Glaucous-winged Gull in Castletownbere in West Cork

January 03, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Yesterday afternoon we had the astonishing news of Abi Brewer’s and Ciaran Cronin’s Brown Booby in Owenahincha - within a mile or two of the American Bittern that I recently blogged about. Sadly, this first time visitor to Irish shores from the tropics was washed up dead - and an iron-clad rule of twitching is that dead birds can't be ticked! Significantly, several Loggerhead Turtles have also been washed up on the south coast – presumably all brought here by the long run of unseasonably warm southerly storms this winter. Anyway, I was barely into denial about this loss of a tick, never mind anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance . . . when the Twitter machine started hopping again with news of Fionn Moore's discovery of a Glaucous-winged Gull in the fishing port of Castletownbere shortly before dusk (glaucous is a fancy scientific word for “bluish grey”).

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There was also the tantalising promise of shots to follow – vital for this sometimes difficult to identify mega-rarity from the Pacific coasts of North America and East Asia. While waiting, I made initial preparations for another 500 mile trip to the southwest  -  and when the pictures came through it was clear that this near adult bird was very promising  with its grey tipped primaries, shawl of brown and dark eyes. However, as with many of the large gulls, this species is known to hybridise with its close relatives and these hybrids can be very difficult to identify.

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So it was another early start – this time at 3.30am with Peter and Victor to be there at first light. Peter and I still have nightmares about narrowly missing another mega rare gull from the North Pacific in Killybegs in Co. Donegal last January – a Slaty-backed Gull. Then we decided to make a later start and to take it easy on icy roads only to miss the bird by minutes as it disappeared before 10am on the second day. This time we were there shortly after 8am in near darkness – this far west, sunrise is not until 8.45pm at this time of year. Then there was an anxious search around the various piers of the fishing port for about an hour and a half until the bird was eventually attracted to bread at the main pier and about 30 happy birders eventually connected with this first Irish record*. It quickly moved to rocks close to the main road into the town where Fionn had found it the evening before.

013-Glaoucous-Winged Gull © John Coveney2016013-Glaoucous-Winged Gull © John Coveney2016

Here's Ciaran Cronin in the foreground looking doubly happy!

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Here's the rocks where the Glaucous-winged spent most of it's time, along with the Yellow-legged Gull.

009-Glaoucous-Winged Gull © John Coveney2016009-Glaoucous-Winged Gull © John Coveney2016

Here’s a series of pictures on the water, mostly with immature Herring Gulls.

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Next are some flight shots showing the grey tones of the mantle and the wingtips as well as the presence of a few dark immature feathers on the back. Most are from the initial observations from the pier but the the last one is in somewhat brighter light later in the morning.

004-Glaoucous-Winged Gull © John Coveney2016004-Glaoucous-Winged Gull © John Coveney2016 005-Glaoucous-Winged Gull © John Coveney2016005-Glaoucous-Winged Gull © John Coveney2016 006-Glaoucous-Winged Gull © John Coveney2016006-Glaoucous-Winged Gull © John Coveney2016 007-Glaoucous-Winged Gull © John Coveney2016007-Glaoucous-Winged Gull © John Coveney2016 008-Glaoucous-Winged Gull © John Coveney2016008-Glaoucous-Winged Gull © John Coveney2016

Here’s a shot of a group of birders on the main road – Fionn is on the left with light grey hat.

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Finally to add to the mix, here’s a shot of another, albeit less rare,  cousin of our native Herring Gull – a Yellow-legged Gull from southern Europe.

011-Glaoucous-Winged Gull © John Coveney2016011-Glaoucous-Winged Gull © John Coveney2016

So is it a certain Glaucous-winged Gull? I’m no gull expert so I’m not going to call it but I understand a lot of birders are positively disposed to it. However, I’m a little concerned about the darkness and pattern of the wing tips. It will be interesting to see the discussions of this bird over the next while.

QUICK UPDATE - I just had a chance to read comments on the Rare Birds of Britain & Ireland Facebook group from various birders who have seen lots of them and they are happy this bird is well within the range of normal variation.

*There has possibly been a previous record in Sligo in 2009 but it has not been established if that first winter bird was a pure Glaucous-winged Gull or a hybrid.


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