My second Bonaparte’s Gull: a local celebrity – 24th Apr

For the last 18 days a vagrant north American Gull has been the main draw for visiting birders to Oxford’s Farmoor Reservoir. This bird was first found on 7th April whilst I was away in Estonia. On receiving the text alert I sighed and wrote it off as the latest major county bird to turn up when I am abroad, Black-winged Stilt and Spotted Sandpiper being the most notable past instances. But one can hardly not go anywhere for fear of missing a county tick. I needn’t have concerned myself, because this cracking first summer Bonaparte’s Gull has remained in Oxfordshire ever since.

For the first 10 days of it’s stay the gull was either confiding or elusive in turn. It seemed to favour Farmoor early in the day before disappearing elsewhere, and on some dates was absent entirely. I myself missed it three times in the days after returning from Estonia. Then on Easter Monday I got the tip off and after a mad dash finally gained what for me was a county list addition. But this is actually the fifth record for Oxfordshire, and all at the same site.

Since Easter the “Boney” appears to have taken up residence, favouring a pontoon at the south end of Farmoor 2, the larger of the twin reservoirs here. Some excellent images of the bird on or around that structure have appeared in local media, which whetted my appetite to take a better look. On my second visit last Friday 21st the bird was posing perfectly on the pontoon but I didn’t have my camera with me.

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2015 Bonaparte’s Gull in Dorset

I had captured the above flight shot of this species two years ago at Radipole Lake in Dorset (see here). Bonaparte’s Gull is mainly seen in Britain in late winter or spring, and the Oxon 1w / s bird is one of three in England at the present time. Noticeably smaller and more delicate looking than Black-headed Gull, they have a finer, all-black bill; and immatures have pinkish legs and an attractive upper wing pattern that to me seems to stand out at a distance. The flight pattern is often described as being Tern-like.

Having brought my Oxon year list (had I been keeping one) up to 145 in the period under review, I resolved at the weekend to take a little gardening leave. But first today I would pay a quick visit to Farmoor to seek portrait shots of this Gull to go with the Dorset flight pictures. Or that was the plan, anyhow. I often start the day with good intentions regarding household chores. As I walked around F2, patch worker Dai (who has a vehicle permit) stopped to say the BG was sitting atop the reservoir wall. But when I reached the favoured location the bird was perched some way out on a buoy.

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Bonaparte’s Gull over Farmoor Reservoir

For the next 90 minutes or so my quest spent it’s time flying around the northern end of F2, at times settling on the water or the said buoy. There was a lot of disturbance from passing anglers cars and power boats out on the water, the latter making it increasingly unlikely the gull would favour the pontoon today. I rather like the above image that conveys how well this gull stands out from the background. Then the weather deteriorated.

A squall blew in and I took cover in one of the “bus shelters” at this part of the site. Another  birder joined me and pointed out the BG again walking along the reservoir wall towards us, seemingly picking midges from the inside wall. I attempted to get pictures as it approached but the light was very murky. When the rain stopped the bird was nowhere to be seen.

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First winter / summer Bonaparte’s Gull at Farmoor Reservoir, Oxon

Conscious that the entire morning had now passed with no attention at all having been paid to the day’s task list, I gave up on the BG returning to the pontoon. But as I walked further there was the local celebrity again in exactly the same pose as before, coming along the top of the wave wall towards me feeding on insects along the inner edge. And this (above), for what it’s worth is my own muddy, grainy best effort at a portrait shot of the Farmoor Bonaparte’s Gull.

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Marathon man: Oxon’s legendary jogging birder

Footnote: While writing this I received a text from another local celebrity Tom (pictured above) – who originally found this gull – saying two Black Tern, the first of the season had arrived on F2. So it was back out to Farmoor to see those. By 5:30 pm no gardening or any other household chores had even been attempted. But I shall start tomorrow, or at least set out with good intentions!

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Steller’s Eider in Küdema Bay, Estonia – 5 & 6th Apr

Having experienced most regular (ie non-vagrant) birds in south-western Europe over the last five years my attention in 2017 has turned to new countries in which I might gain multiple life-list additions. One of these is Estonia, the most northerly and least populated of the Baltic states. Hence I joined a group tour by birdingbreaks.nl that was featured in Birdwatch magazine. The trip targets were mainly woodland species: Grouse, Owls and four new Woodpeckers out of a possible eight here; as well as Eagles and the globally threatened sea duck Steller’s Eider.

