Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Juvenile Sabine's up close

One of the two juvenile Sabine's Gulls at Sturt Pond, Milford-on-Sea, today.
Several strong Atlantic depressions, notably the tail-end of Hurricane Katia which hit last week, have bestowed a bonanza of exciting birds on Britain and Ireland in the last 10 days or so. The main headline-makers have been the Yanks on Scilly, notably Northern Waterthrush, Black-and-white Warbler, Red-eyed Vireo, Solitary Sandpiper and now Baltimore Oriole, but another significant weather-related phenomenon has been the widespread appearance of Sabine's Gulls. A few have even made it far inland or into the North Sea, and there was a staggering total from Bridges of Ross, Co Clare, of something like 830+ in one day last weekend. Has that ever been bettered in Ireland or Britain?

Juvenile Sabine's is beautifully marked, with pale edges and dark subterminal borders to its mouse-grey upperpart feathers giving a distinctive scaly appearance. Note also the narrow white primary tips and black tail band.

There was an adult Sabine's in London just over a week ago, on King George V Reservoir in the Lea Valley, but having not managed to get there before it left, I decided to get my fix today. Two juveniles on the Hampshire coast won the toss over an adult at Grafham Water in Cambridgeshire, so I headed down the M3 and arrived just in time to catch them both. Within minutes, one bird had done a bunk and the other became restless, absconding for short periods, but when it did settle temporarily it showed very well indeed.

The diagnostic black, white and grey 'triangle' pattern changes the bird's appearance completely in flight.

It's easy to forget how small and dainty these pelagic gulls actually are. Alongside Black-headed Gull they look positively diminutive, at times almost like a marsh tern on steroids with their pale foreheads and dusky cap and nape. The upperparts are also strikingly dark in juveniles, with pale feather edgings giving a smart, scaly appearance. Despite the body mass disadvantage, the one bird that lingered today showed aggression twice towards Black-headed Gulls before eventually flying off inland (though both apparently returned later in the day).

Juvenile Sabine's Gull with a single adult Mediterranean Gull among numerous Black-headeds.
Keeping the Sabine's and some 300+ Black-headed Gulls company were 12 Mediterranean Gulls (all adults bar single first-winter and second-winter birds), a lone Common Gull, about 15 Herring Gulls and two Great Black-backed Gulls (adult and juvenile). A Little Gull had apparently dropped in earlier on and doubtless a Lesser Black-backed Gull or two would have been in the area, meaning that a probable total of at least eight gulls species would have been frequenting the site today.

On the way back to London rumours strengthened that the so-called Temminck's Stint at Weir Wood Reservoir in East Sussex definitely wasn't one. By the time I walked back indoors the Least Sandpiper theory had also been shelved, the bird now mega-alerting as a Long-toed Stint. There's always tomorrow ...

Surf's up: whipped up by more strong westerlies, the sea pounds the beach at Milford-on-Sea.

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