I started my last blog with the words ‘what can I say?’
Those words were written as I was reflecting on my twitch to see a mega gull in the shape of the Glaucous-winged Gull found by Fionn Moore in Cork last week. It was a rare bird and, these days, an even rarer event that I twitched! I didn’t think I’d be twitching again for a while.
Then, only five days after seeing the Glaucous-winged, news broke from Wexford that Killian Mullarney had found a gull which he considered to be a Vega Gull. A what? A Vega Gull!
Such news sends ripples through the average birders heart and veins. Let’s put this into perspective…Vega Gulls spend the winter hanging around harbours in Japan in the Pacific not in Ireland. I know that the Glaucous-winged Gull is a Pacific coast species but could a Vega Gull really be in the small fishing harbour of Duncannon in Wexford? The species has never been seen in Europe. In fact, it has never been seen in the geographical region known as the Western Palearctic (which includes Europe, North Africa and the Middle East). Could it really be possible that one had somehow found its way to Wexford?
It seemed a long wait until Killian’s excellent shots emerged…along with various comments on the bird from a variety of experienced people from across the birding spectrum. Incredible as it seemed, everything on this bird fitted Vega Gull perfectly. One of the game-winners was the fact that the bird was still in moult. Large gulls undergo a complete moult of their feathers after the breeding season and the timings of these moults vary from species to species. On this bird, the outermost primaries (know as Primary 10 or P10) on the wings were worn and tatty while the next one in (P9) were freshly growing on both wings. This is perfect for Vega Gull moult. No European gulls would be in moult at this time of the year. Add everything else and it all pointed to a perfect Vega.
So, what can I say? It would appear rude not to head south to my neighbouring county to ‘twitch’ this amazing bird.
Another Day, Another Twitch
So off I set again on a cold sunny morning and, despite the odd skid on icy roads, I arrived at the pier just minutes after it had been seen. Would this be the cure of my current twitching bout…missing a bird by a few minutes?
Following what seemed a very long wait (which was really only 30 minutess) we suddenly picked up a gull floating over us among the hundreds of gulls gathering as fish was being unloaded from a trawler. Those worn outer primaries made this bird jump out from the rest. The Vega was back.
It circled over us and landed on the rocks to give us all the first real good views. It was basically like a Herring Gull on first glance but, as I took it in, subtle features began to emerge. There was that dark ‘shawl’ of streaking on the neck and onto the breast (just like the Glaucous-winged). Then that dark eye that gave the bird a different ‘feel’. The slighter and slimmer head, with olive tones to the base of the bill made it different to the other gulls around it. The legs appeared slightly brighter, chewing gum pink. The tertials were broad and loose (though not as voluptuous as on the Glaucous-winged Gull) and the upperparts appeared a shade darker. Each feature was subtle but combine them all on a bird and, unexpectedly, a different bird emerges from the surrounding Herring Gulls. Having said all that, if I had found the bird, I don’t think Vega Gull would have ever been on my radar. For such a species to be found in Ireland is perhaps one of the most remarkable birding events I have witnessed.
Getting a new species in Ireland is a rare thing for me but it now seems a bit like waiting for a bus. You wait for ages and suddenly two come along together.
What next? Surely the odds are on for another rare Pacific gull to put in an appearance. My money is on another Slaty-backed Gull (there have been two sen already) before the winter is over. However, if you’re a betting man/woman, then you might be wise to place an each-way bet on a Black-tailed Gull. If either of these species turns up, it will be hard to resist the temptation (again).
Black-tailed Gull…hmmm…I think I know just the place to look!