Thursday, 16 May 2019

Caspian Gull...

This post now brings me up to date, with my sightings and reports from others, concerning our ringed nesting and visiting birds.  Having finally got over my cold, which has lasted for nearly five weeks, I'm feeling in good form at last.  This feel good factor, seems to run in line with the weather.  The last few weeks have been very cool, and at times, quite cold.  Finally, the temperatures are on the rise, which is good for many birds, whose eggs are now hatching, or due to hatch.

Looking forwards, my ringing trainer, has informed me that I've been invited by the Causeway Coast Ringing Group, to attend their ringing session at Inch Island, in Co. Donegal.  Whilst they ring Sandwich Tern chicks, I will be busy ringing Black-headed Gull chicks.  I helped Adam McClure, to ring chicks here in 2016, and we've since missed a couple of opportunities to return.  I'm looking forwards to this next visit, as I doubt if any youngsters will be ringed in Northern Ireland, for a second summer running.

Also looking hopeful, is my application for permission, to catch and 'colour-ring' wintering Black-headed Gulls at Lurgan Park.  Marcus Malley, of the Armagh, Banbridge & Craigavon Council, says that they agree in principle, to my application.  If all goes well, Lurgan Park, would be a great site to work on.

With all of the disturbance at Antrim Marina last winter, it was difficult to entice the gulls there, as they had become very nervous and wary.  At Lurgan Park, the gulls remain very forthcoming, and I would like to see some sort of continuation, towards Adam McClure's project or former project.  Either way, we can still learn a lot more about our wintering birds.

Mid June, will see a concentrated effort to ring Common Gull chicks on Rathlin Island, plus a few other County Antrim sites, in continuation of my project which began in 2017.  I've also provided some of my 'colour-rings', to be used by the ringers at the Copeland Island Bird Observatory.  Although Common Gulls, are not a specific target there, the addition of these Darvic's may well tempt the ringers, to focus a bit more on this species.  Shane Wolsey, gave up his ringing programme on Copeland in 2014, but it would be fantastic, to see some sort of continuation there in the future.

      Rathlin Island Common Gulls       
In my blog post, published on the 21st April 2019, I reported on three Common Gulls, that had been spotted on Rathlin Island, by Richard Else.  These birds were from my new 'colour-ringing' project in County Antrim, which began in the summer of 2017, with the majority of chicks being ringed on Rathlin.

Over the last two winters, very few of these chicks, have been reported to me, therefore they were being overlooked at their wintering sites.  Guessing, that two-thirds of the youngsters, would perish before the end of their first winter, those that survive, should on the whole, get through subsequent winters.

I did expect that a few of the 2017 chicks, would start to reappear at Rathlin this summer, although not quite at full breeding age.  As mentioned above, reports of sightings started to come in from Richard, when firstly he spotted   2BHL , on the 29th March 2019, at Rue Point, on Rathlin.   2BHL , still in it's juvenile plumage, was ringed as a chick, on the 24th June 2018, at Arkill Bay, on Rathlin.

On the 13th & 15th April 2019, Richard then spotted   2APT  and   2BAX , at Rue Point.  These two sub-adults, were ringed as chicks, on the 17th June 2017, at Rue Point, and on the 24th June 2017, at Arkill Bay, and both were first re-sightings since being ringed.  These sightings confirmed my belief, that some of the Common Gulls would return to the island this summer.

More recently, Richard has reported another two, of the 2017, rung chicks.  On the 2nd May,   2AJT , was spotted at Rue Point, which is where it had been ringed on the 17th June 2017.  However, this was not a first re-sighting this time, as   2AJT , had previously been recorded on the 22nd May 2018, by David Nixon, at Dundrum, in County Down.

