Monday, 28 January 2013

that ridiculously showy Bonaparte's Gull whose name shall now be Napoleon!

He's a small, agressive foreigner who's conquered the hearts and minds of the natives. And he eats bread on a boating lake in the middle of Eastbourne! This is Napoleon, and allow me to tell you the story of how we became acquainted.

It begins several days ago, when I discovered school had a staff training day, and I'd have a day off for some birding! I originally planned to patch the Cuckmere, but upon talking to Jake Gearty, we decided to take advantage of the day off by catching a train into some underwatched areas of East Sussex, Horse Eye Level and Combe Haven. Short-eared Owl, Water Pipit, Bittern and Hen Harrier were all targets. It was a good plan, but a spanner came into the works yesterday, when a BONAPARTE'S GULL was reported from Princes Park, Eastbourne! A great find for John and David Cooper, who put so much effort into their gulling that it's about time they found something rarer than the Casps and Yellow-legs!

This obviously became our main target, we realised Horse Eye from a train would not be doable, and planned to connect with this early on, check Shinewater for Bittern and Bearded Tit, and then get the train to Combe Haven. So, up I was at 7, on the 07:58 train to Lewes, where I met Jake and changed for a train to Eastbourne. We eventually arrived on site at about 09:30, but there was no sign of the bird! Roger and Liz Charlwood were on site, and suggested the bird may not come in until high tide. All I saw were Black-headed GullsHerring Gulls and Coots!
for a bridge camera, I quite liked this Coot photo

in Eastbourne- a well-named cafe!

Swans are scary creatures!
We checked the beach for the Boney's, and had a brief seawatch in which we recorded 2 Red-throated Divers and 3 Razorbill W, 2 Great Crested Grebes o/s, 200 Wigeon flying out to roost on the sea and 6 Ringed Plover on the beach. We now decided to crack on to Shinewater. What felt likes hours later, having traversed the busiest road and scummiest estates in Eastbourne, we were there! Now, if you've never walked round Shinewater before in the winter, here's my advice... Don't! it was muddy, depressing and almost impassable with boots in some places, and I slipped and got my entire side muddy, to which Jake snickered like a child. And for a long time it seemed the birds wouldn't even be worth it! There were about 300 Wigeon, 200 Shoveler, 150 Teal, 100 Gadwall, 200 Tufted Duck and 2 Pochard on the lake, while a Chiffchaff was heard from a small patch of reeds, and we saw about 30 Snipe around the margins. I was mighty relieved when our risk paid off though, as Jake did rather well to spot a distant BITTERN flying over the reedbeds on the opposite side of the lake! It was only on view for about 10 seconds, but this was the first Bittern I had seen in about two years and made the day!
a typical Shinewater path!

dog vs Mute Swan at Shinewater. Dog doesn't win!

I hardly got a great view, but you could see the classic, elongated shape, with neck and legs dangling out to give a slightly distended profile, enhanced by the pot-belliedness of the bird. The beautiful patterning was also visible even rom this range, subtle, reedy brown with thick black streaks running down the back, wings and belly.
leucistic female Mallard, she should really get together with the altogether more striking leucy male at the Ouse Estuary!

Of course, the day was still young, and Jake's birdnet twitter rang through not too long after this. The Boney's was back at Princes Park! We had planned to catch a train to St Leonards, and check out Combe Haven, but as this was a lifer for Jake it took priority. and what a good decision that was!

my own photographic attempts

fleshy legs!!! 

We had to cross the scum-filled, post apocalyptic nightmare that is Hampden Park to get to the nearest station, and it was a half hour walk from Eastbourne station back to Princes Park, by which point I was both starving and exhausted from about 10 miles of walking! But we could see the Bonaparte's Gull being fed from the other side of the lake, and upon getting there plonked down to eat, rest and lounge about enjoying a great, great bird! The views were often distant at this point, but it could often be tempted a  bit closer in, much to the delight of the surrounding throng. 

superior photography with Jake's DSLR
It was a pleasure to see various locals, including Dick Gilmore, Chris Lowmass (who I haven't seen in at least two years, nice to meet you again!), Ron Knight and Les Bird. I even managed to bump into Dad, who had dropped in on his way back from work! 

I (rather selflessly may I add!), sacrificed a succulent ham sandwich for the sake of the gulls, but it was worth it, with the Boney's coming in, swooping down for a bit of bread and giving some fantastic, almost point-blank views! However, after each raid it tended to fly into the middle of the lake to devour its quarry, perhaps sensible given the bullying tendencies of its black-headed cousins and it's respective size in comparison. This seemed to satisfy a lot of the others, who rather sensibly left, having obtained truly fantastic views of a truly fantastic bird! We waited around though, as George Kinnard and Luke Dray had only just arrived!

