The Digby Coast

Today I had a ride out with Ronnie looking for the Spruce Grouse that we saw yesterday at Pubnico. It failed to show and may have just been a passing male, unusual though, I didn’t think they moved far. We then looked at the coast from Yarmouth to Digby, ending our wanderings up the coast at Meteghan. It was a bit slow early on despite the pleasant conditions, it picked up a little when we got to Cape Saint Mary’s where some of the expected Harlequins bounced in the swell. Nearby Mavillette was pretty quiet, just a load of Black Ducks out on the marsh.

Low tide didn’t help the morning much and most of the birds that we were looking for, you guessed it, gulls, were out on the wet sand at Meteghan. Gulls being gulls, the majority of thme were heavily influenced by the first panicking bird of the flock. A group of five Bonaparte’s gulls right on the surf line were the bravest, but even they gave up eventually and flapped out of range, despite our best nonchalant approach.

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In the main gull group, checked for the Mew Gull but it was not with them at the time we were there, two Black-headed Gulls loafed. Both feigned total indifference in proceedings until we ambled towards them in unpredator-like fashion. One of the birds sported the makings of a chocolate brown hood of summer, (they really should be renamed). In another couple of weeks it’ll be fully ready to party but what with and where?

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In the composites of the Black-headed Gulls in flight – note the dark grey under the primaries.

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Here is one of the Black-headed Gulls near two Bonaparte’s Gulls nearby – not really confusable when seen like this.

Off the wharf, a selection of birds teased as they came close then drifted away when a camera was produced or worse, they drifted into the sun (not literally, the sun was still 149.6 million kms away). Making the best of a bad backlight I snapped away anyway.

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At the very end of the wharf on the breakwater, a group of 65 Great Cormorants sat looking smug, one with the wings spread in drying mode, no natural oils to plaster the feathers with you see so they have to dry out after lengthy fishing sessions.

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Later we bumped into Joan Comeau who had been snapping too. Turns out she’d got a photo of the Mew Gull earlier so it may have been further out in the gull mass along the beach and we just didn’t pick it before they all flew, can’t think what spooked them.

Up on the rocks at the back of the beach, three American Pipits fed on the many flies coming from the rotting kelp. These hardy insects still buzz about at below zero temps, making them very attractive to insectivores.

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Tomorrow is the last day of winter listing season. My previous best in Quebec where, admittedly, I had less enthusiasm for frostbite, was in 2011/12 with 86 species. This season I upped the ante a bit and had 151, pushing my Canada winter list total up to 185. Not bad for the season of discontent, pity eBird doesn’t recognise the Canadian penchant for winter listing and keep a running total like in other categories, at least there is Lister’s Corner.

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Grey Morning

As we continue to suffer the ravages of winter – temperatures of -5 this morning but hitting zero later, sunny and fine – compensation comes along in the form of good birds from time to time. This morning (Set Feb-27th), I joined Ellis, Ronnie and Sharron d’Entremont in visiting Ellis’s camp on Cranberry Bog. Our first surprise came when a young male Spruce Grouse sat by an access road, a species rarely seen in the area these days. It didn’t settle and a corvid flashing overhead seemed to spook it before it could be immortalised.

After a backwater boat ride through the bog to Ellis’s camp, we basked in the glorious sunshine awaiting the arrival of his winter Grey Jay flock. We had been assured that there was a 98% chance of success, the camp had hosted six birds the last time Ellis had visited, all eager to take supplementary food offerings, and so, as the minutes ticked by our anxiety heightened, and we toned down the chances to a more sensible 97%. After 45 minutes, a sentinel appeared atop a distant Spruce, did the bobbing and the weaving to check things out before slipping away, was that all the Grey Jay action we would get today?

After another ten minutes or so a distant gliding bird heralded the mob arrival of the six and they bounded in repeatedly to snatch the fare and then took it off to hoard it for another day. Grey Jays are known for their confiding nature and this lot had certainly read the manual. At times they were too close to focus and, mostly, they were too active to get the sort of portrait shots you hope for, then there was the flying bird challenge.

The background noise caused by, well the background, constantly confused the cameras and made it impossible to get the flight shots pin-sharp. Even when focusing on tree-top bird with autofocus locked and waiting for the downward plunge, the camera would lose interest in the target and then go for the easier ‘big tree in focus’ option.

