Monday, 2 July 2012

MEGA - SABINE'S GULL at Startop's


Awaiting news on a Yorkshire Alpine Swift, I took some time out this morning to do some online updates. I was slowly trawling through emails and eventually came through one from local Tring birder Ian Williams entitled Nuthatch and including his weekend photographic results from the reservoirs. Ian had texted me at 0830 hours yesterday morning with a first-year Little Gull he had found on Startop's and having seen a 'bagfull' at the ressies this year it almost went straight over my head. Anyway, it was gone 1700 hours when I finally got in from work yesterday evening and although I discussed with Carmel the possibility of me checking it out, I fell asleep on the sofa through tiredness. When I reawakened at around 1900 hours, it was time for the Spain-Italy match so I gave it a miss - what a mistake that was.

Anyhow, to get back on track, I started to upload Ian's images on to my Tring Reservoirs blog site - starting first with the juvenile Nuthatch. Then, without opening any of the shots, I started a new thread on the Little Gull. The first image started to unravel on the blogger screen and I could hardly believe what I was seeing - the bird appeared to be a SABINE'S GULL. I then continued uploading all six images and they were all of a Sabine's Gull ! Surely Ian could not have got it wrong I thought - perhaps he had mixed up the shots. I phoned him straight away and questioned him - there was no doubt that it was yesterday's bird. What a mega - and around all day without anyone other than Ian and MC seeing it. Ian was as mortified as me and apologised repeatedly for the unfortunate misid. I felt physically sick as here again I was expecting to miss out on a mega that should have been just 15 minutes drive down the road. In fact the stress of missing such an excellent bird locally, in addition to the recent Savi's Warbler, Eastern Crowned Warbler and Spotted Sandpiper, set my migraine off and I struggled to think straight.

I scrambled my mobile and informed numerous contacts of the incredulous news. Fortunately, MC would be back on site within ten minutes. I was praying that the Sabine's had been blown inland from the Atlantic on the weekend's strong southwesterlies, the same weather displaying large and unusual numbers of Pomarine Skuas. I was incredibly lucky - the bird was still there.

JT picked me up shortly later and within half an hour we were on site. The SABINE'S GULL was affording exceptional views - flying back and forth at just 5-10 yards range. Local birders were quick to turn out - including Bill Pegrum, Mike & Rose Collard, Warren Claydon, Dave Parmenter, Dave Hutchinson, Martin Parr, Francis Buckle, Roy Hargreaves, Lucy Flower, Simon West - and many more. The bird was favouring the NE corner (Bucks section) of Startop's End Reservoir and only occasionally foraging into the Hertfordshire section of the reservoir but what a bird it was - and what a stunning performer - it was a real photographer's delight.

Sabine's Gulls are exceptional in that they undergo a complete moult in their first year in early spring - a reverse of the moult seasons of other gulls. Also, unlike most other gulls, which start the post-juvenile moult at or shortly after fledging, Sabine's Gull retains full juvenile plumage throughout the first autumn until arrival in the southern wintering areas, where the post-juvenile head and body moult to first-winter plumage takes place during November and December. This is followed by a complete moult during the following February to April, from first-winter to a very adult-like first-summer plumage but lacking a full hood (Piet Meeth in Grant 1986). This was our bird.


In every respect, the bird appeared very adult-like, with the mantle, scapulars and back uniform grey, with thin white scapular and tertial crescents, wholly white underparts and a wholly white tail. Striking upperwing pattern, with the inner wing-coverts and innermost secondaries uniform grey and the remainder of secondaries, most of the outer greater coverts, the outermost median and lesser coverts and the inner primaries white. The alula and outer coverts of the outer wing were contrastingly black and the outer five primaries black with obvious white tips and white tongues on the inner webs. The underwing was clearly white, with the white secondaries and inner primaries forming broad and translucent white triangles on the trailing edge of the inner wing reflecting the upperwing pattern.

The tail was markedly forked and very white and did not appear to be particularly worn. The head was white with a black collar and a smudgy grey hood, confined mainly to the ear-coverts and nape, with some grey extending onto the neck side.

The legs and feet were a dull pink whilst the bill appeared to be all-black with just a very small hint of a paler tip at very close range.

Unusually, the bird was quite vocal, interacting with the 3 or 4 feeding Common Terns. A rather Arctic Tern-like 'krrr' uttered on several occasions


There are six previous records of Sabine's Gull at Tring Reservoirs, all but one in the 'Great Storm' of October 1987. Two adults were discovered on Marsworth on 16 October 1987, only to be followed by a juvenile on Wilstone on 17 October and two different adults on Wilstone from 18-21 October. One of these remained until 23 October feeding on flooded fields at nearby Long Marston during the day. Two years later, an adult flew east over Startop's End at 1255 hours on 22 November 1989.

At the same time in October 1987, Barry Reed recorded a juvenile at Amwell GP at 1300 hours on 16th, whilst Graham White saw different adults later that day at the same site at 1745 and 1810 hours. An adult was also seen at Rye Meads at 0705 the following day (17 October).

In 1988, a juvenile first seen at Hilfield Park Reservoir on 23 September remained until 1000 hours the following day.

In neighbouring Buckinghamshire, two adults were seen at Willen Lake on 13 October 1981. Then, following the Great Storm, a juvenile flying NE over Colnbrook village on 17 October 1987 was followed by up to three adults in flooded roadside fields at Colnbrook from 21-28 October 1987.

The Startop's first-summer Sabine's Gull continued to perform in poor weather up until dusk eventually roosting on the artificial platforms, pleasing over 100 observers in the interim period. A very popular bird indeed.

Ian Williams is to be congratulated for obtaining such outstanding initial images that enabled my instantaneous identification and for getting them to me in such swift time. Sabine's Gull is such a rare local bird that it is understandable his mistake, especially as he had only seen one before. A truly momentous and memorable event, enjoyed by many.

Not much else to report today in the conditions - a single Grey Wagtail, 5 Sand Martins and around 70 Common Swifts.

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