One landscape predominates in northern Estonia: flat, mostly yellow-toned fields mixed up with tracts of predominately pine, silver birch and spruce woodland. The pictures below give the general impression. It is endlessly samey, dour even but very wildlife rich.

We set off from Tallinn airport by minibus at around 2:30pm on 5th April, our destination being the Baltic island of Saaremaa. The first stop along the way was Kasari floodplain meadow, one of the largest extant open meadows in Europe. Flooding is caused here by snow melt in the catchment area and strong south-westerly winds that push sea water onto coastal lowlands. At the time of the spring flood thousands of migrating wildfowl stop over here, and as the waters subside the meadow attracts large numbers of waders.

Scanning the Barnacle and White-fronted Geese we found two Red-breasted Geese in amongst them. This was a good scene setter for northern birding I thought. A White-tailed Eagle made a long and languid fly past, then another one drifted through at greater distance. These huge raptors that have a front-heavy, large-billed, long, broad-winged profile with deeply fingered primaries, were seen on every day of the trip. From time to time along our route Common Crane would adorn roadside fields, almost always in pairs and sometimes dancing.

On the ferry crossing to (and from) Saaremaa what seemed a roll call of northern wildfowl would drift by on either bow, or fly busily from one spot to another. Long-tailed Duck were everywhere. There are thousands of them in the northern Baltic. Common Scoter were well represented, while the white eye and wing patches of a few Velvet Scoter could also be picked out in some of the rafts that rode the waves in the middle distance. Also seen in varying numbers were Scaup, Common Eider, Common Goldeneye and Red-breasted Merganser. It was impressive to see all these ducks in such numbers, quite a contrast to winter birding at home and a different bird-scape from other parts of Europe certainly.

Before reaching Saaremaa the road crosses a smaller island Muhu. Between the two is a narrow strait which is traversed by a causeway. Offshore here were very many Bewick’s Swan and also numbers of the larger Whooper Swan, as well as Mutes. In amongst these were more familiar wildfowl such as Tufted Duck, Wigeon, Teal, Gadwall, Northern Pintail and Mallard; and also Smew here and there. But the must-see attraction of this island is the wintering flocks of Steller’s Eider which grace it’s western seaboard that is ice free all year round. Those would have to wait for the morning.

Early on Thursday we headed for the coastal national park of Vilsandi that covers a total area of 237.6 km sq comprising many islets, peninsulas and relatively sheltered bays. It is the last-named that attract around 2000 Steller’s Eider from December to mid-April. They have to be picked out from amongst their Common cousins and the ubiquitous Long-tailed Duck here, as well as the assortment of wildfowl noted a day earlier. The tundra breeding Steller’s prefer shallow coastal waters in winter, especially with in-flowing fresh water, and they often come quite close inshore.

Our guide checked out a number of likely locations without success, before we arrived at a rather remote and deserted jetty location in Küdema Bay. This internationally Important Bird Area (IBA) in the island’s north-west corner is a major staging and wintering area for many water fowl. Here we scanned through the by now familiar assortment of offshore duck until from right at the end of the jetty a raft of about 80 or more Steller’s Eider were located (pictured below) bobbing in and out of view towards the far side of the bay.

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Mission accomplished and this (below) is what the picture shows

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These birds are about two-thirds the proportion of Common Eider, roughly the size of Common Goldeneye. Steller’s have a square head and spatulate, not wedge-shaped bill. The body appears elongated and the tail is cocked upwards like a Scoter when at rest. The stunning males are intricately patterned though at a distance stand out as almost white amongst the dark, chocolate-brown females.

We all observed them for some time before it was time to move on. I was one of the first to return to the minibus but was then called back. Our raft of duck had relocated closer inshore and so the diagnostics were plainer to see, especially with the pale-toned drakes. And so we watched a little longer before departing.

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Raft of Steller’s Eider in Küdema Bay

See here for a full trip report on this visit to Estonia from 5-10th April.