Wednesday, March 08, 2023

Gull ID. Lumpers and Splitters.

In the last post I queried the ID of the Kumlien's Gull at Dernford. Why is it not a straightforward Iceland Gull given the complete lack of any spots or marks on the primaries?

The answer, so far, is that this is a returning bird, and in its juvenile plumage it had features which identify it as Kumlien's rather than Iceland.  Although in its adult plumage it looks exactly like the nominate Iceland, its plumage when a juvenile marks it out as a Kumlien's.

This is a clear unsatisfactory position. We can no longer find a bird and identify it from the plumage we see at that time. We have to know the history of the plumage of that individual. This now leaves us in the position that a birder seeing an adult Iceland Gull drifting past on a sea watch cannot identify between Iceland and Kumlien's because they have no knowledge of that bird's history. 

Furthermore, the decision to make the Dernford bird a Kumlien's on the basis of the juvenile plumage raises the obvious question; why is the juvenile plumage the one that determines the race classification? Why is it not the adult plumage that determines the race and we accept that individual juvenile plumages may vary?

Species is objective (nearly), but race is a matter of opinion. Two creatures are different species if they cannot mate and produce fertile offspring. Although gulls (why is it always gulls) seem to test this as I believe there are chains of gull species/sub species that can breed successfully with nearest neighbours but not with further species/sub species. But race? Humans have many 'races', but they can all interbreed successfully, and they have gradation of features not binary division of features, hence where one draws the line between race A and race B is a matter of opinion and conjecture. 

And so we are back to Lumpers and Splitters. Splitters seek to divide a species into many races; /Isabelline/Daurian/Red-Tailed/Turkmenestan etc. Lumpers say there is one species, features may vary according to region, but differentiation is not sufficiently robust to assign all individuals conclusively to a given name. My personal inclination as you can probably guess is to favour the Lumpers.

I suppose my biggest bug-bear is Caspian Gull. No sooner had I learnt the essential criteria for this new race/species than people starting encountering 'hybrids' supposedly from colonies somewhere in central Europe that showed 'features of both'. What happens when the intermediates start breeding with pure birds and we get quarter-birds? It just becomes impossible to assign all individuals to a race, hence the notion of a 'race' becomes less useful. 

But back to this gull at Dernford. It has to be the case that a birder seeing a bird can, on the basis of the features visible on that day, arrive at a species identification in the absence of the plumage history of that particular bird. And on that basis the bird we saw at Dernford has to be an Iceland Gull. Simple as that really.        

In search of four year ticks.

It's that end-of-winter period where we are waiting for the temperature to rise and the birds to stream in. But there were four on-off decent birds within a couple of hours reach so Mike and I set off in search of year-ticks.

First was the Stanborough Little Bunting. Having handed over my children's inheritance to the car park machine we followed Birdguides directions and found ourselves at the reed-bed feeder. After two hours of intensive study of about fifteen Reed Buntings, we gave up. It was fun, watching them slowly work their way out of the reeds into the bushes then onto the feeder. And a chance to admire the variety of their plumage. But when we reached the point where we felt we knew every Reed Bunting we were seeing personally and with no change in the population, we cut our losses and headed off. 

Next up the Bedfordshire Waxwings. A flurry of sightings on BG gave us hope, but when we turned up  was no-one there - not a good sign. Slowly people arrived with cameras large and small, and we assembled at a corner and waited ... we reasoned we could wait all day and they might not show, so we cut our losses and headed off.

The on-off Great Grey Shrike was on again. We headed off into heaven-knows-where and having located a line of cars we deduced we had arrived at the site. Again, birders and telescopes in profusion, looking everywhere, but no firm news for a couple of hours. We have history with Great Grey Shrikes and large stretches of farmland, none of it good. So we cut our losses and headed off.

It was mid-afternoon now and just one target left, the Dernford Res Kumlien's Gull. Could we make it a full fat four-out-of-four Dip? As we took our position on the bank with the sun over our shoulder we noticed a distinct absence of birds, but as a flurry of snow swept around Mike shouted it was there, and we spent the next hour admiring this bird at close quarters. Wow, what a stunning bird. 

Just one issue. This had been touted as a Kumlien's Gull, but as we watched it at rest, preening, flapping, flying, neither of us could discern any features that made this anything other than a full one-hundred percent Iceland Gull. The primary tips were complete white. There was not a hint, anywhere, of the primary spots  or shading I would associate with a Kumlien's Gull. If this is a Kumlien's, every adult Iceland I have ever seen is a Kumlien's.

Just time to admire a couple of Yellow-Legged Gulls and we were on our way.

It sounds like a fiasco, but it was a great day. We were looking, searching, for most of the time, and had a great hour with a fabulous bird. I'd do it all again tomorrow. 


Decided to post it in Birdguides as an Iceland Gull, but at the time of posting it hasn't appeared on the site.

Here's a couple of very poor photos, as you would expect,  but you can see the primaries. Not a hint of grey in there.

Monday, January 30, 2023

Casual Year Listing.

It's been a while. And I guess that does reflect a certain loss of enthusiasm, a change of tack. 

