Dipping in Duncannon
Several times over the last few months, I’ve written about my successful “twitches” for the American Bittern, for Glaucous-winged and Azorean Gulls, as well as my big weekend back in October 1985. Often enough, however, these birding trips don’t work out so well - as happened last Tuesday in Duncannon in Co. Wexford when I "dipped" - or missed the first Vega Gull for Europe.
Discussion was still going on in the Irish Birdnet as to whether the Glaucous-winged Gull was the real deal or possibly has some features indicating hybridization with another large gull species. Killian Mullarney, one of the authors of the Collins Bird Guide, pitched in to say that he wasn’t actually that well up on the identification of large gulls from the North Pacific. Then, during one of his regular visits to check the gull flock at Duncannon last Sunday, he found the first European record* of a Vega Gull – it breeds in north east Siberia and winters in Japan!! Given how similar this species looks to our native Herring Gull, as well American Herring Gull that has been recently split , I’m really looking forward to what he will pull out for us when he gets his act together on gulls!
I couldn’t travel until Tuesday and by then, connecting with the bird was looking a little dodgy because, after giving itself up for Victor Caschera and others on Monday morning, it disappeared about 11.30am. Nonetheless, I headed off early with Dave on Tuesday to be on the main pier at first light. I was hoping it’s routine involved breakfasting on the sprats being landed by the local fishing boats – particularly as Victor said it was the only gull doing so the previous morning. Surprisingly, the rest of the gulls were showing no interest in the fish boxes on the pier. I’m not sure if this was because they were catching enough of their own on the water’s edge as the tide went out.
Sadly for me and 15-20 other birders, mainly from the UK, the Vega Gull did not show during the morning. A nice shot of an first winter Iceland gull caught in the early morning light over Duncannon fort was a small consolation.
As well as the flock of gulls around the pier, there were thousands more on Duncannon’s fine beach - so I decided to spend a few hours walking the shoreline and checking them out in the hope of finding a slightly darker backed “herring gull” with a strong brown shawl of streaks, and a dark eye. The Vega Gull is also still moulting its outer primaries - unlike the Herring Gulls that have completed their feather replacement. Unfortunately, the combination bright sunlight, strong winds, the receding tide and rather jumpy gulls meant it was impossible to get steady views at close enough ranges to pick out eye colours and judge mantle tones. I did see one adult Yellow-legged Gull but eventually the conditions became too difficult and I just walked the beach and took a few landscape shots. That's another birder, not me in the shot below.
Here’s a aerial view the Duncannon area from Bing Maps** It may be useful for birders looking for the Vega Gull over the weekend or just wishing to study the wide range of gull species on show there at the moment – both subspecies of Herring Gulls, Yellow Legged Gull, Caspian Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Great-blacked Backed Gull, Iceland Gull, Glaucous Gull, Common Gull, Black-Headed Gull, Mediterranean Gull & Kittiwake. As Killian Mullarney has previously pointed out, it can often be difficult to get close to the gulls on the beach. However, use of your car as a hide on the upper beach may allow closer views of gulls – particularly on an incoming tide – high tides in Waterford this Saturday & Sunday are at 10.29am and 11.22 am. There were several local cars on the beach when we were there but it’s obviously AT YOUR OWN RISK! Driving onto the lower beach when the tide is out would carry a much greater risk of being bogged down. Unfortunately, on sunny days you may often be looking towards the light. The light can also cause problems on the main pier. In the mornings, the rocks between the pier and the Fort are heavily shaded. In the afternoon, you will be looking directly into the light in this area. Overall, bright overcast conditions with light winds are likely to provide the best observations conditions.
By mid-afternoon, most birders had left and we decided to head home via the South Slob where a Siberian Chiffchaff was seen in early January. Sadly, we didn’t even connect with this, just this Common Chiffchaff as dusk fell. However, there’s still hope because the Vega Gull was seen again on Wednesday – so I’m still hoping I’ll have a positive update to this post at some stage!
* Technically, it’s actually the first record for an even bigger area, the "Western Palearctic". Ecologists divide the world into eight ecozones, based on the presence of broadly similar species of plants and animals, and the Palearctic occupies Europe, North Africa, much of the Middle East and the rest of Asia north of the Himalayas. For convenience, the Palearctic is split into western and eastern sections along the Ural Mountains, the Caspian Sea and onto the Persian Gulf. I believe the name is a combination of paleo (Greek for old) and arctic (Greek for northern) but I haven’t seen this confirmed online. As North America is in the Nearctic ecozone, however, this seems likely. Amongst European birders finding a “first for the Western Palearctic” is quite a feather in your cap . . . although you don't actually need one from the bird in question! Birders with such an achievement are perhaps worthy of the post-nominal title “1WP”?
** By now most people are very familiar with Google Maps – but did you know there are other sources of internet maps? These include Micrsosoft’s offering, Bing Maps, and Ordnance Survey Ireland’s (OSI) extensive collection that now uses the “Geohive” brand – good luck with that name! Anyway, the key point is that these sources can often provide a better quality aerial views of an area than Google. OSI doesn’t give driving directions but they do have three sets of aerial shots over recent decades as well as six inch maps from the mid 19th century and 25 inch maps from the late 19th and early 20th century. These series of maps and images provide a fascinating view of how areas change over time. Planners, developers and county councillors could also usefully consider the meaning of “liable to floods” on the old maps!!
Keywords: 1WP, Bing Maps, Co. Wexford, Duncannon, First for the Western Palearctic, Geohive, Google Maps, Ireland", John Coveney Photography, Ordnance, Survey, Vega Gull, Western Palearctic, chiffchaff, dipping, fishing, gulls, sprat, twithcing, www.johncoveney.ie
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