Saturday, 31 August 2013

The best photographs of juvenile Caspian Gull ever taken in the UK..?

Bird photographer Mick Southcott is a firm favourite in the BirdGuides Iris galleries, being renowned for producing quality images of both common and rare birds over the years. On a trip to Dungeness in mid-August, where he had photographed juvenile Yellow-legged Gulls the week previous, Mick came across two smart juvenile gulls at the fishing boats - one clearly a Yellow-legged, but the other differing somewhat in terms of both structure and plumage. Mick has kindly allowed us to reproduce a few of his fantastic images of the second bird below:

There are number of features clearly visible in these fabulous shots that don't ring true with identification as Yellow-legged Gull - or indeed Herring or Lesser Black-backed Gulls. The latter two species can easily be ruled out by the overall paleness of plumage, clean tail and rump pattern, all dark tertials and relatively advanced state of moult and wear. Structurally, the bill is relatively long, thin and lacks a significant gonydeal angle while in the lower image, the bird appears quite long-necked. The middle two images betray the bird's long and lanky legs - all of these structural qualities are suggestive of Caspian Gull. Another clincher is the stunningly white underwing portrayed in the second shot - only cachinnans would show such unmarked axillaries and underwing coverts, particularly at this young age - the body and head are also already very pale. Further good indicators include the greater covert pattern and the also the markings on the moulted scapulars - both visible in the lower image.

Despite British birders scrutinizing gulls more closely than ever, juvenile Caspian Gulls remain a genuinely rare sight in Britain with no more than a handful of records annually. There is only a small window in which they may occur on our shores: from the very end of July through to early/mid September, when birds' moult generally becomes well advanced towards first-winter plumage. Given this rarity and gulls' tendence to favour locations where, more often than not, they give distant views, Mick has done exceptionally well to capture a magnificent and highly instructive series of shots that illustrate this much sought-after age class superbly. And what a beautiful, elegant gull to to boot! These surely must be some of the best ever shots taken of Caspian Gull in the UK?!

You can find plenty more of Mick's Caspian Gull shots on this post on his blog, 'Birding the Day Away'.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Golden Eagles breeding at three years old: a first for Scotland

For the first time ever in Scotland, two young Golden Eagles have been found to lay eggs at just three years old. Normally, Golden Eagles breed for the first time from four to six years old. Only once before has a three-year-old eagle been confirmed to lay eggs, and that was in southeast Spain.

This new information about the breeding behaviour of the species was discovered through a satellite-tagging project run by the Highland Foundation for Wildlife, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), Natural Research and the RSPB. Two satellite transmitters were attached to young Golden Eagle in Galloway and Strathspey in July 2010. Two young females laid eggs this year, at just three years old, having mated with older males in the Scottish Borders and Aberdeenshire.

Golden Eagle, Mull from the Iris galleries © Brian Rains/Wild About Mull

Roy Dennis, Director of the Foundation commented, "This is very exciting, as it is the first proof in Scotland that Golden Eagles can breed here at three years. It shows that when they live in areas with plenty of food and little competition, can breed at an early age. Unfortunately, the eggs did not hatch but that is not surprising for such young individuals."

Professor Des Thompson of SNH, who chairs the group running the work added, "Both areas where these young Scottish eagles have bred were previously identified as having several unoccupied territories. Previous research has pointed to a link between persecution and younger Golden Eagles managing to secure territories and attempting to breed. The shortage of older females may explain why such young birds have managed to breed. Provided the right conditions now prevail - persecution free, good availability of prey, good weather, and appropriate habitat - then we hope that these birds will attempt to nest again next year and young will fledge. This would signal the start of an upturn of the fortune of Golden Eagles in these areas."

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

White-tailed Eagle breeding success in Fife

For the first time in almost two centuries, White-tailed Eagles have bred in the east of mainland Scotland. Conservationists confirmed today (20th August) that a pair released in 2009 as part of a successful reintroduction project, have raised one chick in a Forestry Commission Scotland wood in Fife.

Between 2007 and 2012, RSPB Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage and Forestry Commission Scotland, with additional financial support from Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and Fife and Rural Tayside LEADER Programme 2007-2013, reintroduced a total of 85 eagles to Scotland's east coast. Their progress and whereabouts continue to be regularly monitored by project staff and volunteers.  Having found a safe and secure home, the adult pair successfully reared a healthy male chick which was fitted with a leg ring and white wing tags with black numbering, earlier this summer by trained and licensed ringing experts.

Adult White-tailed Eagle, Mull from the Iris Galleries © Debra Pickering

Minister for Environment and Climate Change Paul Wheelhouse said, "This is fantastic news — it is the first chick in almost two hundred years to be hatched on the mainland of the east coast, which was the ultimate aim of the reintroduction project. I hope it will be the first of many of this magnificent species which will eventually spread their territories right across Scotland. I'd like to thank all partners who have played their part in making this exciting and special event happen."

Stuart Housden, Director of RSPB Scotland added, "This chick marks a huge milestone in our partnership to restore White-tailed Eagles to their former range in the south and east of the Country. This success further strengthens the strong bond we have formed with the people of Norway, who kindly gifted birds for release in Scotland throughout the reintroduction process, which started over 30 years ago on the west coast. Young birds successfully released 5-6 years ago are now pairing up in the wild-and we are very excited a chick from a nest in Fife has safely fledged. We owe a great deal to the project staff, farmers, landowners, partners and of course the general public for their support and enthusiasm. Our focus now will be to continue monitoring this youngster and the other east coast birds with the expectation of more breeding attempts next year. These wonderful birds are back! As always project officer Rhian Evans is keen for any east Scotland eagle sightings to be reported to her via email."