Not that I haven't been out. A couple of trips to Hanningfield Res at the tail end of last year were notable for the excellent camaraderie and banter in an almost birdless hide (Goosander, Goldeneye, Grey Wagtail) and it did finally deliver excellent views of a Spotted Sandpiper.

2023 opened up with a leisurely trip to Abberton, and Bewick's Swan, Black Necked Grebe, Scaup, Long-tailed Duck, Great-Northern Diver, Smew, a brief Merlin and a dashing Peregrine. Oh, Abberton, with this list, you are surely spoiling us.

Then a semi-birding trip to a flooded Welney with Friends; a walk round Lady Fen produced three Short-eared Owls briefly, a lovely sparkly Spotted Redshank, great views of Barn Owl, and of course Whoopers and Tree Sparrow.

A visit to Eldernell for the UK's most photographed Long-Eared Owl (is there a better bird?) plus its two mates, a fantastic male Hen Harrier (is there a better bird?) , a Water Rail on the ice, and a couple of Common Crane flying across (is there etc etc). We finished up at Dernford Farm Res for the gull roost, but had chosen a no-show day for the Kumlein's but found a Caspian Gull and two Mediterranean Gulls.

Then a couple of days ago a walk round Old Hall which was excellent for its classic coastal birds but had no particular outstanding birds, then a couple of new sites: Rolls Farm then Goldhanger, both on the Blackwater estuary. We added Slavonian Grebe, Red Breasted Merganser, Common Scoter, and Corn Bunting to the year list with another Peregrine dashing through a flock of Golden Plover.

So its been good, nice and relaxed. Fun

But I am doing less, for a variety of reasons. Norfolk is great for some star birds, but I've done that a few times in recent years, and if I went I'd have done it again. So I'm looking for something a bit different, a new angle to keep things fresh and challenging. Will let you know how that goes.

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Canvey in an Easterly.

After weeks of solid west, the wind swung round through south(ish) to a brisk easterly. so I went to Canvey in anticipation of a stream of seabirds.

One hour and one peregrine later I learnt:

if it's East

without north

then don't

set forth.

Friday, October 14, 2022


It's been an absolutely sh*** week. Not for birds; visit with friend to Minsmere and Westleton; 10 Stone Curlews roosting, Dartford Warblers, Bittern, Raven, Woodlark calling, Bearded Tits erupting. That was great. No it was crap politically for people of my particular persuasion. I'm angry and feel like having a rant. 

Lets consider, briefly, sewage, and water extraction. Feargal Sharkey and others have done a great job on highlighting instances of raw sewage being pumped into rivers and lakes, and the sea. It's shocking, and to those of us who enjoy nature completely unacceptable. 

Why has this state of affairs arisen? Well, that's a good question. I would suggest a possible reason is that since 2007, 5 million Europeans have moved into the country. 

You may have views on that. You may, like many bird people I follow on twitter, think Freedom of Movement was a good thing and regret its passing. That's fine, we all have opinions. But it is, clearly, a thing. For scale, its the population of Yorkshire. Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield, York, Hull, and many glorious towns. All turned up in fifteen years, and they all drink water and use the toilet. 

Did you notice a water infrastructure the scale of Yorkshire being built? Did you notice the Derwent valley reservoirs, the Washburn Valley reservoirs, Gouthwaite, Scar House, Grimworth, Chelker, Tophill Low being constructed? No, me neither.

I don't think it is unreasonable to ask the question as to whether importing Yorkshire to do mainly minimum wage jobs generates sufficient tax revenue to build the necessary supportive infrastructure. I don't think it is unreasonable to ask where that leaves our food security, our energy provision.

But no. These questions never get asked. If they do get asked they get dismissed out of hand. 

I don't mind people having different opinions to mine. But I would like, at some point, people's political opinions to join up. To think that those who support for mass immigration might like to consider that importing a small European nation might have consequences. That it might put a strain on infrastructure. That there might be trade offs. And to be prepared to debate that, not to dismiss it. That's all. 

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Building The List in North Norfolk.

Arrived 9am ish at Cley Coastguards. A light Northerly wind. We spent a couple of hours scanning and saw Arctic Skua, Gannets (year tick!), Wigeon, Sandwich Tern, Arctic Tern, Common Scoter. And a distant bird, large gull sized, brown above, white below, heavy persistent flight. Hard to avoid the conclusion this was an Osprey. Hard to admit there wasn't enough to put it down definitively in my notebook. I have a hard and fast rule that I only have records in my book I can positively ID. No exceptions. 

A walk along the shingle to East bank. Mike found a couple of Wheatears and a Whinchat, then at East Bank a Pintail, 100+ Curlew, 120+ Golden Plover in a distant flock, and a couple of Yellow Wagtails. Back along the beach and this time 3 Arctic Skuas reasonably close in. A lovely gingery juvenile, all subtle barring, and two dark phase birds. So often a distant silhouette, a real treat to get a proper view of these birds.

