On unexpected global wanderers…

On unexpected global wanderers…

Posted by Eric Dempsey, With 0 Comments,

Anyone who knows me (or who might have read any of my books or blogs) will know that I am cursed with an affliction (just one I hear you ask). It is something that has impacted my life since my youth and, try as I might, it is something that I have to live with. Even prolonged therapy has not helped. I just have to accept the fact that I love gulls and, over the last twelve months since I’ve last written about it, it’s not getting any better.

In the week after the recent Storm Emma, I spent hours scouring the coast to see what birds might have been thrown up by the strong winds. In Bray, just north of where I live in Wicklow, more than a thousand gulls were sheltering just around the harbour. Among them was an Iceland Gull and, inside the harbour, a beautiful first-winter Glaucous Gull. I know that many may not exactly agree that a big beast of a gull, with a beady eye and pale wings is a thing of beauty but, as they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I love Glaucs…they are so big and bold that they have a unique charm. Seeing a first-winter Glaucous Gull feeds my love of big gulls.

In the last few months I have been lucky to have been afforded the opportunity to travel to far-flung places which has fed this gull-loving affliction even more. It seems that the more I see of gulls, the more addicted I am to them.

Gulling in San Francisco

In late December, I spent several days birding the coastal regions of San Francisco. We saw lots of wonderful species from Anna’s Hummingbirds to Western Bluebirds. However, despite these colourful distractions, I found myself looking through hundreds of gulls loafing around the harbours and estuaries of San Fran.

I was in gull heaven. Before me were Western, California, American Herring,  Heerman’s, Glaucous-winged and Thayer’s Gulls (which really should be reassigned full species status in my opinion).  Added to that was a variety of gulls that were of ‘dodgy’ parentage such as American Herring x Glaucous-winged hydrids. Some of these birds were so unlike either of their original parents, I was often left wondering if one of their parents wasn’t a gull species at all. My nightmare would be to find one of those birds at Bray in Wicklow!

On our final hour, we visited a wonderful wetland area just north of the city. Once again, I was drawn to the gull flocks and there, amongst the birds, was a pure ‘white-winger’. A look through the scope revealed a beady eye, a brutish look and pure white wings…it was classic 2nd winter Glaucous Gull. I never expected to see Glaucous Gull in San Francisco. It never dawned on me that they were such long distance travellers from their Arctic breeding grounds. In fact, while they are seen regularly, they are still considered a scarce and worthwhile bird to see. Several US birders who were nearby, actually ticked off Glaucous Gull for their San Fran list.   

...and in Hong Kong

Without sounding like a frequent global trotter, early March had me once again scouring gull flocks but this time in Hong Kong. I have to admit that I was once again in gull heaven. Yes, I was enjoying seeing Olive-backed Pipits and Black-faced Spoonbills, but I was at my happiest sitting scoping through the gulls gathered at the high tide roosts of Deep Bay in the New Territories. Besides the beautiful (and rare) Saunder’s Gulls among the Black-headed Gulls, I was once again drawn to the larger gulls that were loafing about on the shore.

Heuglin’s Gulls made up the bulk of the birds, with some Vega and Mongolian Gulls alongside…all very complex species to get your eye on. I was also delighted to spend time watching a 1st winter Black-tailed Gull. These medium-sized immature gulls are beautiful with a smudged greyish-brown crown extending down the nape like a shawl and continuing down onto the breast and flanks. Their white face gives them a unique look while their long slender pale bill with a black tip reminded me of the pattern of immature Glaucous Gulls.

As I watched the gull flocks, I suddenly picked up a black-headed beauty flying across the bay. A full, summer-plumaged Pallas’s Gull (once known as Great Black-headed Gull). They are like giant second summer Mediterranean Gulls. I have not seen this species since I was in Tibet in 2001 and it was wonderful to experience the species again. They have to be one of the most beautiful large gulls in the world.

As I was enjoying the Pallas’s, I became aware of a very familiar face that simply manifested itself behind the bird. A beady eye in a pale face stared back at me in the scope. A big pinkish bill with a black tip took my attention off the black-headed beauty I was watching. I scoped slightly left and there, assaulting my optic nerves was a bird I knew well…a first winter Glaucous Gull in all of its Glaucous Gull beauty!

Apparently this was only the 11th record for the species in Hong Kong (or so I’m told). It’s a rare bird for the region and, while I hadn’t expected to see one in San Fran, the possibility of seeing one in Hong Kong had never even registered on my radar. Yet here I was in Hong Kong looking at a Glaucous Gull! 

I can now say that, in the past three months, I have seen Glaucous Gulls on three continents. They are birds which I never suspected were such global wanderers. My love of them (and my respect for them) is even greater than ever.

The bad news is that my therapist has finally given up any hope of finding a cure for my affliction!



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