Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Cyprus part two: gulls

One of the things I was most looking forward to ahead of my trip to Cyprus was spending time with the winter gull population. For starters, Armenian would have been a lifer, and Caspian are said to be numerous and approachable. On top of that there’s the chance of digging out something rare, such as Heuglin’s, or even Great Black-headed. All of the above is made much easier (for a novice like myself) by the lack of Herring and graellsii or intermedius Lesser Black-backed Gulls!

A: Adult Caspian Gull, Larnaca sewage farm, 17/1/2018.
The revered Lady’s Mile was where I planned to do my gulling, about half an hour from where we were staying and known for it’s large concentration of various species. I also checked beaches and harbours when I could.

Sadly, numbers were far lower than what I’d hoped, and the lack of gulls this winter was reaffirmed by local birders. Amazingly, I had no Caspians at Lady’s Mile, and never more than 15-20 Armenians there. I ended up venturing to Larnaca, where plenty of gulls were found.

Below is a species breakdown of what I saw, with some brief comment on the plumage and features I noted.

Caspian Gull

I only saw this species at Meneou Pools and Larnaca sewage farm/south pools, but here it was the commonest gull by far. There were probably at least 150 knocking around, though sadly none were very close – I’d hoped to have Casps come to bread at Lady’s Mile, so the lack of them there was a touch disappointing.

The jizz/structure of all ages easily separated them from the Armenians, even at range. For a species that generally has ‘classic’ features when picked up in the UK, I was amazed at the variation within the birds here. Some individuals were extreme – the bill length on the bird in the photo (A) is one such example.

Yellow-legged Gull
B: 1st-winter Yellow-legged Gull, Lady's Mile, 14/1/2018.

I only saw a handful, and I think Yellow-legged Gulls are found more readily on the north side of the island. In my opinion I had two first-winters at Lady’s Mile, including the bird (poorly) photographed and shown here (B).

It stood out from the first-winter Armenians it was with for a number of reasons. For starters, it was a bit of a beast among them, notably larger and fiercer looking. The heavy bill was archetypal for Yellow-legged, and the pale eye was a key feature when ruling out Armenian. Furthermore, it was a darker bird with less bleaching, particularly on the coverts (which was notable among the Armenians). If I was in the UK, the tertials and eye mask would point towards 1st-winter Yellow-legged too.
C: 1st-winter Armenian Gull, Lady's Mile, 14/1/2018.

There were also 2 or 3 adult Yellow-legged Gulls at Larnaca sewage farm, the pale eye and lack of a black band on the bill identifying them.

Armenian Gull

A very interesting species, particularly first-winters, with which I found a lot of variation. Typically they recalled 1st-winter Yellow-legged, but I encountered plenty that looked very much like 1st-winter Caspians.

D: 1st-winter Armenian Gull, Lady's Mile, 14/1/2018.
Often, scapular and covert moult to second-summer had taken place (or was), with many 1st-winters having grey upperparts. This varied though, but is the case with the first Armenian pictured (C), which appeared particularly longer-billed than most. The second pictured (D) was about as ‘classic’ a 1st-winter as I could find – rather typical 1st-winter coverts, and a short bill, with the structure almost recalling Common Gull.

E: 1st-winter Armenian Gull, Lady's Mile, 14/1/2018.
I had a bit of difficulty with a distant 1st-winter which was resting on the pools (E). At range, the bill and head looked OK for Caspian, but the mantle and scapulars not so much. When it flew, the white axillaries suggested Caspian, but the bill then appeared shorter, and there was no real shawl. I left it as an Armenian, and there were a few others that teased Casp features too.

2nd-winters were much easier, and you can see the almost Common Gull like appearance in the one pictured. I learnt that Armenians (and most eastern gulls) are prone to a lot more covert moult, and this is the case with the bird photographed (F) – it looks older than 2nd-winter.
F: 2nd-winter Armenian Gull, Lady's Mile, 14/1/2018.

Adults, with their dark eye and bill band, were largely straightforward, even at range. Phew! Of course, there was the occasional oddity, such as a bird with a clear pale iris. The white spots in the primaries identified it as an adult (pale eyes are more frequent in third-year Armenians).

Heuglin’s Gull

Not one I expected to come across, so I was delighted to find two at Larnaca sewage farm, in with a large mixed flock. This relatively poorly-known gull is considered a subspecies of Lesser Black-backed, and breeds on Siberian tundra, wintering in the Middle East and southern Asia.

G: Adult Heuglin's Gull (right), Larnaca sewage farm,
17/1/2018.
First up was a beastly adult (G), larger than most of the Caspians nearby, and appearing very similar to a winter graellsii. It had a clean white head, but was too far for any observation of the late moult typical of this taxa. The upperparts were much darker than those of the adult Casps and Armenians nearby.

When I didn’t think it could get much better, what I reckon to be a third-year Heuglin’s appeared! This bird (H) had extremely dark upperparts, recalling intermedius or even fuscus, and this showed when the adult Heuglin’s drifted aside it. The other notable feature was the heavy streaking to the head and, in particular, the neck. 
H: 3rd-winter Heuglin's Gull (foreground, adult in
background), Larnaca sewage farm, 17/1/2018.

Some rather ropy footage of the 3rd-winter can be found here.

Baltic Gull (?)

One that will be left unidentified, not least because of the distance and poor light that hindered views, but a very interesting adult gull (I) on Meneou Pools with a huge Caspian/Armenian flock. It was distant, but the seemingly jet-black upperparts and structure strongly recalled Baltic Gull, with its small size possibly pointing towards a female.
I: possible adult Baltic Gull, Meneou Pools, 17/1/2018.

Fuscus is only a passage migrant to Cyprus, though a couple were reported on Lady’s Mile not long after I left the island. However, it’s worth remembering the size variation in Heuglin’s, which can sometimes appear small when next to Caspians.

Black-headed Gull

Hundreds at Lady’s Mile, some well on their way to summer plumage.

J: Adult Slender-billed Gull, Lady's Mile, 14/1/2018.
Slender-billed Gull

Just the one, an adult, in with the 300+ Black-headed Gulls at Lady’s Mile. It showed at close range (J).