Wednesday, 13 July 2016

It's official - Britain's first Slaty-backed Gull

Adult or near-adult Slaty-backed Gull Larus schistisagus, Rainham landfill, Greater London, 14 January 2011
(photo © Dominic Mitchell - do not use without permission)
While I was away in Canada last week, a congratulatory text message from a friend alerted me to some long-awaited news on the gull front (thank you Bob!). The Slaty-backed Gull Larus schistisagus which I found at Rainham landfill, Greater London, on 13 January 2011, exactly five-and-a-half years ago today, had been accepted as the first-ever record for Britain. Here's the announcement from the website of the British Ornithologists' Union, whose Records Committee considers potential first records for Britain after they have been assessed and accepted by the Rarities Committee:


I expected this record would take a long time to pass through the two-stage acceptance procedure, especially as the bird's identity initially generated much discussion. This centred around the colour of the upperparts, with some (mainly those who had not seen it) claiming that the shade of grey was not sufficiently dark for the species. As I noted when submitting the record, opinion became much more settled in favour of Slaty-backed Gull once the bird was more widely seen (and also when refound and photographed at other sites to the east in Essex).

Adult or near-adult Slaty-backed Gull Larus schistisagus, Rainham landfill, Greater London, 14 January 2011
(photo © Dominic Mitchell - do not use without permission)
This becomes the second Western Palearctic record of this north-west Pacific Ocean species, after a bird present in Lithuania from 17-20 November 2008 which was then, remarkably, refound in Latvia, where it lingered from 13-21 April 2009 (photos of it in Latvia here). There have been no further British records but five more in Europe, as follows: Belarus (26 Dec 2012-4 Jan 2013 - video here); Finland (3-4 Nov 2012 - multiple pics here); Iceland (14 May 2012 - scroll down this account for an image); and Ireland (2: 8 Feb 2014 - read the account here; Jan 2015 - photos here).

Slaty-backed Gull Larus schistisagus with Great Black-backed L marinus and European Herring L argentatus Gulls, Rainham landfill, Greater London, 14 January 2011 (photo © Dominic Mitchell - do not use without permission) 


Although confident of the identification from the outset, in view of the extreme rarity of this species in Europe I solicited feedback widely from the gulling community. One of the first to provide it, and to be extremely positive and supportive (as always), was the late Martin Garner. I think Martin would still have been sitting on the Rarities Committee when this record was assessed, and I'm sure he would have been pleased to see it make the final cut at the BOURC. At the same time as that committee announced this decision, it also accepted the first British record of Chinese Pond Heron, an identification which Martin really helped to clinch (see his Birding Frontiers website for more). So today is an opportunity not only for me to remember a friend and inspiring guller, but also to remind ourselves of his significant contribution to the birding scene in Britain and beyond.

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