Common Gull  -    2AJT   -  Rue Point, Rathlin Island, Co. Antrim  (02 May 2019)
(Ringed as a Chick, on the 17th June 2017, at Rue Point)
(Photo Courtesy of Richard Else)

The second of the two gulls to be reported by Richard, was   2BAH  , also at Rue Point, on the 3rd May 2019.  I had recorded   2BAH , just five days earlier (28th April), when I spotted the gull on Kinnegar Beach, on the south side of Belfast Lough (see previous post).  Kinnegar, is 74 kms (SSE), from Rue Point, where   2BAH , had been ringed as a chick, on the 24th June 2017.  It was obvious from my sighting, that   2BAH , was on the move northwards towards Rathlin.

Common Gull  -    2BAH   -  Rue Point, Rathlin Island, Co. Antrim  (03 May 2019)
(Ringed as a Chick, on the 24th June 2017, at Rue Point)
(Photo Courtesy of Richard Else)

On Sunday 5th May, I undertook my first visit to Rathlin Island, to check out the Common Gull colonies, to see how they were progressing with their breeding season.  Whilst there, I was also on the lookout for my 'colour-ringed' birds.  As the day wore on, one thing I noticed, especially at Rue Point, was that the overall number of breeding pairs, was lower than last year, which was also lower than in 2017.

At each colony, I scoped the gulls from a distance for rings, trying to not to disturb the birds too much.  The day started off promising, with a 'colour-ringed' bird being spotted, within minutes of my arrival at the Arkill Bay colony, the first site to be visited.  This gull was   2BBF , and on entering it's ring code onto my spreadsheet after returning home, I discovered that I had recorded this bird in the past, at Carnlough, also in County Antrim.

  2BBF , was ringed as a chick, here at Arkill Bay, on the 24th June 2017.  I spotted   2BBF , on the 9th June 2018, and on the 7th July 2018, on Carnlough Beach, which were the only sightings until today.  I spent around an hour at Arkill Bay, but no other rings were spotted.  A number of gulls were obviously incubating eggs, and there could have been a slight chance, one or two of these may also have been ringed.  Whilst here, I detected the first signs of a decrease in nesting pairs, which became the main feature of the day.

One good sign though, was that the pair of Great Black-backed Gulls, which also nested here over the past two years, did not seem to be about.  Having said that, the female could be sitting on eggs, just out of sight at the northern end of the bay.  Preying on the eggs and chicks of the Common Gulls, the Great Black-backed's are a major problem, but they have to live too.

Common Gull  -    2BBF   -  Arkill Bay, Rathlin Island, Co. Antrim  (05 May 2019)
(Ringed as a Chick, on the 24th June 2017, at Arkill Bay)

Moving on, and spending lengthy visits to the Doon Bay, and Rue Point colonies, no more rings were spotted, not even any of those that had been recorded by Richard Else.  Richard, had also reported on a Common Gull, at Rue Point, which was just ringed with a 'metal', but I was not able to locate that bird.  If that gull could have been found, and was nesting, then there was a good chance for my camera to catch the ring number.

Over the past two summers, a small number of Common Gull chicks, were ringed with 'metals' only, as at the time of ringing, they were too small for a 'colour-ring'.  Again, as at Arkill Bay, the overall number of breeding birds has decreased, especially so at Rue Point, which is the main hub for breeding Common Gulls, on the southern arm of Rathlin Island.

The pair of Great Black-backed Gulls, which nested on the headland at the northern end of Doon Bay, over the previous two summers, were nesting in the exact same spot, as the did in 2017.  Whilst walking across the shore at Doon Bay, I noticed a few eggs that had been taken by a predator.  These seemed to be Greylag Goose eggs, and definitely not Common Gull eggs, but I think crows, rather than the Great Black-backed's, could be blamed for these.

Two bird kills were also found at Doon Bay.  The scattering of feathers, appeared to be the work of a Peregrine Falcon, and both birds that were the victims of the kill, seemed to be Common Gulls.  Whilst I was at Rue Point, I spotted an immature female Peregrine, flying in off the sea, from the direction of the mainland, and making it's way over Doon Bay.  Could this bird be the culprit?

