that stood next to the water. It was obvious that the Cape Gull was there because pretty much everybody had a scope or camera trained on the birds. I didn't ask which one was the desired bird but instead scanned quickly through them. I had looked at a few photos online of Cape Gulls during our pitstop at home on the way so I knew that I was looking for a Gull with a dark black back similar to a Great Black-backed Gull. The fact that there was only one bird with such plumage on view meant that it must be the Cape Gull. Mind you, it didn't stop me confirming that fact with fellow Oxon birder and expert, Ewan (aka Black Audi Birding), even after I'd taken my initial snaps.

My initial reaction was that the Cape Gull was one big old bird, it looked nearly as big as the Canada Geese stood near it. Other than the black back, the bird, in keeping with most large Gull species, was mainly bright white. A small and beady looking dark eye was set into the pure white head and a huge yellow and pink bulbous bill was sported at the business end. The wings contained much white as well and it had noticeably long greenish-grey legs which gave it a very lofty look. Despite possessing these very obvious differences compared to Great and Lesser Black-backed I would still be hopelessly inept if I was to find this bird in the field. I have huge admiration for the person that decided this bird was different and equally applaud all of those involved in clinching the identity for lay birders such as myself. The broad white trailing edge to the wings was beautifully illustrated when the Cape Gull took a long wing stretch as it moved slightly along the beach to reposition, and to get away from one of the several Yellow-legged Gulls, for a while for a spot of preening.

The very welcome cooling breeze was blowing towards us, slightly alleviating the searing heat of the sun that bore down onto the concrete sun trap of the dam wall and road but because of that wind direction the Gull always adopted a stance facing into it and away from us watching from the wall. Hence I never once got a front or side on view of the bird except when it had stretched its wings skyward. Just eight minutes after taking my first photo the Cape Gull took to flight, veered to the left and flew to the southern end of the reservoir. 

The Gull alighted on the embankment close to the tower where it had first been noticed earlier in the day and zealously feasted on a dead trout that lay on the concrete apron. I could see it through my scope and we watched it for a few minutes. Many of the twitchers charged after the bird including our good friend Jim who we had a quick ten second catch up with. Jim had only arrived thirty-seconds before the Gull took off so quite rightly wanted to get to it for a better look and to take some photos for himself. We'll have a better chat next time. His much better photos than mine are at The Standlake Birder. Having already walked a good section of The Ridgeway in the morning and having had a decent, if brief, fill of the Cape Gull we retreated back to the car's air-conditioning and home. We made it back to the carpark pay station one hour and one minute after we had arrived. That extra minute cost us an extra £2.90. I hate having to pay to park my car.

The Cape Gull is the first of its kind ever seen in Britain, our 260th bird seen so far this year and my 397th species seen in the UK. The magic numbers of 300 species for the year and 400 for life edged a little bit closer. I am still hopeful of achieving both of those targets before the year is out.

Year List addition;

260) Cape Gull