Caspian Gulls in the Southwest

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Gavin Haig

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Gavin Haigh

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Magazine Article

It's fair to say that my job doesn't require a lot of brain-time. Which means I was able to spend most of this afternoon thinking about Caspian Gulls, and still earn a few bob. Steve and I had been chatting earlier about Casps on the Axe, and their occurrence more generally in the Southwest. It's the sort of topic and discussion that I could easily see being formalised into a paper for Devon Birds, but Steve rightly pointed out that it would be out of date before it was printed. So I'll squeeze it into a blog post instead.

A serious paper in a serious journal is a wonderful thing of course, but hamstrung by all sorts of annoying constraints. For example, it needs to be accurate and reliable; it needs to be data-driven and able to withstand critical scrutiny; it needs a great, long bibliography to prove the in-depth research and studious application of the author. And once written, it needs to pass an editorial review, wait 18 months for a publication slot, another six for printing, and then finally - about three years after inception - it'll be in the reader's hands. Wonderful.

Happily, a blog is able to circumvent all this inconvenience.

Today I am privileged to be able to publish a first for NQS. A proper scientific paper, with a bit of data and stuff. Its title...

Caspian Gulls in the Southwest

The history of Caspian Gull in these islands is an interesting one. In the 1980s Caspian Gull wasn't even a bird. Then suddenly it was. In the 1990s a few diehard gull anoraks invented it for the purpose of making the average birder's life difficult. Unfortunately they made a schoolboy error - they accidentally called it a subspecies of the much commoner Yellow-legged Gull. The average birder doesn't give a monkey's about subspecies because you can't get an extra tick for one. So Caspian Gull remained an anorak's bird, and therefore very rare because nobody else could identify one. The error was rectified in 2007 when Casp was shoe-horned into a non-existent gap in the systematic list and promoted to a full species.

At this point all average birders were faced with the unwelcome necessity of seeing a Caspian Gull in order to tick it. But hardly anyone knew what they looked like. Cue massive learning curve, and utterly coincidental massive increase in sightings, bringing us to where we are now in 2021...

Current status: Caspian Gull is now a scarce but regular bird in many parts of the country. There are localised hotspots in London and the home counties where they occur in especially good numbers,  congregating wherever white, sliced loaves are abundant. However, in the granary and wholemeal-rich Southwest, Caspian Gull remains a rare bird. How rare?

Well, first let's define 'the Southwest'. That's Dorset, Devon, Somerset and Cornwall. If you google 'the Southwest of England' your results will include other places, but that's far too complicated for this author. And while we're keeping things simple: Due to not having the right books and lacking the desire to do any research whatsoever, he was unable to determine the official status of Caspian Gull in either Somerset or Cornwall. However, his gut feeling is 'mega' in Somerset, and 'very rare' in Cornwall. Though the situation in Cornwall is clouded by the fact that two or three individuals (or possibly more...or maybe less) keep hanging around, coming back each year, and in various other ways being awkward. It makes a Cornish Casp look less rare than it really is. The trouble with Cornwall is that it is located at the far end of England. Caspian Gulls get there, and then stop, realising there's nowhere else to go. Anyway, that's enough of two counties which barely register on this author's radar. Let's press on with the important ones: Dorset and Devon.

Dorset is where I currently reside, so we'll begin there. Up to and including 2019, the Dorset total was 32 records, with 26 occurring in the ten years 2010-19. Casp is officially listed as a 'rare but increasing passage migrant and winter visitor'. The period 2020-Jan 25th 2021 is a complete mystery to me, but it would be entirely reasonable to assume there's been at least two more, because I saw them. And various statistical analyses would undoubtedly suggest others occurred too. I'll bet.

Devon sources whom I trust implicitly (cheers Steve!) tell me that the county total stands at 43 individuals. In the same ten-year period of 2010-19 the count was 31, with only three earlier records. Interestingly, the combined total of 34 closely matches the situation in Dorset (32, remember?) at the same point in time. I'm sure this is significant for some reason, and likewise that said reason will be quite fascinating when someone works out what it is. As an aside, it should be noted that the current Devon database is partially unverified due to one observer having failed to send in four records as of now. This author is duly chastened and has promised to rectify.

Right then, let's get site specific. The purpose of this paper is to prove that the Axe Estuary is the best place for Caspian Gull in the Southwest. Not the best place to see one necessarily - other boring places that cling needily to their Casps might qualify for that not-worth-having title - but the best place for numbers. As of yesterday the Axe has had at least 23 different individuals. Beat that, anywhere else in the Southwest!

Conclusion: The data are unambiguously incontrovertible: The Axe Estuary rules!

So there we are. The first NQS paper. Written, edited, checked, published and out there in a single evening.

Finally, today's lunchtime thrills were provided by a stonking little Firecrest, a bird I see all too rarely, and have yet to photograph in any way that might truly be called satisfying...

Firecrest compilation - the best three of a bad lot!