Friday, 27 July 2018

An actual twitch I went on today - Franklin's Gull in North Yorkshire

So, after talking about twitching and what an actual twitcher is, a few days ago, let me tell you about a twitch I went on this morning.

About 18 miles from our house in Middlesbrough is a man-made reservoir called Scaling Dam, which has one end of it (plus much of the woodland and moorland around it) set apart as a nature reserve, with a lovely birdwatching hide (including big, easily opened windows (essential in a good bird hide) and lots of cushions to protect bony bums like mine from the hard wooden benches). Before this morning I had been there a few times and seen quite a few common birds, including gulls, ducks of various species and several of the commoner wader species (that's 'shorebirds' to any north American birders reading this). I had also seen some of our less common species, such as Osprey and Little Ringed Plover.

About a week ago I saw a report, on one of the websites that birders use to learn about sightings of rare and interesting birds, of a Franklin's Gull which had been there for several hours that day, but had flown off. Franklin's Gulls normally spend their entire lives in the Americas, wintering in South America and the Caribbean and breeding, hundreds of miles from the sea, in marshes and inland lakes in the very middle of North America (both in Canada and the United States). They are small gulls, about the same size as our Black-headed Gulls, and like Black-headed Gulls have a dark hood in breeding plumage. However, the hood is much darker than the brown on a Black-headed Gull (this is a real 'black-headed gull'), the grey on the back noticeably darker and the bill blood red.
Despite having made several trips to North America, and having lived there for over a year, I had never seen a Franklin's Gull and was keen to see this one that was so near to my home. As an added incentive, this was an adult bird in full breeding plumage and, judging from the photos which had already been put on the website, a very beautiful bird. It was named after the ill-fated British explorer Sir John Franklin, as the first specimen to be described by (European) science was found on one of his expeditions (an earlier one than the one on which he and all his crew died).
The next day was a Sunday and I decided that if it showed up again I would try and twitch it (in other words, drive over there and try to see it) after church. Unfortunately there was no further sign of it after it flew of on the Saturday, or the whole of the next day. I assumed, as others presumably did, that it had gone off somewhere else, never to be seen again (as is so often the case with rare birds).

But no! A few days later it was seen again, back at Scaling Dam, and right in front of the bird hide, and continued to be seen daily for the next few days. By this time Sue and I were on a little holiday staying at a house in the North York Moors, owned by some friends of ours. This meant that I was now only 7.7 miles from the gull and I was filled with renewed hope that I might see it. My chance came this morning. Yesterday it was seen very (and I mean very) early in the morning, and again in the evening, so I decided to get up early this morning (although not quite as early as it was seen yesterday) and try for it.

I got to Scaling Dam at 5.40am and went to the hide, which is very close to the car park. There were already a few birders there and we were quickly joined by two more, and a bit later by a third. All those present apart from me and the last man to arrive (who I knew slightly as he is a prominent local birder and Scaling Dam is one of his 'patches') had come from some distance, with the furthest, I think, being a woman who had driven down from just north of Glasgow (she set off at 11pm yesterday).
The bird wasn't there and hadn't been seen by anyone yet today! So that meant we had to wait until it showed up or we got bored and left. In the meantime there was plenty to see. In front of the hide there is a narrow spit of land on which many gulls (mostly Herring and Black-headed Gulls) were loafing, along with a good number of Lapwings. Gulls were coming and going all the time, and this was where the Franklin's Gull had been seen before, so we were constantly checking it to see if our bird had arrived. On the water, and on the shore on the other side of the lake there were various geese, ducks, Coots, Moorhens and a single Great-crested Grebe. Then someone spotted a Barn Owl hunting in a field not far from the shore, and very quickly we all saw that there were two together in the same field. Wow! Shortly after they had flown off, an adult Little-ringed Plover was seen, with a well grown chick keeping warm underneath it, on the shore a few meters in front of the hide - an amazing sight, and something I had never seen before (and also evidence that that species was breeding there - although those 'in-the-know' already knew this). A few minutes later, M, the local birder, heard what he thought was a Greenshank calling. As they often call in flight everyone was then looking for it, and we soon found it flying in from the left, then over the spit and off to the other side of the lake where we saw it land on the shore. This sort of thing carried on for a while, with Snipe, Mistle Thrush and Common Sandpiper also being added to the species list.

By 7 o'clock I was thinking of giving up and going home for breakfast. After all, I'd had a lovely morning birding, and even if I hadn't seen my target bird, I had added several species to my 'year list'.
Just as I was summoning up the energy to stand up, the man next to me said "It's here! On the spit!". It took a few seconds for everyone to realise that he was talking about the Franklin's Gull, and a few more seconds for everyone to 'get onto it' (as birders say). I was the last to pick it up but was quickly able to get really good views of it, even looking through my binoculars (everyone else apart from me had telescopes). It was, as I had anticipated, a lovely bird and very obviously different from the Black-headed Gulls around it (at least to someone who has been looking at Black-headed Gulls for most of his life). After an initial scare, when all the Herring Gulls and Lapwings took off and most of them flew away (the Franklin's took off and did a short flight but landed again - in the process showing us its wing-tips which proved that it wasn't the very similar Laughing Gull), the bird settled down - sometimes standing with its head up giving us nice views of its red bill and white eye-crescents (which looked a bit like eye brows but below the eyes as well as above), and sometimes tucking its head under its wing and appearing to go to sleep.
I watched it for over half an hour but was starting to get hungry and a text message from Sue ("what time do you think you'll be back?") gave me the impetus to leave the bird and the birders who, in some small way, I had bonded with over the last two hours. The fact that the two hours parking that I had paid for was about to expire also helped.

I am not a photographer and the only camera I had with me was on my phone. I had tried a few times to get a picture through my 'bins' (birder slang for binoculars), using my phone camera but didn't think I had taken any as I couldn't (I thought) get it in focus. I had settled instead for a couple of shots of the spit with the gulls on it, but only using my phone camera, zoomed in as far as it would go. Imagine my surprise when, after getting back to the house, I was looking through the shots I had taken without the binoculars (all too distant to see the gull properly), I found one shot that I must have accidentally taken  through my bins, and miraculously it was almost in focus (although surrounded by a big ring made by the eye-piece of the binoculars) and the Franklin's gull was clearly visible, and identifiable, in the middle of it.

I realise that non-birders among you will look at these pictures and say "What? It just looks like a blob/seagull/exactly the same as a Black-headed Gull to me!" but, trust me, it isn't and, my rubbish photo notwithstanding, this was a very exciting bird and a brilliant end to a lovely morning's birding.

The Spit, with the gulls on, as photographed using my phone and no other magnification
The Franklin's Gull, plus a few Black-headed Gulls, taken with my phone, through my binoculars
A cropped and zoomed in version of the above picture.
 Even in this awful photo you can see the white around the eye, against the black of the head.
The red bill, unfortunately, is not visible on this picture.

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