The jays kept up the activity for some time, taking short rest breaks before launching another assault. We eventually left them to it and made our way back along the waterway, passing two more Grey Jays later. I took 350 shots, as you do, and most went in the great pixel bin on the desktop, but a few made the cut, here they are.

A big thanks to Ellis for welcoming me along and to Ronnie and Sharron for setting it up. Even without the bonus grouse it was a great morning, and to have the jays in such close proximity was quite spellbinding.

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Nearly March

I don’t think many birders in temperate areas have a fondness for February. It is a spiteful month when all that January optimism has been leeched away and the only thing to look forwards to is March. Perhaps we should devise a spring migrant advent calendar that runs down the clock until the first Yellowthroat or Cerulean Warbler – wish.

On tropical CSI, the snow has gone but the winds are teasing fog ashore and, as we know, fog, along with driving rain/snow and blown-over gales, are the birders enemy. The hoped for winter birds are leaving it late, no Bohemian Waxwings, no Common Redpolls and no crossbills of either sort. As for wildfowl, they are hardly out of the starting blocks, sure we have masses of Black Ducks and the Tufted Duck lingered until a few days ago, but where are the Eurasian Wigeon, the Gadwalls, Northern Pintails and even a Snow Goose? El Nino has a lot to answer for and it’s not doing our CSI big year any good whatsoever, I’ve not even had a Snowy Owl around CSI this month.

On the plus side the Brent Geese are increasing in numbers and are getting a bit less wary. These two adults where on a rainy Daniel’s Head on February-24th. One has quite an extensive neck-collar but not quite broad enough for Black Brant and it doesn’t connect at the back. While looking at these birds I researched Grey-bellied Brent, perhaps something not many people have heard of but genetically different enough from the other brent forms to be considered a species. They have occurred in Ireland and so may occur here, something to look out for along with Black Brant and Dark-bellied Brent Goose, all of ours are pale-bellied.

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Thanks to Johnny for the heads up re the brents.

As part of our wanderings Sandra and I went to Baccaro, again to look for King Eider in the 400+ strong raft of Common Eiders there. On each visit the eiders have been just beyond reasonable range but if you don’t try you don’t find. We did see the wintering Snowy Owls, the male type was pretty obvious as it sat on a solar panel. Quite nearby the second, younger bird took a more traditional perch, rusting metal, and it is clear that they have something going on else why would they tolerate each other when there is plenty of space to give each other carpal room.

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We also had a drive around Sable River looking for grosbeaks and crossbills. It was a bust but this Golden-crowned Kinglet expressed amazement that I would photograph it, pity about the obscuring branch.

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Global Big Day

The second eBird Global Big Day takes place on May-14th so that is the day I’ll be doing a Cape Sable Island big day too. The eBird event is just another of their regular ‘get out and bird’ things that don’t really apply to many of us because we do anyway. For those not familiar with a big day, well sorry the life of a hermit wasn’t for you and welcome back to the real world, here is how they work.

From midnight to midnight on May-14th I’ll try to see or hear, but preferable see, as many bird species as I can within the pre-defined area known as Cape Sable Island. This includes Cape Island too as it is really an extension of the main island but with fewer trucks! I’d rather like to overnight on Cape Island, then come off around 9am to do the rest of the main island. I have no idea whether anyone has done a big day here before, if not, then the record is guaranteed.

Finally, I’m just putting the finishing touches to the Cape Sable Island birding guide and I expect it to be out before the end of April, perhaps much sooner. For now it will be limited in its accuracy regarding rarities here, I’ll do my best but there does not seem to be an easy to work database of records available and so I’ll do what I can from print sources. Later versions will be tighter and I’d like to use photos of rarities found here. Recent ones I know about and the digital age has been a boon in that respect but if you have prints of rarities, perhaps species that have less than five records for CSI, then I’d appreciate a scan to use, all credited of course.

Played for and got

This past week has seen me mostly on the road shuttling between the South Shore Hospital, Bridgewater, and home daily. When I could I managed to squeeze in a bit of birding, I tried to make it in Queens County as they seem woefully short of birders, also I hoped to find Red Crossbill for my Nova Scotia list, they are regular out in Queens and Lunenburg, not so much around our way recently.

