Gulls Galore

February 29th 2012

Gulls Galore

Here’s a roundup of a few nice gull sightings in Assynt over the past few weeks. [This article was originally published in the Assynt News during June 2011]

It all started on 17th May 2011 by two birders, who had travelled specially to see the 1st-summer male Surf Scoter on Loch Dhrombaig. They spotted a Franklin’s GullLeucophaeus pipixcan at Clashnessie Bay. This is a ‘two star rarity’ and had a few of us twitching, but we eventually got it at 9.30pm the same day in pretty wet and windy conditions.

This gull, which is also a North American species the same as the Surf Scoter, was also a 1st-summer bird. It may have been at Clashnessie since the 15th but this was never confirmed. However, it seems to have hung around for the next two days so hopefully made a few more people happy. It, like the scoter, was another new bird for the Assynt list.

Next up

The next exciting gull was spotted by a passing birder and was a Ring-billed GullLarus delawarensis on 6th June at Achmelvich. Now this may come as a surprise but Ring-billed gull is also a North American species and guess what, yes it was also a 1st-summer bird. This is the second record for this species of gull in Assynt. This current bird was at Achmelvich until at least 9th June, when we managed to see it, and was next reported from the camp site at Clachtoll on 19th June.

All three of the birds mentioned above breed in North America and generally migrate and winter there with some of the gulls reaching South America. There are annual records of these birds in the UK but to get all three in Assynt within a few weeks of each other is quite special.

Not a North American gull

The third gull of note is not an uncommon species, nor is it exclusively a North American one, it was a Kittiwake, Rissa tridactyla.

Kittiwake, which has a UK breeding population of over 360,000 pairs, is an amber list bird in the UK as it has seen a reduction in its breeding population over the past years. Happily it is not a bird of European concern where its breeding population is 2-2.5 million pairs.

We were at Rubh’an Dunain on Tuesday 7th June watching around 150 Kittiwake feeding about 200 metres off shore. About 20-30 of them decided to land on the rocks just below us.

This small group included adult and 1st-summer birds, and then suddenly we saw a pure white gull amongst them. Our hearts missed a few beats as our minds raced through Iceland, Glaucous and Ivory Gulls, but given its size, shape, actions and pink legs we soon realised that we were looking at an albino Kittiwake. After we managed to take some photos of it the bird flew off and started feeding with the larger flock.

More searching

Albinism and leucism is not uncommon in gulls and we had a leucistic Herring Gull at Torry Bay in Fife a few years ago which did a good impression of a Glaucous Gull. We will not go in to the arguments of albinism ‘v’ leucism if that’s okay.

Wondering if this could be quite unusual in Kittiwake we contacted Andy Summers, the Highland Council Senior Ranger and also Hugh Insley, the County Bird Recorder. Neither of them was aware of records of albino Kittiwake. In fact Hugh sent the record to the Curator of Birds at the National Museums of Scotland who replied, “Interesting, we don’t have an albino Kittiwake in our collections”! Fortunately for our Kittiwake it managed to fly off and feed another day!

We then sent the record and photos to the warden at Handa Island; the Scottish Birds Records Co-ordinator and the British Trust for Ornithology. All replied to say they were not aware of any records of such birds. Indeed the Handa warden, Phil Knott, was able to say it was not one of ‘their birds’ as the Kittiwakes breeding on Handa are all well monitored and counted so a white bird would very probably have been seen.

Handa

On the subject of breeding birds on Handa Phil kindly said that with regards to the auks it was looking like it could be the best season for around 6-7 years with many occupied and incubating nests. It was now down to the ‘wee fishes’ being out there so that the chicks could have a good supply of food over the coming weeks.

With Kittiwake being circumpolar we made enquiries of the American Ornithologist’s Union who gave us links to several useful American websites where again we turned up a blank on records.

While this Kittiwake was not a new species of bird for Assynt or further afield it was, in some ways, more exciting as it could be a very rare bird in its own right.

So next time you see a single gull or a flock of them take a closer look you could just turn up a rarity and add to the Assynt bird list or generally to the understanding of the gulls around our coast.

If you would like to see photographs of some of these gulls they are on the Assynt Field Club website under ‘News’.

D and A Haines

 

 

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