Long-billed Dowitcher, Ring-billed Gull and more in New Forest district, Hants – 21st Feb

Today’s headline birds were both second ever sightings. Going after two Hampshire long stayers arose from Mike inviting me on a day out in that county where he birds regularly. Weather conditions ruled out meaningful photography on my part, so in this post I have outsourced or provided links to pictures on RBA instead.

Three Nearctic vagrant Long-billed Dowitcher are currently wintering in England, respectively in Northumberland, just outside Leicester and at Hampshire County Council’s Keyhaven Marshes reserve. I went for the Leicester bird earlier this month but it wasn’t seen on that day. The site offered a distant sighting that might have to be waited a long time for, so today seemed an easier option. I know Keyhaven well having recorded other scarce North American waders there: my first Pectoral Sandpiper (Aug 1997) and Semipalmated Sandpiper (Sep 2013). My previous LBD sighting was in Nov 2010 at RSPB Lodmoor in Dorset, where I also saw the rarer Short-billed Dowitcher in Sep 2012.

Back to the present, we parked mid morning at the end of a lane south-west of Lymington (SZ318927) then walked a track between Keyhaven and neighbouring Pennington marshes to the sea wall. Two water bodies lie between that point and Keyhaven village, Fishtail Lagoon and Keyhaven Lagoon, and the wader action is usually on the latter. There we met a small assembly of birders who were scrutinising a group of Redshank on the lagoon’s far side. Amongst them was a similar-sized sleeping wader with green legs that all agreed must be the Dowitcher. Three Spoonbill were also present here.

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Red-breasted Merganser (above) and Dartford Warbler © Mike Kosniowski

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Another birder reported a nearby Long-tailed Duck, also a long stayer for the site. So we walked along the sea wall to Keyhaven harbour but there was no sign of it, though we did locate two rather splendid pairs of Red-breasted Merganser. Mike knew of a Dartford Warbler territory en route and called up the birds using the Bird Guides app. Then on our way back two other birders pointed out the Long-tailed Duck offshore (see here). I was having a lazy day but it was too windy for much self finding anyway.

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Wintering Long-billed Dowitcher (centre) at Keyhaven marshes © rights of owner reserved

Back at Keyhaven lagoon the Long-billed Dowitcher was by this time moving about and feeding. The bird’s longish, grey-green, slightly decurved bill was now clearly visible and for me that clinched the ID. This picture (above) on RBA shows how we too saw the LBD, if rather more distantly. Mission accomplished and with a good supporting cast also observed we then moved on to Ibsley Water, north of Ringwood to await the incoming gull roost there.

In that site’s Tern Hide (SZ154086) what by the conversation was clearly a RSPB local group outing was in occupancy. There was a certain amount of misleading chatter on the part of those trying to guide the beginners, then at the crucial stage of the afternoon the bless ’ems all repaired to the comfort of their coach. I hoped the more seasoned types at the other end of the hide would call the Ring-billed Gull, but when it came in the only guidance forthcoming was: “It’s in the middle of the flock”. “What’s around it?” and “Any landmarks?” we enquired politely. “A Lesser Black-back,” came the reply then muttered put downs.

Well thank’s matey, we bow to your all too apparent superiority. There’s enough of these people in the field after all but thankfully many times more helpful and mannerly birders. Soon our end of the hide refilled with some obliging gull experts who quickly picked out the RBG. But this was the most difficult scarce gull to identify I have ever encountered. Now I am absolutely no larophile and take little interest in large gull roosts as a rule. But there’s been no difficulty in self locating Glaucous, Iceland, Sabine’s, Franklin’s, Bonaparte’s, Audouin’s and Slender-billed Gulls in recent years.

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The famous Gosport Gull © rights of owner reserved

So why was today’s bird so difficult? For the uninitiated RBG looks very similar to Common Gull, of which many were present here, but is slightly larger and paler on the upperparts, with a thicker bill. When in Dec 2012 I saw the Ring-billed Gull that wintered in Walpole Park, Gosport for several years the bill shape was obvious. And to my marginally analytical mind that bird just seemed to have its own facial expression and “personality”. This time in a roost at medium range things were an entirely different proposition, as an image (here) from RBA illustrates.

One very patient birder put it in my scope several times before this gull turned its head to such an angle that I could clearly make out the bill shape that for me is the clincher. I left the hide feeling like a total idiot and suffering a little from overload, but had seen the species for a second time in a different circumstance. Our last call for the day was at Rhinefield Arboretum (SZ272028) where I had enjoyed a good experience of the Hawfinch roost in Feb 2012, but today we didn’t see any.

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