Tuesday, 6 December 2016

American Herring Gull (Larus smithsonianus)

I checked Facebook's Western Palearctic Gull Group this morning to see if I had any comments on a selection of photos I had posted. Staring back at me was a gull that I was very familiar with and it was captioned as an American Herring Gull (Larus smithsonianus). I knew when I saw it back in November that it was something interesting, but I could not put a name to it.

After my holiday I uploaded pictures of the gull to the Facebook group and asked for opinions. I felt that if it was the default species, Yellow-legged Gull (larus michahellis), then it was a very untypical one. The first answer I received was that it was a typical Yellow-legged Gull. Alex Boldrini from Italy suggested it was a Herring Gull, so well done to him. However, the fact it appeared to have yellowish legs pushed the general opinion to Yellow-legged Gull. Alex and I argued that it was not a typical Yellow-legged Gull, but we were shown some examples of so called similar gulls. Alex argued that they were not actually matches, but the thread dried up and we all moved on.

Well yesterday Peter Adriaens and two others were at the Portimao Fish Harbour and they independently found the same gull. Peter has studied and written about American Herring Gulls, so he has the skills to identify it correctly.

American Herring Gull, November 12th 2016, Portimao Fish Harbour


The key to the identification is only seen when the gull is observed in flight from above or during a wing flap whilst preening. The secondaries show black markings rather than vermiculations, which are shown by Old World Herring Gulls. This is perhaps something I should have known, but it just hadn't stuck in my head, probably because I hadn't seen one before. Its quite tough to learn about something you are unable to experience. The greenish tinge to the bill is said to be good for AHG and the black markings on the tertials are also a helpful feature. I have quickly learnt about these features, but things are always easier when someone points you in the right direction.

It was quite docile when I saw it and was hanging about on 'Death Row'. This is an area at the harbour where sick or injured gulls tend to congregate. As such it walked away rather than flew, so I didn't capture any flight images. 


American Herring Gull, November 12th 2016, Portimao Fish Harbour


American Herring Gull, November 12th 2016, Portimao Fish Harbour


American Herring Gull, November 12th 2016, Portimao Fish Harbour


American Herring Gull, November 17th 2016, Portimao Fish Harbour
I had no idea the complexities of gull identification when I began this journey, but I am having great fun learning.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

A Paler Shade of Grey

Since arriving back from Portugal I have had a few successful trips to Shawell, but it has been quite hard work. Why? Well here's the list: men with guns, men with dogs, buzzards, cormorants, herons,  peregrines and foxes. I would quite happily shove the 12 bore rifles somewhere where the sun doesn't shine. 

For the next few months Herring Gulls are the dominant species at Shawell. Today I read colour-rings on no less than 13 Herring Gulls, which is the best total I've ever had for this species since I began recording colour-rings at Shawell back in January 2012.

The highlights from my Wednesday lunchtime visit and today were three Caspian Gulls and a colour-ringed Lithuanian large gull. It seems to be mostly Herring Gull, but I wouldn't rule out a bit of Caspian Gull blood.


Today's Caspian Gull was a first-winter, quite an advanced one. Not only has it replaced its scapulars, but also many of its coverts including some outer greater coverts. The other first-winter this week was not so advanced. The advanced bird was also there last Saturday.


First-Winter Caspian Gull

Lithuanian Ringed Herring Gull

The Lithuanian gull is the first colour-ringed large gull from that country that I have seen at Shawell. I have had a colour-ringed Black-headed Gull from there though. It was ringed as a chick during May 2015 at Kretuono ež. Didžioji sala, Švenčionių r., Lithuania. 55°14'45"N 26°04'45"E.



Saturday, 26 November 2016

Back at Shawell

Four Caspian Gulls at Shawell this week: two adults and a couple of first-winters. One of the first-winters was a German colour-ringed bird. It was ringed at Grabendorfer See - a large lake near Liepzig. I visited this site in April when I took part in the International Gull Meeting. Not a classic, but probably OK. The greater coverts are a little more patterned than I like, but examples like this are within the accepted variation. It has replaced at least one median covert and all its scapulars, which bodes well. Hopefully it will return each year, so we can see how it matures.