One spot I wanted to take a peek at was Cherry Hill, an area that has had a good few rarities over the years. Yesterday (Feb-18th) my exploration led me to nearby Broad Cove, a quiet little spot which had a few birds. As I left the small parking lot I passed a house with a feeder, I think just about the only one I saw out that way. Researching eBird I saw that one birder regularly found Red Crossbills not too far away, more towards the West Dublin area. Sandra was leaving the hospital today so I took the slow route through.

I reckoned that the feeders I found might prove a good bet for a Red Crossbill, provided I could get a good look at them before the owners called the Police! As I eased towards them, a movement opposite in a yard where raised beds had been mulched attracted my attention, a group of birds were feeding on the floor but had flushed up into a sapling. Training the bins on them I felt quite smug in finding a female Red Crossbill, a little lower her red mate was partially hidden.

The road was tiny, but I gambled on there being no traffic and just watched. After regaining their confidence, the two birds flitted to my side of the road and began feeding on a shaded verge. A little wrenching back of the mirror got me a couple of shots of the female, the male was obscured and getting even more so. I nudged the car forwards and they flew off calling, no doubt to return once the blue beast had left (the car is blue, I’ve given up wearing woad!).

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A couple of days before, I’d checked out a little spot further south, one of those places called lower-western-south whatever. It was really just a journey break but these young Surf Scoters entertained for a while, feeding actively off the secret parking spot.

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Winding way back to a visit to Lower West Pubnico on Jan-27th, I culled this shot from the masses of gull photos taken, missed it first time. It’s a Nelsons Gull, a hybrid between Glaucous and Herring Gull. I’m not sure when Admiral Lord Nelson made the connections that this chunky gull was of exotic parentage but, when he did he had the chutzpah to name it after himself, some ego that boy had!

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Last up a loon head because I like it.

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Not Worth a Toe!

Between 1966 and 2003 I saw Redwings every winter, I even had them territorial and singing on my patch before they realised that the local voices lacked their usual Scandinavian twang and fled. I think my best day count exceeded 12500, sometimes the conditions conspired to give us huge arrivals of what we Brits call ‘winter thrushes’ and they’d go over “tseeeping” away day and night. I am therefore seriously questioning my sanity after spending 9 (NINE) hours in well below zero temperatures looking for one at Lower Sackville near Halifax. To compound the folly, this was the second attempt and it’s not like it’s local or anything, it requires three hours winter travel to get there and then it involves standing in snow and ice with no feeling in my feet, waiting for the bird to show, what’s not to like?

We did see it though, well Mike MacDonald and I did and they were just about the lousiest views going. We saw it about an hour after arriving and we stayed a further eight hours hoping to see it better. Luckily we were able to take a short break in a nearby parking lot to enjoy a Common Gull, the European common bird flavour continues. I did manage a decent shot of it and I saw ‘patches’ a local Lesser Black-backed Gull which has patches on the wings so a pretty creative name there. I’m not much of a one for giving names to birds, as I mentioned to Jabba the Chat when I saw her later.

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We didn’t get to see the Redwing again despite high vigilance and many eyes searching, but we did have an entertaining time mixing with the birding glitterati of Nova Scotia and I think they enjoyed the company of the boys from the Banana Belt.

A few days ago Sandra and I had a roll around Cape Sable Island and it turned out to be quite entertaining. At one stop, Bulls Head Wharf, we parked up and waited while a flock of Greater Scaup drifted into the wharf. The group were a bit nervy but I got a few shots. It was interesting to see the bill pattern of one of the males. Instead of the black bleed from the nail outwards (as on one bird) the black was confined to the broad nail. This is often cited as a feature of Lesser Scaup but it’s not consistent. On Lesser Scaup the nail is smaller appearing neater than on Greater Scaup.

Here are the shots:

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This mucky looking thing might be a Lesser Scaup, amongst other things.

We then went along to Stoney Island Beach access road. The bushes were quiet busy with eight Yellow-rumped Warblers and a selection of sparrows including Fox, American Tree, Song, White-throated and Swamp. The latter bird was interesting and confirmation of a little puzzle. I saw a bird there briefly a while ago, got a doc shot and then had to leave. The photo had some suggestion of Lark Sparrow about it, essentially as it had a chest spot. Seeing it better it was clearly a Swampy with a spot, I’ve not noticed that mark on others before.

