It was 4 months since I last went birding, to Balvicar in Argyll for the Snowy Egret. The winter had been devoid of new birds apart from a couple of Snow Geese but the nearest of these was in Lancashire, too far for a modest rarity. Once you get into March you are beginning to improve your chances of an early spring migrant. My first real excitement, however, was not a spring migrant but a winter visitor from America which although not split as a separate species by BOU (it has been now) was nevertheless a major rarity (it would be the 5th accepted record for England). An American Herring Gull had been seen at Corfe Mullen Tip. It was Monday and so unless I took time off work I wasn’t going to be able to go until the weekend. Leaving for work at 7:20am and arriving home at 6:40pm means that until the clocks go forward at the end of March I don’t really have any opportunity to twitch birds after work mid-week.
The pager suggested that sightings were intermittent, the bird was presumably touring around sites in or around the harbour and timing its visits to the tip when refuse was being dropped. I was anxious to see the bird although the longer I left it the better chance I would have of working out its movements and the best times to visit. I assumed that it would have been James who found it and when checking e-mails that evening this was confirmed. James was passing around the local e-mail loop digital grabs of the bird.
Over the next few days the bird revisited the tip every day and other interesting visitors included an adult Ring-billed Gull, a 1st winter Iceland Gull, several Mediterranean Gulls and a Red Kite. On the Friday I texted James to check whether he was going on Saturday morning and what the best time to arrive was. The tip was opening at 7am but was closing at midday, the tip was less active on a Saturday with fewer refuse dumps and this would mean that the bird life would also be less active. Nevertheless, I arrived on site at about 7:30am, signed in and donned my hi-visibility jacket and crash hat. I joined the 20 or so birders who were already there and pretty soon James arrived. The refuse area was about 100 yards away from where we stood on a raised bank. We were looking down into the tip area where several diggers were moving around. A large wheeling flock of gulls hung overhead waiting for the first birds to pluck up the courage to land. A refuse lorry arrived and began to pour its load.
Soon there was a cry of “is that it?” and several birders pointed to a flying bird just overhead and amongst a flock of around 200 birds. I got onto it and noticed the smoothly coloured smoky underparts and contrastingly paler head. This looked good and James confirmed that this was the bird. This was a relief although the bird quickly veered away from the tip and headed away towards Corfe Mullen and was lost to sight. Over the next hour another 40 or so birders arrived and we picked out the Iceland Gull and the Ring-billed Gull but there were no more sightings of the ‘smithsonianus’ Herring Gull. I was very keen to see it on the ground and although the flight view would be adequate I was hoping for more.
At about 8:45am I was checking through the mass of gulls which had now settled onto the tip when I came across a larger Herring type which seemed to be the bird. The underparts were smoothly coloured and with a much paler head. The tertials were all dark and the tail also looked entirely dark. The huge two toned bill and overall large appearance convinced me and I began to call out directions. Soon it took flight and during this time and subsequent wing stretching I could clearly see the all dark tail and darkish uppertail coverts.
At the time I saw this bird it was not a full species but it has subsequently been split. I had come just 2 miles to see this bird and that compared to a round trip of over 1,000 miles for my last tick!