Saturday, 3 February 2018

Large Gulls on the River Axe - Back to basics

3rd February 2018

In the last week, I've been spending a few hours each day trying to improve my ID of the common larger Gulls. Below is a small selection of the hundreds of photos I've taken between 29th January and 2nd February 2018.

Herring Gulls
By far the most numerous large Gull in the Axe valley have been Herring Gulls. Common. Dead common I hear. Some might say "Well they're JUST Seagulls aren't they? They're everywhere. On the beach. On our seaside roofs. Even in Tesco car park! Why bother."

Why spend your precious birdwatching moments paying close attention to Herring Gulls? So before you switch off I'll try to explain why, this week, I've been taking so many photos of our commonest large Gull.

I did subtitle this blog "Back to basics". So bear with me! Personally I don't think Gulls are "easy" and I've decided it's time I got better at their identification. I've been reading Gavin's and Steve's recent, inspirational blogs (and Tim W. too has got in on the act) about finding and confidently IDing the rarer large Gulls and in particular their recent brilliant records of Caspian Gull.

I noticed that one of the clues to the rarity was the often subtle divergence from a common Gull such as the Herring Gull.  It' seemed to me that a good place to start is to take the time to look ... to get-out-your-Collins-Bird-guide-and-reeeeaally-look ... at Herring Gulls because I thought that this might hold a key to me being able to make more sense of Gulls. Who knows with practice I may even  be able to start finding the odd rare large Gull for myself. So duly inspired and starting with Herring Gulls, my plan has been to get to grips with different plumage variations, moulting patterns and crucially ageing of the birds I see every day.

On 2 of my visits, the wind was in the north which meant that I could get good flight shots from my position at Coronation Corner; Some as the birds flew passed me up-river and some (even better) as they stall-landed further upstream pointing into the wind and showing their wing and tail plumage brilliantly well in the bright sunlight.

So how did I get on? Well as you might expect I found plenty of these 1st Winters:

And here's a selection of some more 1st Winter birds in flight ...

1st Winter HG with a few adults

2 x 1st winters playing drop-and-catch the stick

Flying upriver into the headwind

There were also a few 2nd Winter birds:

Adult colours beginning to develop

Surrounded by 1st winter birds

I even found a couple of these beauties - pretty sure it's a 3rd Winter Herring Gull - flew in low along the river from the south and dropped into shallow water - quite smart pale grey above but showing marked black on the wingtip contrasting with paler grey inner primaries and quite nice dark tail band. Getting there plumage wise, smart but still some way to go before they reach full adult:

3rd Winter - Landing upstream

 And a another 3rd winter bird; this one with a less distinct tail band (bird in flight):

The same bird just landed, showing open wing and plumage

And finally here are a few shots of full adults 'flythroughs' or with wings outstretched showing the amount of black and white to wing tips. Feel free to comment on whether these are  argenteus or argentatus, I think they're probably all argenteus but wouldn't like to say for definite. (Could be a possible topic for a future blog though).

P.S. Hopefully I haven't made any school boy errors with these photos but feel free to comment / correct as necessary. As I said, the real reason for spending time doing this was to learn more about Gull ID and so if there are any inaccuracies it would be good to know. And with a bit of luck, in the future, I'll be more confident in picking out the oddities and unusual as and when they drop in.


  1. Richard....what a post!! Absolutely fantastic use of time and P900. This is the way to tackle gulls, understand the variations and then you will notice when something that doesn't fit within the variation of the common species pops up. Argentatus is a real rarity here, and they do stand out when you see them (darker mantle, usually a heavily streaked head and lots of white in the primaries) so all yours are argenteus. If you keep visiting the Axe for gulling like this, you will be rewarded. With gulls here it's all about the amount of time you put in, as so many of the scarcities have only dropped in briefly. Best wishes, Steve.

  2. Thanks for your kind comments - encouraging! And thanks, as always, for you advice on ID. I'll post those pictures of the 2nd winter GBBG in the next day or so all being well.
    Best wishes

  3. Yes Richard, very much what Steve said. Keep plugging away and the rewards will indeed come. And as well as the amount of time you put in being important, so is the amount of jam! ;)

  4. Hahha! Sound advice I'm sure - I'll be giving it a go :-)