Moving inland to Ushet Lough, four nests containing eggs were found around the southern shore, number 2x2 eggs, and 2x3 eggs.  Scoping across to the northern shore, another 4 Common Gulls, could be seen sitting on their nests.  A further 10 to 12 birds, appeared to be sitting on nests, on the small island, at the western end of the Lough.  A small number of the gulls here, were scoped for rings, but none were spotted.

I did not have time to visit the final colony at Roonivoolin, situated on the western shore of the southern arm, so I made my way back towards the harbour.  Arriving at Mill Bay, I scoped a small number of Black-headed and Common Gulls, and spotted one of my rings.  Despite these gulls being well out, due to the low tide, my camera did catch the code on the Common Gull -   2BAP .

  2BAP , is another gull from Arkill Bay, which had been ringed as a chick, on the 24th June 2017, and this sighting was a first since being rung.  The nearest breeding colony, would be 2 kms away, and this sighting strengthens my belief, that the 2017 rung birds, are merely prospecting rather than breeding, but there's always the outside chance, one or two of these birds are nesting.

Common Gull  -    2BAP   -  Mill Bay, Rathlin Island, Co. Antrim  (05 May 2019)
(Ringed as a Chick, on the 24th June 2017, at Arkill Bay)


      Caspian Gull - Graham McElwaine       
On the 10th May, I received an email from Graham McElwaine, who is the ringing coordinator for the Irish Brent Goose Research Group.  Whilst out and about, earlier that day, Graham spotted a juvenile gull, which was colour-ringed -   X86A .  This bird, which was spotted at Millquarter Bay in County Down, was hard to identify, and Graham suspected that it was a Herring Gull, and not a Great Black-backed Gull.

Graham, like myself, and a vast majority of birdwatchers, find trying to identify the species of large juvenile gulls, a big problem, as many look so alike.

I was tasked, with finding the owner of the 'colour-ring', and after consulting the cr-birding site, sent an email to Ronald Klein, in Germany.  Early on Sunday morning a reply was received, and 'WOW', what a sighting this turned out to be.

  X86A , was in fact a Caspian Gull, which had been ringed as a chick, on the 3rd June 2018, on the site of a Gravel Pit, just to the north-east of Leipzig.  Before Graham's sighting,   X86A , had previously been recorded at two sites in England.  On the 25th November 2018, it was spotted by a Rob Archer, at the Ashworth Moor Reservoir, situated to the north-west of Rochdale.  The second sighting, was on the 23rd January 2019, at Altham, in Lancashire, which is slightly further to the north from Ashworth Moor.

I went online, in an attempt to see if I could find any reference to the two English sightings, and came up trumps, when I came across a site called - Manchester Birding Forum (here), which contained Rob Archer's sighting at Ashworth, along with a photo.  I tried to find an email address for Rob, without success. I wanted to ask for permission to use his photo, but I am hopeful that he does not mind me including the photo here.  On the whole, most birdwatchers are fairly obliging to each other.

Immature Caspian Gull  -    X86A   -  Ashworth Moor Reservoir, Greater Manchester, England  (25 Nov 2018)
(Ringed as a Chick, on the 3rd June 2018, at the Laußig Gravel Pits, near Leipzig, Germany)
(Photo Courtesy of Rob Archer)

Next, I checked out the British Trust for Ornithology's 'Online Ringing Report', to see if 'ringed' Caspian Gulls, had ever been recorded in Northern Ireland in the past.  There was one record, of a Polish 'colour-ringed' bird, ringed as a chick in June 2006, having been spotted in County Londonderry, in February 2007.  There were no records for the Republic of Ireland.

Also checking the website of the Northern Ireland Birdwatchers Association (here), there are a couple of references to Caspian Gulls, though these are sketchy.  This proves just how rare, sightings of this species is on the island of Ireland as a whole, therefore making Graham's sighting - a brilliant spot. 


