The area around Great Livermere, Suffolk, has been attractive to gulls for some years, with a regular late summer roost at Livermere Lake. More recently the extensive pig fields in the surrounding farmland have provided a year-round food resource. I’ve been watching larids around here since the late 1990s, and more regularly since the mid 2000s when gulls have been present year round in decent numbers. The area has proved good for Yellow-legged Gulls – with numbers peaking in late summer – and Caspian Gulls. If lucky, there can be the odd Iceland or Glaucous Gull, too, though neither species is annual.
Sometimes plans fall through, and usually it’s a bad thing but on this occasion it turned out well. On Saturday 15 April, while setting off to check the Micklemere gull roost, I never arrived due to a chance encounter. My visit to the pig fields on 14 April produced a large number of gulls; probably increasing as the cold northerly winds set in yet again. Therefore, my intention was to go via the same site, and approaching Livermere village I was pleased to see a few hundred gulls loafing near the sinkhole in the large field to the north.
After about 15 minutes, a second-calendar-year Herring Gull with bright white rear scapulars caught my eye, presumably a leucistic individual. A minute or so later another gull, in almost the same spot, appeared to show a couple of rather pale rearmost scapulars. It was clearly not the same bird, and it held my attention as several aspects which suggested American Herring Gull registered in my brain.
The American Herring Gull stood out at a distance with its dark body and pale head (Peter Wilson).
Perhaps the first thing which struck me as odd was the simple patterning to the second-generation scapulars. On our lounge wall we have a Martin Elliott painting of an American Herring Gull on the Hayle Estuary, Cornwall, showing the same scapular pattern, and I look at it most days. A white head contrasting strongly with a rich brown nape and smooth ‘mocha’ underparts, among several other features, pointed to one species only, and breaking out of my daze I contacted Nick Moran at the British Trust for Ornithology's headquarters at The Nunnery in Thetford, Norfolk, to inform him I was looking at a potential smithsonianus.
Nick was down at the Nunnery Lakes (as I might have guessed) and without a car, so it seemed unlikely he would make it. Five minutes later after further views of its tail, the tail coverts and its rump, I decided to stand by my convictions and phoned the news out as American Herring Gull.
Birds started to move off towards their roost, but the potential smithsonianus appeared happy to stick around a bit longer, and I was amazed and delighted when Nick arrived, having been given a lift by Neil Calbrade. Shortly after, Steve Holloway pulled up, having reacted quickly to the news, and it was rewarding to be able to share the bird – even more so as everyone was positive about the identification.
Though it briefly reappeared the following evening, the bird was not available to the masses (Peter Wilson).
At 19.35 the gull took off just as one unfortunate birder pulled up, and it headed towards Livermere Lake. Nick managed to grab a few decent flight shots before we decided to head for the lake, just in case it dropped down. The bird was not there and, disappointingly, apart from a frustratingly brief appearance the following evening, that was it, despite many would-be observers leaving the area with eye strain over the next few days.
Sadly, my wife, Dawn Balmer – also a gull enthusiast – was away on 15th and also failed to connect with the bird, along with the majority of others who tried. It’s OK, we’re still talking – she managed to see the one I found at Blackborough End Tip, Norfolk, in February 2004 and we’ve both seen one in Cornwall in recent years.
If accepted by the Rarities Committee, this will become the first record of American Herring Gull for Suffolk, following closely behind last year’s superb Thayer’s Gull. For the modern gull watcher, smithsonianus remains a great find and the events of that evening will live long in my memory.
A more distant, cropped flight shot shows convincing features of American Herring Gull, including a hint of the more barred rump and the paler wing panel with dark subterminal tips on the inner primaries (Nick Moran).