Ron Macdonald, SNH's Head of Policy & Advice said, "After almost 200 years, it's wonderful to have a sea eagle chick fledge again in the east of Scotland. With the west coast eagles already established, this is a good step towards a healthy population of sea eagles across the country."

Colin McLean, Head of the Heritage Lottery Fund, Scotland commented, "The arrival of this chick marks the beginning of a new era for the sea eagles in the east coast of Scotland. The Heritage Lottery Fund is delighted to be involved in reversing the fate of these rare, once native, birds. They are part of Scotland's natural heritage and it is the prospect of glimpsing rare species, such as the glorious sea eagle, that attracts visitors to our shores bringing much-needed tourist income to our communities."

Once a regular sight in Scotland's skies, the White-tailed Eagle was driven to extinction in the Victorian era. The last native eagle was killed on Shetland in 1918. The species only returned to the UK following a successful reintroduction to the West of Scotland, starting on the Isle of Rum in 1975. As well as helping return the UK's largest birds of prey, the project has also strengthened links between Scotland and Norway, where the sea eagle population is strong. Project staff worked closely with Norwegian colleagues visiting nesting sites and selecting suitable chicks to use for the East Scotland reintroduction. Although the majority of the Scottish population remains on the west of the country, the species is now regularly spotted in Eastern and Central Scotland too.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Bon Bon!

When Tim Cleeves rang us during the afternoon of 14th to say that, along with Maurice Hepple, they had just been watching an adult Bonaparte's Gull at Cresswell Pond in Northumberland, our first thoughts were that it might be the adult that had been seen around Whitburn and Cleadon (Durham) on 10th and 13th for it hadn't yet been reported that day. However, Tim's comments on the Cresswell adult suggested otherwise, describing it as having a 'full black hood' that looked 'pristine'.

Sure enough once Maurice had returned home, sent some of his images through and allowed us the opportunity to compare them with the video footage of the Durham bird from a few days earlier, shared by Whitburn Observatory stalwart Paul Hindness, it was immediately apparent that the North East is indeed currently hosting two different adults - the Whitburn individual has clearly begun to lose its summer hood, showing extensive white flecking around the face.

Adult Bonaparte's Gull at Cresswell Pond (courtesy and copyright M Hepple)

Bonaparte's Gull, adult, Whitburn Steel (courtesy and copyright P Hindness)

Tim and Maurice watched the Cresswell adult fly off to the south and so far it has not been relocated. Incidentally, the Whitburn/Cleadon individual was last reported on Tuesday so while there are two birds, tracking down either is set to be a challenge.

Thanks to Tim Cleeves, Maurice Hepple and Paul Hindness.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Yellow-legged Gulls in late summer

It's almost a clich̩ to state that gulls "are not to everyone's taste". Indeed, that may well be the case Рhabits, habitat and oft-bewildering identification challenges tend to put a lot of people off. That said, increased airtime Рlargely thanks to dedicated internet sites such as the wonderful Рhas contributed to an ever-growing band of birders dedicating their time to searching the various rubbish dumps, estuaries, ports, harbours and beaches at which gulls tend to gather.

At this time of year, Yellow-legged Gulls are at their most numerous across Britain & Ireland as post-breeding dispersal from breeding grounds further south and east brings birds to our isles. Good numbers can generally be found across much the South East and parts of the Midlands, with gulls lingering to moult before their numbers gradually drop off again throughout the autumn (though plenty do stay for the winter).

The River Thames estuary is really the hub of Yellow-legged Gull activity in Britain, and mid-July to mid-September generally witnesses the highest counts reported as birds congregate to moult in the area – for example, 145 were at Rainham on 9th September 2012 and, just yesterday (6th August 2013), 142 were counted on the Kent side of the Thames between Greenhithe and Dartford.

The Rainham area is a great place to get to grips with Yellow-legged Gulls, with the late summer period also offering a fine opportunity to compare juveniles with their Herring and Lesser Black-backed counterparts. Though birds are often feeding out of view on the dump itself (to which there is strictly no access), birds can be watched from the adjacent riverside footpath as they commute to the river to bathe and loaf. Though birds can often be swimming mid-channel at high tide (and thus may be distant), low tide sees them loafing on the exposed foreshore where they give excellent views from the footpath. Parking is available in the riverside car park off Coldharbour Lane (grid reference TQ516801). From here, walk southeast along the river for up to a mile to view any concentrations of gulls along the river.

In a three-hour visit to Rainham yesterday morning, I had at least 35 Yellow-legged Gulls of all ages, with juveniles and adults being the most common age class. Take a look at the juvenile below, and see if you can work out what makes it a Yellow-legged:

It is worth noting that this individual has an atypical bill colouration - Yellow-legged Gulls almost exclusively show dark bills well in to their first winter (and the following summer) - but, apart from that, exhibits classic plumage. Note the overall paleness to the underside and head, dark 'shadow' around the eye, covert pattern, largely brown tertials with limited notching at the tips (some have no notching) and, crucially, scapular pattern. The bird has already begun to replace a number of its juvenile scapulars with second-generation feathers (those with the anchor-shaped markings on) - this early moult is almost unheard of in Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls, given that they fledge up to several weeks later than Yellow-legged and generally look as though they are 'fresh from the nest' in early August. Note also the bird's slender, long-winged structure and long legs.

The same bird is portrayed above in flight, illustrating the characteristic tail pattern of the species - a largely white rump and upper tail (with limited brown flecking) and a crisply-defined and narrow black tail band that tapers towards the outer tail feathers.

Happy gulling!