Saturday, 1 March 2014

Campbeltown and Machrihanish, 18th-21st Feb 2014

Mid Feb I was offered a bit of work in Argyll, and with the influx of gulls along the country's western fringe still going on, I thought it would be rude to turn it down. Unfortunately however, work on Scottish uplands in winter can be fraught with weather problems...

3cy Iceland Kilmichael
Day 1 and the visibility was less than ideal on the tops, so we were off down the Mull of Kintyre at a rate of knots! A few days before had seen the discovery by local man Eddie Maguire of a belting 2cy smiths in the harbour at Campbeltown, and we were keen to see it. The Tayinloan Lesser Snows passed by in a blue and white blur, and after checking a few beaches we were at the extensive Kilmichael floods. First scan: 3cy Iceland Gull amongst a handful of Herrings - good start. Then it was down to the harbour to grip ourselves off with views of the pier the smiths had been photographed on, young Herrings showing down to a few yards...

2cy Kumlien's Drumlemble
With half the peninsula covered in floods and slurried fields, gulls were everywhere, so we headed west towards Machrihanish, and were soon savouring a bulky but subtly marked juv Kumlien's Gull in a field at Drumlemble - last month's bird after a three week absence?! Our attention was briefly diverted from the gulls by an impressive flock of 1,320 Greenland Whitefronts at East Chiscan that were accompanied by 500 Greylags, 19 Barnies, 2 Pinks and a surprise Todd's Canada. Talk about underwatched.

3cy Iceland East Backs
The gulls led us back through the lanes towards the airport, and at East Backs Farm we came across the 3cy Iceland Gull again, but on closer inspection the darker coverts and more bicoloured bill revealed it to be a different bird. And in a year when Icelands have been relatively scarce. A shuffle in the flock, and another winger appeared in front of us - a bulky but demure 4cy Kumlien's Gull! Tricky to be sure on the deck, but in flight Dan managed to capture the spread wing, with nice dark markings on the outer 3 or 4 primaries. Nice.

4cy Kumlien's East Backs
4cy Kumlien's East Backs (Dan Brown)
From there it was back along the Machrihanish road, just in case, and another flock of gulls drew us down the track at Bruntholme. We both immediately picked up a remarkable looking bird which rang all the bells of a 4cy American Herring Gull! Big and bulky, it had an amazing smooth brown shawl that extended onto the breast sides, and the rest of the underparts were sullied brown too. The mantle shade looked pale in comparison to the surrounding argenteus, and the wings were relatively immature for a bird of this age, plenty of young-looking brown coverts and a few lower tertials showing fairly solid brown internal markings. The tail still had a lot of black in it, and when the bird flew, irregular dark markings could be seen in the secondaries as well as a broad black band on P5 - all good features. But does it as usual remain unprovable? The ideal candidate might show darker greater coverts and even more (blacker) markings in the secondaries and tertials, but where do you draw the line on smithsonianus?! And this year, in this place...

possible 4cy AHG Bruntholme
possible 4cy AHG Bruntholme (Dan Brown)
The 19th was workable up on the hill, and the 20th started off that way too, so I was forced to sit and watch Golden Eagles mating before taking a walk where a flock of 5 Blackcocks flew over my head. But we made our way back past the roadside Lesser Snow Geese after lunch, and were back in the land of floods and gulls by 3.30pm. The magic didn't happen this time, and we failed in our primary aim of getting better views and images of the swarthy 4cy. The Machrihanish juv Kumlien's came to bread in the bay, and the original 3cy Iceland put in an appearance in a field just outside Campbeltown before roosting in the harbour. A final hour email from Eddie to say the smiths had been back was a real gutter, and despite grilling everything under the floodlights, we left empty-handed again.

2cy Kumlien's Machrihanish
The 21st was our last day, and would you believe it, at dawn the mountains were shrouded in cloud yet again! We hit Campbeltown harbout early, but gull numbers seemed low, and we were soon off to the floods. First field after the 30 limit roadsign, c20 gulls in it, probably worth a scan... First bird, almost naked eye, 2cy AMERICAN HERRING GULL! And what a bird:

2cy AHG Campbeltown
2cy AHG Campbeltown
2cy AHG Campbeltown
2cy AHG Campbeltown
2cy AHG and 3cy Iceland Kilmichael
Job done. Still felt we should check everything one more time though, but no new gulls could be located. The floods at Kilmichael were even bigger, and late morning held 300+ large gulls, so had to be worth a look. The pale 3cy Iceland was present, and for a little while loafed alongside the sleeping smiths! But time was ticking, and the 405 mile drive home wasn't getting any shorter, so we made a move.
How many birds get overlooked down there in what is clearly a superb piece of habitat is anyone's guess, and it's very tempting to get back down there a bit more often. But what really amazed me was that there had apparently been 2 (maybe 3?) American Herring Gulls there in the space of a fortnight whilst there were none (at the time) anywhere else. I'd tried to match Eddie's bird with Dan's from earlier in the month but they looked quite different... until the most recent photo from the harbour came out, and it all fell into place:

2cy AHG Campbeltown (Eddie Maguire; insets Dan Brown)

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