      Antrim Town & RSPB Portmore Lough Nature Reserve       
On Sunday 12th May, I decided to visit the RSPB Reserve at Portmore Lough, which lies a few miles south of Antrim Town.  Last summer, I had noticed one of Adam McClure's 'colour-ringed' Black-headed Gulls, nesting in the front right hand corner, of the central nesting platform, just in front of the wooden hide, on the Lough.  I tried on a couple of occasions to read the code without success.

To get to Portmore Lough, I had to pass through Antrim Town, but had no initial plans to stop there.  Passing by the Tesco Distribution Centre on the edge of Antrim Town, I noticed that the roof was swarming with gulls.  I had to pull in, to see what was going on here.  These extensive rooftops, had become home to a large number of nesting Lesser Black-backed Gulls, with smaller numbers of nesting Black-headed, Herring and Common Gulls.  In the past, I've also recorded nesting Common Terns, and once had an Oystercatcher with chicks.

This year however, there has been a major problem with this site.  Tesco, have made a concentrated effort, at preventing these birds from nesting here, having used the services of a falconer, to scare off the birds.  Over the past few weeks, fellow birdwatcher and Swift enthusiast Mark Smyth, has kept a watchful eye on the events around the Kilbegs Industrial Estate.

Mark discovered that some of the gulls had relocated to the far side of the Industrial Estate, and a number of pairs of Black-headed Gulls, were now nesting on a rooftop of a derelict building behind the Asda Shopping Centre.  Two or three weeks ago, I too had a look, and there were no gulls at Tesco, but did locate the gulls mentioned by Mark.  I also noticed the Lesser Black-backed Gulls, were concentrated on another rooftop behind Asda.  With most of the rooftops being at a height, as well as flat, there was no way to look to see what exactly was happening there.

Today, with many gulls back on the Tesco site, did this mean, the services of the falconer, were no longer required - or so they thought.  My main interest with this site at Tesco, is in the Mediterranean x Common Gull pair, which have nested here over the past three years.  Last summer, I confirmed that they hatched out three chicks, though only two survived until fledging.

Setting up my telescope, I soon realised, that several gulls had built, and were now sitting on their nests.  Possibly, a hundred plus pairs, were also present, but had not began to make nests.  Among these gulls, were a couple of pairs of Common Gulls with nests, one of which was situated on the exact same spot, where my Med x Common Gulls, nested over the past three years.

My delight, at having this pair back again, turned to dismay a short time later, when a returning mate, turned out to be another Common Gull, with a changeover of nesting duties taking place.

Now very disappointed, I had to push on to Portmore Lough, but I shall re-visit the Tesco Warehouse fairly soon, as I will also have to begin a few random visits to Antrim Marina, to record the resident gulls there.

Common Gull on Nest  -  Tesco Distribution Warehouse, Antrim Town, Co. Antrim  (12 May 2019)

Arriving at Portmore Lough, I was hoping that the same gull mentioned earlier, would again be nesting here, and to my delight, it was.  Equipped with a better camera than last summer, I hoped that this time, I could finally nail that code.  I was checking the gulls on the platforms for rings using my binoculars, without success, until something spooked the birds, and they all took to the air.  On their return to their nests, it was then that I saw the 'Orange Darvic'.

The gull in question, was nesting in a really awkward position.  Whilst on the nest which was out of view, I could only see the top of the birds back and head.  There is a safety board, topped with square wire, which runs around the whole platform, which therefore blocks out the view of all the nesting gulls on the front of the platform.

Inside the hide, I had set up my camera on a tripod, with it locked onto where the nest was and waited.  I was hoping that the birds partner would arrive, with a possible changeover of incubation duties.  After a very long wait, I began to get bored of my task, as nothing was happening.  Having checked all three platforms for 'ringed' BHGs and Common Terns, only one 'metal' rung Black-headed Gull, was spotted on the right hand platform.

