Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Watching winter gulls in Cyprus

Gull watching is not everybody's cup of tea, especially when on holiday to warmer climes where you might think that there is too much other good stuff on offer to worry about seperating the larger Larus species. However Cyprus does provide a good opportunity to get to see a few species in different plumages, which either do occur or could potentially occur in the UK, with Caspian, Armenian, Heuglin's (Siberian), yellow-legged, Pallas's and slender-billed gulls all possible with a bit of luck, whilst there are no herring, lesser black back or common gulls to cloud the issue. In otherwords, just about every large gull you see is very educational and gives you a better chance next time you look through your local gull roost!

The following notes are simply based on my personal observations and from what little reading I have bothered to do on the subject. I'm by no means claiming to be an expert on gulls, so take all of this for what it is, just a few personal observations of those gull species I have seen in two winter breaks to Cyprus. In the UK I wouldn't have a chance of picking out an Armenian or Heuglin's gull amongst 10,000 herring and lesser black-back gulls. I'm certainly not going to go through all plumages, because I'm nowhere near knowledgable enough. The Facebook group "Western Palearctic Gulls" has proved an invaluable resource for me whilst I have been in Cyprus, and all of the identifications here have been confirmed by the real experts on there.

Lady's Mile is my favourite place to watch gulls in Cyprus, but most species can also be seen elsewehere, including off Timi beach near Paphos. My experience at Lady's Mile is that there aren't too many gulls, it's a pleasant location, you can drive up to within a few feet of the birds, the light is always good providing good photo opportunities and there is a pleasant taverna on the beach close by with wifi! How could it get any better? Most of the photos in this post are from this year, but I have borrowed a couple from my previous visit in 2014. I'm ignoring the ubiquitous black-headed gulls.

Armenian Gull

What a cracker! I think that the most striking feature of an adult Armenian gull in winter is the black ring close to the end of it's bill. It also has quite a small rounded head and quite a gentle looking face. Notice it has yellow legs. I've usually found about 10 - 20 Armenian gulls at Lady's Mile at this time of year.

All of the large gulls in this photo are Armenian gulls. The large unobscured gull on the right of this photo is a 3rd calendar year (3cy) Armenian gull according to the experts on "FB Western Paleartic Gulls". I initially identified this as an adult Caspian gull due to head shape, apparent length of bill and pink legs, but apparently 3cy Armenian gull has pink legs, and this isn't an adult from bill colour alone (an adult would have a yellow bill). I still might have called it a 3cy Caspian though, but what do I know?

These are all Armenian (and black-headed) gulls. Left to right, 1cy, adult, 3cy, adult (calling).

3cy Armenian gull top left with 2cy Caspian gull on the right and possibly yellow-legged gull bottom left (not certain of this though). Notice that the 3cy Armenian gull has virtually no white spots in its black primaries. This is a good way of determining that it is not an adult.

3cy Armenian, same as above.

Adult (left) and 3cy Armenian gulls. Again, notice the lack of white spots in the primaries of the 3cy when compared to the adult.

2cy Armenian gull.

This bird really had me excited, I thought I'd found a 2cy Pallas's gull, but apparently it's a 2cy Armenian gull. Note the difference in the bill though, from the bird in the photo above. Not just the bill pattern and colouration, but also its shape and size. This looks to be a much more fierce bird than the one in the photo above.... is this really not Pallas's gull???

1cy Armenian gull

Caspian Gull

2cy (?) Caspian gull (right) with adult Armenian gull asleep (left). Notice how much larger the Caspian gull is, some approach great-black back in size.

2cy Caspian. Note the long bill and pear shaped head. A very fierce looking bird. Adults have pink legs (not that I've ever seen an adult in Cyprus).

2cy Caspian from 2014. This one is a bit of a freak, it has the long bill and the pear shaped head to the extreme! Note how huge it looks compared to the black-headed gull.

1cy Caspian gull, another large  individual.

1cy Caspian gull.  If the 2cy above is a freak, then this at the other end of the spectrum! Notice the odd shape and how much smaller it appears to be than the Caspian gulls above (compare size with black-headed gulls). To me this bird has the classic Baltic gull shape and size, a small bird, very elongated at the back. However I think that the bill is too heavy for Baltic gull, and a 1st winter Baltic gull would still retain much of its juvenile plumage at this time of year. It's a Caspian gull, but it just highlights the variation

Yellow-legged gull

Adult yellow-legged gull, dome shaped head, yellow bill with blood read gonys. On this holiday I saw very few yellow-legged gulls, in fact I think I saw more Heuglin's! Even birds I checked at Paphos were Armenian.

Heuglin's (Siberian) gull

Adult Heuglin's or Siberian gull. Generally considered to be a subspecies of lesser black-backed gull, although some authorities consider it to be a seperate species, this is a little known gull, breeding in tundra-like habitat in Northern Russia. Seperation from lesser black-back is quite difficult, but in winter in Cyprus it's actually very straight forward, since in winter it is the only regularly occuring "black-backed" gull. Apart from the dark mantle, in winter it also has a lot of streaking on the head and especially the neck, and a long, drooping  bill. I was well made up to find this bird and the 3cy below.

Adult Heuglin's gull.

Adult Heuglin's gull (left) with 1st winter Caspian Gull and black-headed gulls for size comparison.

3cy Heuglin's gull. This awesome looking bird was the first of the two Heuglin's gulls I found at Lady's Mile, and it was my bird of the holiday this year, even better than the adult in my opinion. What a beauty! There was a debate on "Western Palearctic Gulls" about whether or not this was actually the Scandinavian race of lesser black-back intermedius or perhaps even a hybrid, partly due to the extent of the streaking on the head and the very dark mantle, but ultimately the general concensus was that it is a Heuglin's gull. To put it into context, Heuglin's is the only regularly occuring race of LBBG in Cyprus in winter, whereas intermedius has thus far never been recorded, and therefore this would have been a first for Cyprus if accepted as intermedius, so on balance of probability alone it's Heuglin's. However, there are other good reasons why this is Heuglin's gull, and moult is one such reason (see my blog post explaining the moult of this bird here).

3cy Heuglin's gull. 

3cy Heuglin's gull. The moult of this bird is important in helping to determine the identification. Note the brown and un-moulted P9-10 and secondaries. Also note that one of the secondaries is missing. Being a long distance migrant from Siberia to the Middle East region, Heuglin's gull delays completing its moult until it reaches it's wintering grounds. Most other gulls at Lady's Mile have long since moulted. This in itself does not conclusively prove that this is Heuglin's gull (e.g. Baltic gull also has a delayed moult), but it does add weight to the identification.

3cy Heuglin's gull. The above photo shows well the late moult of this bird. See my blog post here on Heuglin's gull moult for a full explanation about what is going on here.

Slender-billed gull

1cy (?) slender-billed gull.

Adult slender-billed gull. Slightly larger than black-headed gull with a pure white head and long thin bill. Notice also that it appears to be front heavy and over balancing

1cy (?) slender-billed gull.

1cy (?) slender-billed gull. Note the pale eye.

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