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It has been fairly quiet around CSI recently, I even had to go off to Baccaro to see a Snowy Owl and even then I had to accept views of it sat on the weather ball. No wonder they keep giving out snowy weather!

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Another little jaunt was back to Lower West Pubnico to see yet more gulls. Unfortunately the outflow lacked the requisite bits of fish and the bird numbers were paltry, we did see this Glaucous Gull though, always a pleasure.

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Winter seems to have arrived, it is pretty cold, especially at night but it should warm up again and soon all that horrible snow will go away. Until then it’s warm fires, hot toddies and semi-hibernation while the toes turn black and fall off. Shouldn’t be a real impediment for me when the Fieldfare arrives, after all, I do have another 10 toes left to go at.

February Doldrums?

In the normal cycle of things, February is a depressing month. It is considered to be in the depths of winter, the time when hibernating bears wake up and look outside thinking to have a pee, then, realising its that awful time of year again, curl up and put the bladder alarm on snooze, but is it really so bad? Update Feb-8th – here comes the nor-easter!

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We are a week in and, as the Banana trees sway in the warm breeze, I’m thinking that this can’t be quite right. It should be the month when all those little jobs around the house get done as the rain/snow/ice pellet mix batters the windows but no, we bask in plus temperatures and a coat is only required if you intend to go on a hike. The birds certainly think its winter. Johnny told us murres would come and so they have. Only Thick-billed so far but I’m in alcid heaven, not to mention wearing the camera out trying to get ‘that’ shot. Today (Sunday Feb-7th) I was able to see three with minimal effort and I photographed two. The third was last seen trying to choke a Great Black-backed Gull by getting itself deliberately stuck in its throat!

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The top Thick-billed Murre was a happy one off Courtney Rd Wharf, the lower had just seen its friend go the way of the gull and was probably expecting the worst. Watching the gulls grab the murre, I wonder whether last weeks bird had been dropped onto the road by gulls, rather than attempted to fly over the road?

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Speaking of which I pelted a couple of those big beasts that were trying to make a meal of this Dovekie inside Daniel’s Head, hope it made it to the sea, it was heading that way.

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You won’t be surprised to know that the gulls numbers have climbed sharply too, what with it being the depths of winter and all that. West Head at Newellton is our local go to place for Iceland and Glaucous plus things that tick neither box adequately. It is an education to stand amongst them and to see the variation within all but the Great Black-backed and Glaucous Gulls.

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Gull on the right had possession of a perch, and told everyone, gull on the left kicked it off and issued a correction.

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A whopper of a bill on this imm Herring Gull

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Recently Alix posted a photo and explanation on Facebook regarding a degree of leucism (possibly a made up word) in a local Common Grackle. The explanation had many terms ending in ‘ic’ and ‘ism’ but basically explained why the bird was not a true albino and was only partially leucistic. Although this is not a species normally found in Nova Scotia, I thought I’d illustrate the two extremes, a normal Eurasian Blackbird and a white one, same species but very different looking.

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Finally, if you find yourself warming to gulls and wanting to get stuck into a few, got to Lower West Pubnico following the signs for Dennis Point then seek out Wharf four, right to the south of the main bit. If the factory is working they will be there.

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Count them!

Off Island

We had to go to Bridgewater for an appointment on Feb-3rd and so plans were made to go on after to try to see a Common Gull, Mew Gull too but not really. It is a good three way split for Mew, Common and Kamchatka and the ones we are most likely to get in Nova Scotia are the European Common Gulls. On the eve of the trip the finding of a Redwing, an winter friend from the old country, added a frisson of even greater excitement than seen a gull might generate.

You might mock at the thought of a Common Gull being exciting. It would have been a Canada and Nova Scotia tick to start with and, when the taxonomists deem the time right, a bird in the listing bank as my (so far) only Common Gull seen in North America. In 1998 I was actually inspired enough to write a short note about the variability of Common Gulls, a note that came about because I found what I still believe was a Kamchatka Gull in my old county of Nottinghamshire. I’ve reproduced the note later, itpublished it in a magazine I used to do called The Nottinghamshire Naturalist.

But first, I’ll tell the short story of the day and put a fluffy bird up so that non gull enthusiasts can see it and then wander off elsewhere.