Back to the car and check Birdguides. A ringtail Hen Harrier at Holkham (how soon before that becomes a Pallid? I quip to Mike) and a Greenish Warbler at Weybourne Camp. We head east and I make my one and likely only visit to Weybourne. The Muckleburgh Military Collection has fenced off a large area of prime habitat (and mined it too according to signs!).  We add a couple of cracking Mediterranean Gulls (adult and 1st winter) and a Stonechat, but this is unbirdable. Make mental note to never chase a rarity reported here. 

Lunch then back west. We stop at North Point Pools, add 30 Ruff, a Greenshank and an overhead Hobby. Birdguides duly reports a Pallid Harrier gone west through Holkham.

We stop off at Wells Woods. It has been a relatively quiet day, bright sunshine not conducive to dropping migrants in, and we walk through a birdless Dell until we hit The Flock and have a pleasant hour getting 10+ Chiffchaffs, 2 Willow Warblers, a Lesser Whitethroat, and a supporting cast of Treecreeper, Coal tit, Goldcrest, Long-Tailed tit.

Birdguides shows the Pallid Harrier has come back east of Lady Anne Drive! We scan from the Dell. Nothing. We stop off on the way. Buzzard, Marsh Harriers. Stoat. We are blocking a drive so move on to Lady Anne Drive drive itself and join a largeish crowd and wait for an hour and then there it is, quartering the reeds and banks, A vivid orange breasts and head, white rump, and classic harrier shape, then down into a field. Another half hour and it is up heading west at pace, just brief views as it rises over the bank. We head off to the lookout, get a nice Green Sandpiper and two close up Grey Partridges, but hear that as we were driving up it had flown high and west.

Clearly in the brief time I saw it I didn't get chance to tick off the key features. I guess it looked too small for a Hen and too big for a Monty's, but seriously who am I kidding? So what about that rule about hard and fast ID's? No Exceptions? Well, every rule has its exceptions. 

Saturday, September 03, 2022

Zen and the Art of Dipping.

A trip to Canvey for sea birds on the Easterlies was rudely interrupted by Birdguides, and Mike and I instead found ourselves at Cliffe, joining a surprisingly small crowd looking for Lesser Sand Plover. In summary, it had been present for a short while and had gone, but there was some optimism it would return.

We saw some decent birds. The annual autumn arrival of juveniles Curlew Sandpiper and Little Stint is one of the highlights of the birding calendar, and we saw plenty of those, plus a Pectoral Sandpiper, a Hobby, and some Pintail

We cut our losses and went for Canvey. We were way too late for the long-tailed skua, but had Common Scoter, distant Black Tern, and an Osprey that seemed to set off from the Kent coast and fly low towards Southend. Even at that distance, on 60x, I could make out the dark back, some white underneath, and that protruding head poking low from the body.

Then back to the car, and a quick check of Birdguides.

What do you want to see at that point? Do you want to see the Lesser Sand Plover has returned? Or it has not been seen again?

I think I've reached some kind of zen on the subject of missing rarities. I cannot be everywhere all the time. I make choices about where I'm going to be and when, and those choices mean I will miss some, or many rare birds. Ultimately I think most birders reach this point because it is pretty much impossible to do this activity on any reasonably regular way without consistently missing rare birds, so to preserve one's sanity and remain a reasonable person around the family, you have to reach a peace with that.

I'm sorry the Plover didn't return. Sorry that the birders we left on the mound didn't get the opportunity to see the bird and get it on their lists.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

A lesson in being greedy

A chance, after some initial chores, to get down to Rainham for a Wryneck. It's been a while since I've seen one, and a long while since I had good views of one.

But first, my phone pings with a local Redstart. How lucky am I? I pop up to the patch and local birder Laurence has kindly hung on to show me the bird. Or, as it happens, the stretch of bushes where it was. Never mind, Laurence is a very knowledgeable and genial birder who works hard in the local area, and as always it is a pleasure to spend time with him.

And then Rainham. A forced march round to Numbers. Someone coming away tells us (I've found company on the way round the reserve) that it is showing really well. We get to the spot, and yes its been high in the bush and feeding on the path all morning. Birders are showing each other their frame-filling photos. It's just popped out of sight but no doubt will be back in a minute.

You can guess the rest. We are treated to a couple of hours of Classic Wryneck Behaviour before a phone call requesting my presence puts and end to this fiasco. I passed the time entertaining the crowd with my opinions and observations, something I suspect I enjoyed a lot more than they did. 

Birdguides reports the Wryneck seen again this morning. I suspect that what the bird is doing, as I think Shrikes and others do, is to feed up first thing, and when it has eaten for the day it sits up quietly out of sight. 

Some lessons are clearly in order here:

  1. Don't go for others' passage migrants, particularly Redstarts in autumn. They appear briefly, then disappear. By the time I've heard, its too late.
  2. If I intend to go for a particular bird, then go. Don't mess around. 
And there are clearly some more lesson on the nature of birding to be drawn, maybe for another day. 


Gull ID. Lumpers and Splitters.

In the last post I queried the ID of the Kumlien's Gull at Dernford. Why is it not a straightforward Iceland Gull given the complete lac...