Slender-billed Gull – Monks Wall NR, Kent

On Wednesday 5th May I had 3 appointments in Plymouth and this meant an early start. Six hours driving plus perhaps 4 hours in the appointments would make it a pretty gruelling day. I was coming to the end of my time as a LloydsLink seller and even allowing for tiring days like today I felt sure I would miss the job. I arrived in one of the Plymouth Industrial Estates at just after 9am. I was meeting one of the lads from the local Commercial Office ahead of joint appointments at 10am, 11:30am and 2pm.

I hadn’t been stopped long before a Pager Mega Alert reported that a Slender-billed Gull had been found in Kent at the newly created Grove Ferry site near Sandwich. I rang Peter who hadn’t heard the news yet although he quickly made up his mind to make every effort to get there that day. With joint appointment commitments for both Wednesday and Thursday there was no way I could go and it seemed likely that the weekend would be the earliest available opportunity although I currently had nothing booked for Friday afternoon.

Meanwhile, Peter had contacted Richard Baatsen at work in Oxford and they decided to go immediately. Peter stopped off at Richard’s house in Gloucester to pick up Richard’s birding stuff before meeting in Oxford. They overtook Stuart when they were within a couple of  miles of the bird and met Nigel on site. At about 5pm I was on my way home and my phone rang, it was Peter. ‘Do you want to speak to Stuart, Nigel or Richard?’ They were obviously all watching the Slender-billed Gull. My reaction was unprintable, I was gutted!

The bird showed well all day and by darkness at 9pm it was estimated that 800 birders had connected, perhaps the highest total ever to see a bird on the day of its arrival. The gull fed alone for much of the day but was joined by several Black-headed Gulls just before dusk and it was with these gulls that the Slender-billed Gull left overnight, much to the anguish of the 150 birders who were present at the site on Thursday morning.  When negative news came through to me I felt a mixture of surprise and deep disappointment.

Amazingly, the Slender-billed Gull was relocated at 8:45am 8 miles away at Monks Wall NR near Sandwich on the flooded fields which bordered the A256. The sudden resurgence of excitement convinced me that I had to try and get there the next day (Friday) and I started to make plans. I had a 10am appointment in Mere in Wiltshire and with nothing booked for Friday afternoon I decided I would head straight from Wiltshire to Kent. My appointment was with a carpet manufacturer and I rang the MD to ask whether he would mind if I brought the appointment forward from 10am to 9am thus giving me a bit more time, he agreed.

With the bird still present at Monks Wall NR at dusk on Thursday evening it was with excitement that I left Poole on Friday morning heading north towards Mere. The pager brought more good news with the continued presence of the bird from first light on Friday morning. The appointment was a fairly brief sign up and I was on my way again by 9:45am.

I made the 175 miles in just over 3 hours with my pager reporting the continued presence of the bird throughout the journey and at 12:50pm I pulled over onto the side of the A256 and parked next to half a dozen birder’s cars. The pools were fairly distant although my first views of the gull convinced me that I had the right bird. The elegant gait, the longish red legs, elongated neck, the pinkish flush to the breast, the long gape line and the pale iris were all fairly obvious. A quick gloating call to Peter even things up and after a few brief sketches I left at 2:15pm.

Slender-billed Gulls breed in scattered colonies from Southern Spain eastwards through the Mediterranean and Black Sea basins. The nearest breeders are in the Camargue with 900 pairs just 600 miles away, they winter in the same areas and also further south and their dispersive nature leads to very occasional vagrancy. There were other Northern European records in Spring 99 with one in Hungary and six in Switzerland.  

The Slender-billed Gull was the 6th record for Britain and the first since the Cley pair in 1987. It was last seen on Saturday 8th May.

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