Thursday 23 March 2017

Bonaparte's Gull in Tsu

After spending two days looking for an already departed Bonaparte's last week you might think I'd have learnt my lesson. But I couldn't get past the possibility that the Black-headed Gull flock that the Bonaparte's was said to be with could still be in Ise Bay. If so, I felt there was a real chance of it putting in another appearance.

The next opportunity I had to test the theory was Wednesday (March 22) and I arrived at dawn. My first port of call was the Anogawa and the sun was already up by the time I climbed onto the embankment. The weather was hardly ideal, apart from the clear sky there was a strong off-shore wind. Sufficiently buffeting to make observation difficult; that my tripod and scope only fell over once during the day was due to me usually laying it flat every time I stopped.

There was a good number of Black-headed on the river but no matter how often I carefully scanned through the two main congregations I eventually had to concede the Bonaparte's simply wasn't there to be found. Next stop the beach.

The upside to the wind was a total absence of people to disturb the gulls. The cloud to that silver lining was only a handful of loafing gulls were interested in having their plumage sandblasted, most preferring the open water well out to sea. No Bonaparte's, no anything much really.

Last throw of the dice and it was back to the Anogawa (the day past so quickly?!); small mercies, the wind was finally beginning to ease. This was good because constantly watering eyes were inducing a dehydration headache.

There are plenty of small Black-headed Gulls, some strikingly so, and at this time of year the bill can be very dark. I spent quite a bit of time scrutinizing one slightly suspicious-looking Black-headed after another but much as I would have liked to turn one of these trickier birds into the Bonaparte's there was no eureka moment. I was doing nothing more than delaying the admission I'd just spent a third day looking for a ghost.

There comes a time you have to admit defeat and I trudged back downstream, one eye checking a trickle of new arrivals, to the small car park behind the seawall at the river mouth. BUT, with only a couple of hundred metres to go, there was the ghost! Coming in off the sea and flying strongly up river back the way I'd just come, white underwings gleaming in the low sun. It really is here! I tried to get a record shot but it was already past me, dancing between low sun and river glare; I'd have nothing, I knew it for sure. Certainly I'd seen the bird but, but, I had to get photographic evidence of a bird, which consensus has it, departed a week ago.

It joined about 10 Black-headed on the water, I ran. I haven't run for a bird in years! I may be guilty of an unbecomingly fast walk from time to time... but run? I don't think I've run since the St Agnes Nighthawk back in the 70s. That it was 5pm didn't help, there wasn't much daylight left. The small party of gulls lifted... no no No! But quickly they re-settled within a large flock on my side of the river. I mentally marked the part of the flock and when I got there I walked right on by in the best out-for-a-saunter manner I could manage. With the light now behind me thanks to a kink in the embankment I sat and began to scour the spot. I didn't see a raptor but every bird on the river suddenly got up; ducks, egrets, Oystercatchers and naturally the ever-jumpy Black-headed flock led the way. They may always be nervous and ready to fly up for next to no reason but they do at least settle quickly too. Unfortunately I no longer had any idea where in the flock the Bonaparte's might be and most gulls had landed on the exposed mud of the far side of the river a little downstream... again.

I was no longer lingering over slightly suggestive Black-headeds, they either were it or they were not and so far none were. Truthfully, I'm not sure how long I sat sifting through the flock, every so often moving a little further along the bank to check the next section, perhaps 20 minutes from when the birds flushed. But finally there it was! I needed a couple of quick record shots, and then a quick couple more with raised wings. Then I could relax and enjoy the bird. I stayed until the light was too poor to be able to get better views even if the gulls had come to my side of the river. Now I could go for lunch with a clear conscience.

Bonaparte's catching the late sun.

This low sun was actually quite helpful because it would accentuate the red of the Black-headed bills as birds moved around. They could otherwise seem as black-billed as the Bonaparte's.

No matter how much it stretched it was always going to be the smallest gull on the river, at times it was dwarfed but at others it was a closer-run thing.

Small size alone could make it easy to pick out if surrounded by the larger of the Black-headed Gulls.

With smaller birds the size difference was less significant. I presume this Bonaparte's is a female going by head and bill proportions, so a male lurking in a flock of Black-headed would be less noticeable. 

Of course Bonaparte's is really outstanding in flight, very easy to spot as I well know from experience. Once upon a time I was taking a romantic stroll with my then girlfriend along a beach in south west England when a Bonaparte's flew along the tideline. Talk about bad timing. But as the old saying goes 'girlfriends may come and go but a Bonaparte's sighting is for life'.

Even dinkier in flight but it's the white underside of the primaries compared to the black of Black-headed that really makes this bird so easy to pick out. 

There's absolutely no mistaking it.

The upperwing is very distinctive too. Because the inner primaries lack the black on the under-surface the inner hand is uniform with a more contrasting trailing edge. Whether that's enough to stop you in your tracks if you weren't already looking for Bonaparte's is a different matter.

As a postscript I can add I stayed overnight in the car park hoping to get better views in the morning, however there were relatively few Black-headed present at dawn. Next I went to the beach where the star sighting was Thayer's Gull. By midday I thought the best chance of re-finding the Bonaparte's would be back on the Anogawa in late afternoon. I'm uncertain whether the key factor in its appearance and my finding it yesterday was time, tide or dumb luck. But I was getting tired and decided to call it a day; Bonaparte's securely on my Japan list.

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