In the past, I have always found it a bit tricky (i.e. near-impossible) to decide what to do with myself if I happen to have any spare time. However, this year – the year of the bird stalk – it has been easy… I open up my bird app and scan through the list of sightings for somewhere with a few I haven’t seen before and get in the car and try to find them. I suppose it’s a bit like that ‘click and collect’ internet shopping thing that a number of companies that still have physical shops offer – Only there’s absolutely no guarantee that when I arrive, my chosen product will be in stock.
Today, I scanned the app and saw that there had been a sighting of three Slavonian Grebes added to the list at the end of the previous day at Farlington Marshes in Hampshire. It would be a bit of a drive, but with no other options presenting themselves, I felt I had to give it a go. If I was to genuinely try to spot the seven new species I needed to make it to two-hundred for the year, I should really make a bit of an effort.
I scrolled up and down the list to see if I could piece together some kind of bird-crawl and make a day of it. According to the list, there was also a Ring-Billed Gull in Gosport, but that was about it. These two places weren’t especially close together, but were in a similar area of the country, and were, therefore, pretty much all I had. It would have to do.
Just before I left, I decided to check the app one last time – I had noticed there had been a newly added Slavonian Grebe report… Unhelpfully, it was telling me that the previous report was erroneous. What do you mean erroneous? I had planned my day around going to see these birds and you’re telling me that someone has mis-identified three Grebes? What? Really? Oh, for goodness sake, use a bird book! [Note: This is the actual transcript of the conversation I had with my phone].
This incorrect identification had thrown my plans into disarray (and the resulting rather one-sided conversation I had with my phone had knocked my street cred to an all-time low) … I couldn’t justify travelling all the way to the far side of Portsmouth just to see a Seagull, could I? In the past, I once convinced myself to go to Portsmouth to visit the Cadbury’s shop at Gunwharf Quays with the aim of buying my own weight in chocolate Mis-Shapes… but that was chocolate and this was a Seagull. In my mind, there was a statistically significant difference between the two.
I then did a bit of reading and discovered that the Ring-Billed Gull is a very infrequent visitor to the UK from North America and reasoned if it could make it across the Atlantic to get to Gosport, I could probably get there from Reigate. I also reasoned that I could get some chocolate on the way.
When I arrived at Walpole Park, the weather was pretty dismal. Scattered across the grass were a few Mute Swans and dozens of what looked like Black-Headed Gulls. I imagined that amongst them must be a Gull of the Ring-Billed variety, so did a couple of binocular sweeps of the area. No luck.
I walked a few circuits of the lake and still couldn’t see the bird I was looking for. With each lap, I became less confident that the trip would be a success. A small flock of Brent Geese flew in to, at least, break up the monotony.
Then, I saw it… Something that didn’t look like all the Black-Headed Gulls.
Excellent. I had finally caught up with my target and just in time too – the light had started to dwindle and my hour in the car park was almost up. The ring on the beak was a little less pronounced than I had imagined it would be, but it was good enough to prove to me that it was the bird I came here for. I managed to take a few photos and then logged ‘194. Ring-Billed Gull, Gosport’ on my imaginary bird list, before it flew off towards the marina.
I decided to finish my current lap and then make my way home. Today had been a semi-successful day. A quick scour of the mudflats along the coastal path revealed a group of gulls that all looked suspiciously like the bird I had just added to my list. Were there really four more Ring-Bills in the area? Had I made an amazing discovery? This was incredibly unlikely and it caused me to start doubting myself and my identification skills. The birds on the mudflats looked suspiciously like Common Gulls in their winter plumage, but also pretty much identical to the bird I had been photographing and adding to my list moments earlier. What if the bird I had assumed was a Ring-Bill was, in fact, a Common Gull?
I fumbled through some ID photos of both species on my phone and compared them to the photos I had just taken… Each time I looked back and forth between the two, I was finding another reason to curse my rubbish gull identification skills… The beak was too small, the ring around it was not thick or pronounced enough, the eyes were black and not yellow. Although superficially similar, the birds were different.
Crap! I had blundered big time. My first thought was to curse myself. My second thought was to apologise to the person who had erroneously identified the Slavonian Grebes – I was a first-hand example of how easy it is to misidentify things. I took a little comfort in the fact that, at least, I hadn’t broadcast my identification inadequacies to the bird-spotting masses… But, it was only a little comfort – It was getting dark and I had missed my opportunity to find a Ring-Billed Gull. Reluctantly, I removed ‘194. Ring-Billed Gull, Gosport’ from my imaginary list.
As I started to trudge back to the car in failure, a couple turned-up on the far side of the lake and started throwing bits of bread into the air for the gulls and swans. I’m always really against people feeding bread to birds as it’s really not very healthy for them. The couple started to get overwhelmed by gulls flying in from all angles. Even the info panels dotted around stated that people should not feed the birds. Tut Tut. Why don’t people pay attention to the rules? You wouldn’t catch me transgressing like that.
More gulls started flying in to the area to get a free feed. It looked like they were all of the Black-Headed variety, but what did I know? It was then a larger gull appeared… A quick look through the binoculars got me excited; I had just seen a woman changing through a nearby window… Not really! I was excited because the bird in question seemed to tick all the ID boxes of the bird I had travelled all the way to Gosport for.
Eventually, it settled on the water and I was able to get a better look and re-add ‘194. Ring-Billed Gull, Gosport’ to my imaginary list.
Today, I learned two lessons: –
- Sometimes something looks exactly like you think it should, but then turns out to look exactly like something else does. Be careful before you add it to a list.
- If you break the rules, I get to see a Ring-Billed Gull.