Thinking back, to when the birds were spooked earlier, I thought I'd try something unorthodox, and scare them myself.  I waved my camera bag outside of the hide's window, to great effect.  Camera on, I took photos of the gulls returning, and after a couple of attempts, about ten minutes apart, I had captured the code -   2BKN  .

This hard won code, became even harder.  Having reported my sighting to the BTO, they had no ringing details for the gull, and sent an email to Adam, for the relevant ringing information.  As my regular readers will be aware, Adam has not responded to sightings for quite a considerable time now.  I'm still waiting for those, of two Black-headed Gulls -   2AHB   &   2AHT , spotted at Castle Espie, on the 24th March 2019.  No doubt, the wait will be a long one.

Black-headed Gull  -    2BKN   -  RSPB Portmore Lough Nature Reserve, Co. Antrim  (12 May 2019)
(Waiting for the Ringing Details)

Feeling rather pleased at getting a result, I began to make my way back towards the car park.  Every now and again, I stopped to scope more Black-headed Gulls, on the marsh lagoon.  There were loads of non breeding BHGs, especially second year birds, but a few pairs of BHGs and Common Terns, did have nests here.

I struck lucky again, as I spotted another one of Adam's birds, perched on one of two concrete structures.  Despite being a long way off from me, my camera still captured it's code -   2CBL .  After reporting this one to the BTO, they did have the ringing details.

  2CBL , was ringed as an unfledged juvenile, on the 24th June 2016, at the Castle Espie Wetland Centre, in County Down.  It is unknown whether this gull has been spotted before today, without Adam's involvement in his own project.  Castle Espie, lies 38 kms / 23 miles (E), from Portmore Lough.

Black-headed Gull  -    2CBL   -  RSPB Portmore Lough Reserve, Co. Antrim  (12 May 2019)
(Ringed as a Chick, on the 24th June 2016, at the Castle Espie Wetland Centre, Co. Down)


      RSPB Window on Wildlife Reserve       
On the 4th May, I returned to Belfast, to undertake another visit to the RSPB's Window on Wildlife Reserve.  I had hoped to have another crack, at completing the number of a 'metal-rung' Mediterranean Gull, having so far captured -   3.**4.2*3 .  As well as the Med Gulls, I was also on the lookout for any of Adam's 'colour-ringed' Black-headed Gulls.

During my previous two visits, on the 20th & 22nd April, the mate of   3.**4.2*3 , appeared to be sitting on a nest, though this was not visible, as there was little in the way of nesting material.  Today, that female was still sitting at that exact same spot, but since my previous visit, another Mediterranean Gull, is now sitting on what appears to be a nest, just in front of the pair that I'm trying to follow.

The 'metal-rung' male was present, and standing between the two nests, but I could not get a clear view of the ring, due to the increasing height of the vegetation.  After scanning around the nesting platform, I can now confirm that there are five pairs of Mediterranean Gulls nesting, which should include the French-rung bird, whose actual nest is obscured by timber.

Just one of Adam's Black-headed Gulls, was spotted, this being my second sighting at the colony this year.  I first saw   2BPX , on the nesting platform, on the 3rd March 2019, therefore today's sighting would confirm that it is breeding here.

  2BPX , is interesting, as my only previous sighting of this bird, was made on Christmas Day 2015, just half a mile down the road, on the railings at a Gas Terminal.    2BPX , was ringed as a chick, on the 1st July 2013, at Blue Circle Island, on Larne Lough, which lies 22 kms (NNE), of the Belfast Harbour Estate.  The only previous sighting of   2BPX , before I recorded it in 2015, was made by Paul McCullough, when he spotted the gull on the 26th May 2014, at the Leisure Centre at Carrickfergus.  Carrickfergus lies to the north-west edge, of Belfast Lough.

Black-headed Gull  -    2BPX   -  RSPB Window on Wildlife Reserve, Belfast  (04 May 2019)
(Ringed as a Chick, on the 1st July 2013, at Blue Circle Island, Larne Lough, Co. Antrim)


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