Business done in Bridgewater, we steamed off towards Lower Sackville full of optimism. Finding the first site was easy as even our stupid sat-nav (Garmin, don’t bother) can find a Wendy’s! Despite offering some choice scraps, the only gulls that came along were, to sort of quote Obi Wan Kenobe, “not the gulls we’re looking for”. We moved on to Pleasant Hill Cemetery where a star-studded cast of Nova Scotia birding had been there for hours and had come up blank on the Redwing.

Well they can be buggers to see some times, Unobtrusive grovelers seemingly fitted with stealth technology, yes they can be difficult. Sensing that we should try for at least one of a hoped for triumvirate of birds in the area, we headed to where most of a Yellow-breasted Chat had been wintering. Normally as accomplished as Redwings for hiding, the chat eventually sat on the edge of a feeding dish topping up on grub. Not great shots but it was cold.

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As we waited and watched, small groups of American Robins dropped in or popped up causing repeated but momentary palpitations, eased when it became clear that they had no foreigners amongst them. It looked unlikely that we’d see the Redwing, so it was after bird two we went – via Petsmart to get a bag of dried cat food for the gulls. I chose the healthy kitty ones thinking they might well sharpen up a few of those mucky gull plumages, ready for spring. A liberal scattering pulled in the birds but none were at all Common, just common.

We went back to the Redwing, or lack of, for another go. Thankfully the ‘bingly-beep-beep’ of the phone told me that Mike and Sandra had gone after the gull and found it, so back we went again. After a frustrating few minutes, when I’d have been better using the bins than the camera lens to search, the gull nut was cracked and it showed very well. It has yellower legs than many winter Common Gulls, they often tend to be greeny, but in all other aspects it was very familiar and good to see alongside the Ring-billed Gulls. How often I’ve sifted through hundreds of Common Gulls just to find a Ring-billed!

We were joined by Angela and Diane in watching the gull and they repeatedly snaffled the cat-snacks (the gulls not the gals) until, eventually, they dragged their laden bellies off to whichever the local pond the gulls spent their nights. It had been a good day to be a mall-gull and many would sit lower in the water tonight. I just hope all the cat treats don’t alter their behavior and they feel an overwhelming compulsion to scratch expensive furniture and then throw up on a carpet.

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Below is the note what I wrote. It was based on many hours gull watching when working as a country park warden (see my book ‘Parklife’ for more hilarious stories). The images are scans so apologies for the quality, digital hadn’t been invented then.

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This is the cover for my gulls edition of The Nottinghamshire Naturalist, I just re-read it, not bad if I say so myself. I added an interesting link and re-edited the piece to fit.

Variation in Common Gulls

Any UK gull watcher sifting through roosting or loafing gulls will have noticed that some species show a great variation in appearance. Differences may be structural, with leg length, bill length and primary projection often substantially different on two individuals of one species sitting side by side. Other differences may be more subtle, focusing on the colour tones of parts of the plumage or bare parts, eye colour or even the numbers of mirrors on a gulls wing. At present both the Herring Gull Larus argentatus and Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus complex are being examined to see if there are sufficient differences in the various races for them to be given full species status. It is suggested that up to 11 ‘species’ of Herring Gull types may exist. One species of gull in which clear and obvious plumage and structural differences do occur is the Common Gull Larus canus.

The Common Gull is a circumpolar species generally divided into four races although features distinguishing these races are not entirely clear cut and, because of the clinal variation of individuals within the Common Gull’s distribution range, clear cut differences may never be applicable to all birds encountered within what should be their core range. To clarify current thinking; Common Gulls of the race Larus canus canus are found from Ireland east to Russia where they become Larus canus heinei or ‘Russian’ Common Gull. Further east birds become Larus canus kamtschatschensis or Kamchatka Gull. A short hop into North America finds the final race Larus canus brachyrhynchus or Mew Gull, a race which is largely confined to the west coast of North America but may up on the east coast of North America from time to time.

The object of this note is to not necessarily assign individuals cited as belonging to anything other than Larus canus canus, merely to point out that individuals showing some characteristics of the other three races are occurring and that maybe Common Gull taxonomy is another committee headache in the pipeline.

