I don’t consider myself to be a twitcher. I get just as much joy from watching the blackbirds, blue tits and robins in my back garden as I do ticking a new species, and I’ve never felt compelled to travel miles to catch a glimpse of a vagrant bird. But when I heard that a Sabine’s gull (Xema sabini) – a pelagic species that lives at sea when it’s not on its Arctic breeding grounds – had turned up on my patch, I couldn’t resist the urge to join the flock of birders descending on Southmoor Nature Reserve.
This rare visitor has rapidly gained celebrity status, so the small car park was overflowing. Camouflage-clad and laden with binoculars, spotting scopes and telephoto lenses, a steady stream of twitchers made their way along the seawall under the bemused gaze of the local dog walkers.
Sabine’s gulls are named after Sir Edward Sabine, an Irish explorer, ornithologist, soldier, geophysicist and astronomer. He discovered the species in 1818 on the west coast of Greenland, while taking part in the Ross expedition in search of the Northwest Passage. There’s much contention over the pronunciation of Sabine’s name, so most resort to referring to this individual as the “Sabs”.
Gulls are notoriously difficult to identify, particularly during the winter months, when the appearance of every species is a variation on the same basic colour palette of grey, white and black. But we were in luck, as the bird in question was reputedly sporting full breeding finery – a major draw, as most UK records are of immature birds in first winter plumage.
Eschewing the cackling horde feeding around the sewage outfall pipe in the harbour, the Sabine’s had hunkered down out of the wind on an islet in the lagoon, which formed when the seawall was breached in 2020. With its smart black-trimmed charcoal grey head, bright yellow-tipped bill, and red eye rings, there was no mistaking it for one of the similar-sized black-headed gulls, whose hoods are still absent. Seemingly unfazed by the bank of photographers standing just metres away, it obligingly posed, only taking to the air when hassled by a quarrelsome black-headed gull.
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