Monday 28 March 2016

Thayer's Gull - right place right time again

So it was either going to be north-west Norfolk for migrants or Minsmere for Caspian Gull and Jack Snipe. Conditions for migrants didn't look great and I hadn't ever been to Minsmere so decision made and it was down to Suffolk Nick and I headed. And what a good decision that turned out to be!
We started off at the North hide where the previous day two Jack Snipe were reported as "showing well" (always a little careful of what that actually means). Anyway, one of the RSPB staff did manage to find one 'bobbing' away on the ground and while it was a little distant, it was at least visible.

Jack Snipe, Minsmere, Suffolk
The next step in our plan was to walk around the hides via the beach and see if we could jam in the season's first Wheatear (for us anyway). En route we stopped off at the East Hide where we got chatting to a group of two or three birders who were discussing an adult 'Herring Gull-type' bird that  Brian Small had found earlier that morning. They managed to put us on to the bird (which was a feat in itself considering the distance and number of large gulls present). Careful mention was made to its similarity to the Duncannon, Co. Wexford Vega Gull but with the wise caveat that they were by no means claiming that this bird was one. The bird was sleeping with its head tucked in, so bill and legs could not be seen. But it occasionally opened a dark eye! Whats more, it was the only adult Herring Gull type that had a dark 'shawl' still over its head and neck....all the other adult birds had already moulted. We waited for at least an hour before it made any movement, but when it stood up the raspberry pink legs were striking to say the least (cue expletives). This was clearly a very interesting gull and no-one was going anywhere until some further details could be worked out. Meanwhile Nick smartly re-read Killian Mullarney's article on the Vega Gull discovery in Birdguides while we waited in the hide. What was clear was that a good shot would be needed of a spread upper wing - showing the pattern of the outer primaries right back to the inner webs. That would be tricky. However, one person had very helpfully managed to get a digi-scoped shot which showed that the degree of black on the primaries was quite small and this would be wrong for Vega Gull. With that species most likely ruled out - other possibilities were considered. Thayer's seemed the most obvious, Glaucous-winged a possibility but the darkness of the primaries was probably outside the range of variation for that particular species and so thoughts returned to Thayer's Gull. I did manage a distant shot of the bird from the East hide and hopefully its clear to see the dark eye, the yellow bill (which appeared green-tinged from scope views), sturdy raspberry pink legs, dark shawl around the head, neck and shoulders of the bird. The mantle was little darker than Argenteus Herring Gulls but not as dark even as Argentatus or Yellow-legged Gull (taking into account light conditions and distance here of course).

Cropped shot of Thayer's Gull
Same shot less cropped
The bird started to get a little more active as the afternoon wore on. We decided that we might get better views from the south hide and headed around there. The bird was a little closer there and with better light, but had decided to continue snoozing.

It did occasionally look up giving slightly better views of head and bill and with better light and closer proximity you could see that the 'shawl' was made up of small brownish concentric almost crescent shaped markings.
Again the bird did stand up a few times and walk about - it even stretched its wings once or twice but all I got was shots of the under-wing without it being sufficiently spread to see the inner webs.

It was now 4pm and we had spent a combined 6 hours or so looking at this bird. We hadn't eaten since early morning either. We headed back to the car-park to have lunch and meet James Lowen who was on his way. By the time we had done all that we decided that we would be unlikely to improve on the views we had and needed to start getting back to our wives and families also. We left James as he hared away towards the south hide while we packed up our bags and baggage. Later in the evening shots emerged on Facebook from Craig Shaw which showed the pattern of the spread wing with the black from the primary tips running into the inner webs  - this seemed to strengthen the case for Thayer's Gull and Birdguides etc upgraded it from 'Probable' to 'Mega'.
So, compensating for a failed twitch in December 2014 to Wakefield (see Blyth's Pipits and Thayer's Gull twitch) and much like last year's Citril Finch (see Citril Finch - North Norfolk) -  it was a case of right place and right time. Obviously the record will need to run through the rarities committee but its credentials look very good. Congratulations to the finder Brian Small and it must be said how good it was to see how birders worked together sharing thoughts, details, internet images and articles, 'back of the camera' shots and video stills to try and piece together the evidence that this was indeed an excellent candidate for Thayer's Gull - so good to see that and in the pre-internet age - how quickly if at all would the conclusion have been reached as to what this bird was?
So a great day out at Minsmere and I didn't even get to mention Sand Martin, Caspian Gull, Glaucous Gull, Bittern and nice views of Pintail and summer-plumaged Black-tailed Godwit.

Black-tailed Godwit, Minsmere, Suffolk
Pintail, Minsmere, Suffolk

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