"This is going to sound very stringy and probably is … possible Kelp Gull on the dam."
Those were the fateful words I typed to Steve Cooper, a long-standing friend and expert 'guller'. He is my sounding board for identification of rare gulls or for scarcer taxa of common species, and he has commented on many unsolicited photos I have sent him over the years. The site in question was Grafham Water, Cambridgeshire; hardly the first place that would spring to mind for this potential first for Britain. Given Steve's gull pedigree and the fact that he lives a good 40 minutes away, he got the first message. What's more, he promised to bring the excellent Gulls of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East by Peter Adriaens et al with him.
So, what had triggered this? A week earlier on Sunday 31 July I had a stroll along the dam and was surprised at the number of gulls present. I ended up with a new site record count of four Caspian Gulls, plus a ringed hybrid, and it was less busy with the general public than first thing on other days. Therefore, exactly one week later on 7 August, I repeated the visit, and again there were a fair number of gulls present – more than during my very quiet intervening visits. A group of gulls was squabbling around a dead trout – mostly Yellow-legged, as expected, but one of the Caspian Gulls was there.
Partly out of habit (looking for colour rings) and partly because I find the legs a quick way to scan gulls, I looked through the 10 or so other large gulls there and stopped, electrified. There were some long greyish legs, with distinct greenish tones. Flashback to 2018 when I spent a few days around Simon's Town on South Africa's Western Cape. My wife Chin Man and I were there to enjoy the wonderful wildflower display and birds of south-western Africa. However, being long suffering she put up with me scrutinising the many Cape Gulls around the bay there, and one feature that I remembered was this intriguing leg colour – the exact colour I was seeing now on my local patch. What's more the bird in question had a very dark blackish mantle, wings of the same tone with liberal splashes of very dark brown feathers, and a dark iris. Gulp!
The bill showed some signs of immaturity, with a blackish ridge at the tip and a paler, washed-out yellowy base becoming brighter towards the reddish gonydeal spot. The tail had a small black spot on the outer left feather, and there was a single black feather towards the right outer tail which, intriguingly, appeared to be dark for its entire length. I got out the camera and rattled off a few shots – and then the bird flew. It spent a few minutes cruising up and down the dam wall before pitching down at the other end, and began voraciously feeding on another trout. At this point I hadn't really got a good idea of the bird's size, nor a good view of the upperwing. However, a Yellow-legged Gull approached it and was clearly larger than the dark-mantled bird – this was now really interesting.
The Cape Gull remained loyal to the dam at Grafham thanks to a supply of dead trout to eat (Paul Chamberlain).
More messages were sent to Colin Addington, Stuart Elsom, Mark Hawkes and Matthew Rodgers, all Grafham regulars – but one wasn't answering, one was probably en route anyway and the others were at points north of Peterborough. I settled back to wait, taking pictures and video while I did so. I could remember an intriguing old record of Cape Gull from Paris, and thought there had been another more recently, so it wasn't totally impossible. However, I also had a vague recollection that some of the early USA records were thought to be hybrids, so caution was required.
After what seemed an age Matthew was the first to arrive for his usual Sunday dam watch. He asked me what type of interesting gull the message referred to and I replied: "Well if I was in South Africa, it would be a Cape Gull". He was halfway along the dam when the gull, apparently now full, took off and flew out into the middle of the reservoir where it was no use to man nor beast. Fortunately, it didn't sit there for too long before heading for the north end of the dam. Just as Matthew and I got there, Steve and Stuart arrived.
We all watched the gull, which was now at good range on the shoreline but kept going to sleep. I emphasised I hadn't had a good view of the upperwing and when it finally flapped there was clicking of shutters all around as this crucial feature was recorded. As I had already seen there were no white mirrors on the primaries, but the white trailing edge to the wing did look worryingly narrow. However, closer inspection of the photos revealed that the innermost wing feathers were actually quite broadly tipped white whereas the others looked very worn, as is common in midsummer gulls.
The retained outer primaries and secondaries are second-generation feathers, contrasting with the broad white fringing shown on the new, adult-type inner primaries and secondaries. These, as well as the extent of the brown covert feathering, age the bird as a second-summer. Note also the retained all-black tail feather (Andrew Jordan).
I had tried but failed to contact Josh Jones, who it transpired was on a train home from Wales. Therefore, at around 10 am I asked the three others present if anyone could tell me why it wasn't a Cape Gull, and no one could – at which point I sent a message to BirdGuides: "Apparent 4cy Cape Gull at Grafham."
The Cape Gull would spend much of its time resting on the railings to the water tower just off the dam at Grafham, where it posed alongside the commoner gull species (David James).
And the rest, as they say, is history … except that later during 7th not one but two different people reported seeing this bird on previous dates – Matthew himself apparently saw it for a minute on 2nd and another visiting birder reported it on 6th. Anyway, this took none of the shine off the occasion for me, and I was fairly dazed for the rest of the day. Many thanks to all those who sent me private messages of congratulations, which were greatly appreciated.
The bird may have arrived with the annual midsummer build-up of Yellow-legged Gulls here, with about 20 or so currently hanging around the reservoir all day. Given the lower water levels coupled with exceptional heat on the Continent I had been hopeful of something good, but this was beyond even my dreams. Having done 10 Lundy trips between 1998 and 2008, but with nearly all of my birding nowadays close to home, I had long since forsaken any dreams of finding a first for Britain. Never give up!