The gull was currently in the centre of the lake, giving reasonable views through the scope, but not as good as we had obtained previously. Wanting to put on a show for two other young birders who had travelled all the way from Chichester, we sent Luke on a scouting mission to get some bread. We expected him to bring back a little roll, we didn't think he'd come back with a whole loaf! 
excellent flight shot by Jake, showing the diagnostic underwing pattern

As it turned out, the loaf proved very useful, bringing all the gulls in! We now got the very best views yet of the Bonaparte's Gull, as it sat on the water no more than 5 metres away, and could fly up onto the bank at a distance of no more than two metres occasionally, hovering above the throng of Black-heads and occasionally swooping down to steal a piece from under their noses! Small and plucky is how I'd describe Napoleons charisma, but his tactics worked well and I can only imagine he felt gorged! 

A competition soon emerged- could anyone feed the Bonaparte's Gull out of their hand? I managed to get a swan to eat out of mine (and nab my finger too, they'e not gentle with food!), and we gave ourselves endless entertainment watching Black-headed Gulls swoop to catch pieces of bread in mid-air, showing truly remarkable agility and reflexes. Our game was so close to working! we had several flybys of less than a metre, by both the Bonaparte's and surrounding Black-headed Gulls, but none wanted to bite the hand that feeds them! 

With such incredible views, for at least two hours, I managed to get a quite extensive set of notes about the bird! These include;

  • a black bill, shorter and thinner than that of the surrounding Black-heads, giving it a far more delicate expression. The bill was also sharper than those of the black-heads, tapering to a fine point and not looking remotely hooked.
  • a square-ish shaped black patch on the ear coverts, different to the slightly arched, more rectangular pattern of a black-headed gull. It also had very little in the way of dark markings around the eyes
  • slightly greyish wash to the nape, only visible from close range or through the scope, contrasting with whiter colour to breast, flanks and face
  • darker mantle than the surrounding Black-headed Gulls, approaching a Common Gull. 
  • white on the underside of the primaries, where you would find a darker grey on a black-head and almost black on a Little Gull
  • an extensive white flash on the outer primaries visible in flight, with clean black wingtips to all the primaries. when perched, this manifests as a black wingtip and a slightly less noticeable white flash. 
  • orangey-pink, almost salmon-coloured legs, very distinctive in flight! 
  • a buoyant, tern like flight similar to a little gull
  • when perched, it was very noticably smaller and longer-winged than the surrounding black-heads, with a smaller head and far cuter expression. 
  • in flight, it was much more delicate than the Black-headed Gulls, being more easily blown back by a strong gust of wind, and with less powerful wingbeats. 
  • when seen on the deck, it had a short-legged, deep-breasted, long winged and small headed appearance that reminded me of a kittiwake
even the feet look smaller, and more dainty!

Eventually Luke and George had to leave, and Jake and I waited it out for Peter Denyer, who was rushing over after work. We tried feebly to attract the gull closer in, as it had now given up and flown back into the middle of the lake, its appetite presumably sated. We managed to briefly coax it closer, but it then flew off right to the western side of the little lake! We were terrified for a moment that it would leave for good, presumably to roost on the sea, and were relieved when it dropped down and, not 30 seconds later, Peter walked across from the road, standing on the lakeside to practically 10 metres from where it had put down! 

We strolled over to join Peter on the lakeside, and, with just four slices of our loaf left, coaxed the gull off the water a few times so that yet another happy camper could leave with brilliant views! Not quite as amazing as mine, Jakes, Lukes and Georges from earlier, which does trump any views of a rarity, and probably any bird, that I have ever managed, but they were still pretty darn good, and Peter seemed delighted! He very kindly offered us a lift home, saving me the £1.20 bus fare, and the gull flew off to the far side, where a women was feeding the swans, presumably wanting one last feed before it retired for the night. I have a feeling this bird, should it stick around and show like this all the time, will prove incredibly popular!

ad for the record, myself and Peter agree this bird should be called Napoleon. Therefore it would make us very happy if everyone adopted this moniker for him/her!
I think this says it all- I try to photograph a Mute Swan and it's photobombed by a Bonaparte's Gull!


  1. Enjoyed this post. Especially when Jake "snickered like a child". I also really appreciated the detailed notes on Napoleon.

  2. Lovely account of a great little bird. Was definately worth a trip to see it from my home town of Burgess Hill.