Awash with white-winged gulls

February 29th 2012

Article originally published in the Assynt News during January 2012

Awash with white-winged gulls

It’s an ill wind as the proverb goes. While we have certainly had a few bad winds in the last couple of months at least we haven’t, yet, been snowed or frozen in. The almost complete lack of snow allowed us to get back to Assynt quite a bit earlier this year and so, happily, we got our 2012 Assynt bird list up and running.

Our first Assynt bird of the year was Whooper Swan with two of them spotted on Cam Loch as we drove north through Elphin. We thought we might have started with Jackdaw as Elphin holds the only population of them in Assynt.

The weekend we arrived was the dates scheduled for our WeBS counts – Wetland Bird Survey – a monthly count of all wetland birds at specified sites throughout the UK. We count at five sites in Assynt, one of which is Oldany Estuary. There are always a few waders and ducks to be counted here and a good number of gulls of various species – Great Black-backed; Herring; Common; the occasional Black-headed and from the spring some Lesser Black-backed after they return from spending the winter in south-west Europe or north-west Africa.

This time though we had a nice surprise, in with all the other gulls was a 1st winter Iceland Gull. This bird could be identified as a 1st winter, i.e. hatched in summer 2011, from its bill pattern. What a start to Assynt 2012.

Iceland Gulls, along with the Glaucous Gull, are the only large ‘white-winged gulls’. They are so called because their primary wing feathers are basically white and lack the black and white tips worn by many of the other species of gull. A photograph of an Iceland Gull can be seen on the Assynt Field Club website, just click on News.

On the Monday we could not believe our luck. On the way to Culkein Bay and other haunts we thought we should stop again at Oldany to see if the Iceland was still around. It wasn’t, but in its place was a 1st winter Glaucous Gull; these gulls are generally larger than the Iceland but they always look much heavier in the chest and the bill is heavier and stronger looking.

We had seen Iceland Gulls in Assynt a few times in the past but it was only last November that we saw a Glaucous Gull for the first time.

As our visit progressed we were to see many more of both of these white-winged gulls, for example, Iceland at Clashnessie Bay, Bay of Culkein, Loch Kirkaig and Loch a’ Chairn Bhain where there were six on 29th January. Glaucous we only ever saw at Oldany Estuary with three present on 25th January, one 2nd winter and two 1st winter birds. The Glaucous Gulls were always in with the Great Black-backs where their whiteness really stood out.

Despite their name, Iceland Gulls do not breed in Iceland but in Greenland and Northern Canada, they do, however, winter in Iceland. The Canadian birds are a sub-species and do have some greyness to the tips of their wings – just to make identifying them more fun!

Glaucous Gulls do breed in Iceland also Spitsbergen and northern Russia and winter throughout that range but, in the UK, they are usually more common during winter than the Iceland Gull, despite our sightings suggesting the opposite.

With so many of these gulls around we contacted Hugh Insley the County Bird Recorder. He got back to us to say that there had been a huge number of sightings in Highland and around Scotland with Shetland having had a combined count of around 500 individual white-winged gulls a few weeks ago.

There is, at the moment, no explanation for the influx of these gulls other than perhaps the weather over the last weeks. So to finish the article and the proverb – it is an ill wind that blows no good.

D and A Haines

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