Two fine birds at two very different locations in the morning and afternoon; Kumlien’s Gull at Port Talbot and Great Grey Shrike at Garwnant, and both showed really well.
Kumlien’s is a sub-species of the Iceland Gull and perhaps the Thayer’s Gull too (Jury’s still out on this one) It’s named after the Swedish-American naturalist Thure Kumlien and is a regular but rare vagrant to the British Isles from the Arctic regions of Canada. It was identified as a Kumlien’s through photographs after first being thought to be an Iceland Gull.
A first winter bird, like this one, is hard to call and I’d have struggled to differentiate it as a Kumlien’s, identified as such by its slightly larger size (really hard to judge in the field with nothing as comparison), a much darker bill (perhaps more obvious?) and slightly darker outer primaries, which was not that apparent to me!
Gull’s are hard and you either love ’em or hate ’em – I’m getting to love ’em but still struggle with identification as they move through their yearly plumages before reaching the much easier adult stage. One thing though, they are to be ignored at a cost, and that cost is a wonderfully subtle plumage and a striking range of blacks through to whites on a seemingly endless scale. If you’re serious about trying to get a handle on the seemingly infinite variation of gull plumage then I’d certainly recommend the Helm Identification Guide, ‘Gulls of Europe, Asia and North America’ by Klaus Malling Olsen and Hans Larsson.
The white winged gulls have to be my favourites and the Kumlien’s, in its early years, would be classed as one. In adult plumage, however, the outer primaries take on a dull grey, whilst the Iceland retains the white. This Kumlien’s was a first winter and the intricate patterning on the upper wing coverts was really beautiful. It had a presence too, whether that was me giving it elevated status or the bird itself could be debatable, but it felt to me as if it knew it was something special.
I spent a good hour with it as it plied its way up and back down a small stretch of the river Afan in between heavy showers before it headed off over some houses on the other side of the bank. A real treat!
Great Grey Shrike
Up at Garwnant, a few miles north of Merthyr, I went in search of a recently reported Great Grey Shrike, another bird that proves black, white and greys do not make for a dull bird! The clear fell where this one had been seen is quite large and slopes down towards Llwyn-on reservoir but when it shows it’s a bird you’re not going to miss. Moving from one top of a tree to another this is a bird that appears to want to show off (it’s actually all part of the hunting strategy, picking a high perch as a vantage point and watching for its prey, small birds, rodents and insects). Not always an easy bird to find but when you do it lets you take your full fill.
It’s a ‘smart’ bird, with a bandit like black mask right across the eye and has a habit of impaling its prey on thorns and creating a larder of meals to have at a later date. Known by many local folk names, most of which conjure up a bird of death (Butcher Bird, Murdering Pie), the Great Grey Shrike is often mobbed by smaller birds which recognise them as serious predators. Shrikes are well built, about 9 1/2 inches long and have hooked predatory beaks and actually impale their food because, being passerines, don’t have enough strength in their feet to tear away at their prey in the manor of hawks and falcons.
It breeds in Scandinavia and a small number migrate south to more temperate climes and around 200 arrive on our eastern shores each winter, with some reaching as far west as Wales. The curious thing with the Great Grey Shrike is why it doesn’t actually breed in the UK. Conditions seem ideal with prey species abundant and with its breeding range from Central France to Scandinavia and across into Asia, it simply misses the UK out! The French birds tend to stay put with the northern breeders coming south for the winter.
On this occasion both the Kumlien’s Gull and the Great Grey Shrike gave really fine views, it’s not always thus but makes for a good days birding and not a bad one for photography too!