First-Winter Caspian Gull X198 - Shawell Sand Quarry
I was excited when I spotted a white gull sleeping amongst the Herring Gulls, but as soon as it lifted its head I realised something was not quite right. It had a Herring Gull like bill and structurally it wasn't quite right.  last year's 'white-winger' season started with a Herring Gull with pure white primaries as well.

Presumed Leucistic Herring Gull



Friday, 25 November 2016

First-winter Lesser Black-backed and Yellow-legged Gulls in Flight

As I mentioned in my previous post, one of my targets for our trip to The Algarve was flight shots of first-calendar year gulls. This subject is covered quiet poorly in identification guides. Typically Lesser Black-backed Gulls appear slighter than most Yellow-legged Gulls, however, there is much overlap. The tail band of first year birds is usually diagnostic, but again there is variability. The tail band on most Yellow-legged Gulls tapers thinner on the outside edges. Lesser Black-backs generally have a broader tail band with less white on the upper tail and more black markings above the tail band. LBBGs don't usually show an obvious pale window on the inner primaries, but in bright sunshine both species showed some pale areas on the inner primaries. However, a pale window on the inner primaries is obvious on many YLGs although not a distinctive as on first-calendar year Herring Gulls.

Lesser Black-backed Gulls:










Yellow-legged Gulls:






This last one shows a wide tail band, but note it has already replaced one of its central tail feathers. It bulky size large head and short stubby black bill all point towards Yellow-legged Gull.


A Bit of Winter Sunshine

I was back down in Portugal last week enjoying some warm winter sunshine. It was around 21 degrees C everyday and the air was really clear.

One of the highlights is always first light on the steppe or pseudo-steppe near Castro Verde. I have a site that always produces some great early morning entertainment. In the half light I could already hear Calandra Larks singing and this year a new sound caught my attention. I soon learned that the sound was coming from a group of Black-bellied Sandgrouse and they seemed to be displaying. At least 20 BB Sandgrouse were flying around and doing their strange call. A single Great Bustard flew past and an Iberian Grey Shrike perched close by. A Merlin dashed across the steppe disturbing hundreds of Calandra Larks - phew it was time for some breakfast!

We enjoyed lots of great birds during the week with the wintering Bluethroats winning the bird of the trip prize. Near Faro we visited a great area where Dawn spotted a male Bluethroat perched in the open, but I was looking the wrong way and only saw its backside, as it disappeared into the reeds. On the next visit I spotted another male skulking in a ditch, but this one had colour-rings. I'm still trying to track down where it was ringed. Possibly Spain, but I haven't received a reply yet.

Colour-Ringed White Spotted Bluethroat

The area is called Parque Natural Ria Da Formosa. It is quite close to the area known as Ludo Farms. Dawn always enjoys watching the aeroplanes coming in to land at the nearby Faro airport. Ospreys and Caspian tern were fishing in the lagoons and hundreds of ducks including Pintails were dabbling. Winter plumaged Little Stints were educational and a Short-eared Owl disturbed near the track was a new Portuguese bird for me. On a reedy lake by the golf course were many more ducks and at least a dozen Western Swamphens were looking comical as normal. Little Bitterns were elusive this time, but just before we stood up to leave the hide a splendid male broke cover and posed for a few second on a reed stem.

Western Swamphen

As normal I made Dawn endure a few hours at the Portimao Fish Harbour (not everyday as she claimed when we got home). I targeted flights shots of first year Lesser Black-backed and Yellow-legged Gulls. I will put together a set of those for my next post. As well as the gulls I enjoy looking at the working boats and the old wrecks.




"Were Going to Need a Bigger Boat"
Sunset at Priai Da Rocha