My interest in Common Gulls began when an individual present at Colwick in January 1993, and returning on subsequent years, was so different from other birds that some observers doubted that it was even a Common Gull. The opportunity to observe Common Gulls loafing or feeding has presented itself at Colwick each winter with additional observations being made at local gull roosts, most notably the Hoveringham roost.

In trying to allocate birds to types I used the following criteria. Overall plumage, mantle colour, jizz, leg length and colour, bill length, depth and colour.

Type 1: Typical Common Gulls Larus canus canus

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Familiar to all European observers, winter birds vary from being heavily streaked around the head to light mottling. Bills are usually greenish, often banded. They are not particularly deep and are tapered to the tip. Legs are green to grey-green, sometimes yellowish and on the short side. The mantle is midway between Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus and Black-legged Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla in colour appearing almost gun-metal grey. One to two mirrors are usually present on adults along with a white trailing edge to the flight feathers forming a neat tertial crescent on the closed wing. The facial expression is (in most cases) gentle. First-winter birds always appear slightly bigger and look meaner, their immature scapular and wing covert feathers are fairly uniform with, generally, no extensive pale edges, these become bleached from the turn of the year.

Type 2: ‘Russian’ Common Gulls Larus canus heinei

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In recent years odd birds, mostly adults, have appeared to show some characteristics associated with the race L. c. heinei. These birds appear bulkier and darker than type 1 birds. First-winter types appear to have a more chequerboard appearance to their scapulars and wing coverts caused by broad buff fringes to the darker feathers. Around the eye these birds seem to show a small confined dark patch on a clean looking white head, most distinctive.

Interesting link below.

http://birdingfrontiers.com/2015/01/25/russian-common-gull-heinei/

Type 3: Yellow-legged variants 1.

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About 20-25% of the birds present at Colwick show yellowish to clear yellow legs which are slightly longer than those of type one birds. These birds also have structurally deeper, clean yellow bills with a well-defined gonydal spot. Overall they appear structurally, heavier than type 1 birds, appearing quite ‘chesty’ at rest. In flight they seem to have whiter looking wings with two or more obvious mirrors and a broader tertial crescent with some tertials appearing 50% white.

Type 4: yellow-legged variants 2.

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These birds are a minority but are distinctive when encountered. The legs are dull yellowish and appear very long compared to type 1 birds. They stand rather hunched up looking short necked and tend to have cleaner heads. The bill is of similar proportions to type 1 birds but is yellow and banded dark near the tip. They show big tertial crescents and the wings seem long looking at rest. The mantle looks slightly darker than type one approaching ‘Russian’ type birds.

Type 5: Mew types.

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These are the most distinctive of all birds seen and can be instantly picked out from gull flocks either on water or land. During the period of observation, generally October to March, one or two Mew type individuals might occur at Colwick with up to six in gull roosts. They are obviously smaller than type 1 birds, the head is clean, almost sparkling white and the eye is small, dark and positioned well forward. The bill is small, lemony coloured with a neat dark area around the gonys. The mantle is similar to type 1 birds but the tertial crescent is bigger. The wings look long and primary projection is greater than type one birds. The mirrors are small and neat, the legs are green and look short. Structurally the birds are compact and neat and have a distinctive jizz which makes them look front heavy and ‘chesty’.

The Kamchatka Gull.

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This bird was a large, dominant individual which showed most of the features associated with yellow legged 1 types. The mantle was slightly darker than type 1 birds. The head had a streaking pattern different from type one birds in that it extended from the mid crown onto the nape and ear coverts and then formed a slim necklace. The bill was quite long, clean deep yellow with a neat gonydal spot. The legs were long and chrome yellow, as yellow as a Yellow-legged Gull in summer! The wing pattern showed three mirrors and was identical to a bird illustrated in a Japanese field guide, although the location of the bird in the photo was not given (in English). The bird was barrel chested in flight and called with weak ‘kee kee’ quite different from the other Common Gulls and separable from a group on call alone.

It returned to winter three out of four years and was readily identifiable.

As I said before, this article is not meant to challenge the taxonomy of the Common Gull group or state that individuals of currently recognised races are occurring. I merely convey the results of observations made during a prolonged period of looking at the birds and because, like everyone else who looks at gulls, I find the variation within one taxa both confusing and fascinating.

If you got this far, well done!