Monday, February 11

the mystery gull and the wild gull chase

it all began when adri and i found ourselves back in the balanga city wetland and nature park, one week after the awc.  this time we were with american birder e.m., who was interested in seeing waders in their winter plumage. surprisingly  there weren't as many birds as the previous week, but we still had good views of the usual egrets, herons, greenshanks, redshanks, plovers, sandpipers, stints, stilts, terns and gulls.  it being a sunday, the park full of people enjoying the ocean breeze and wading in the cool waters (which were unfortunately part of the very polluted manila bay).  em was especially delighted to see several locals toting binoculars and cameras, with obvious appreciation for the birds. it was a very relaxing morning, and as we were leaving, we decided to scan the exposed mudflats where various waders, gulls and terns were quickly gathering as the tide continued to rise.

and there it was. a gull which was obviously larger than the hundreds of black-headed gulls. even in the white heat of mid-morning, its grey brown plumage stood out in the sea of the mostly white black-headed gulls.

and adri and i had no idea what it was. we could also make out a black tipped orange-ish bill, and it behaved quite differently. it ran around on the mudflat at the waters edge constantly, very active compared to the black-headed gulls which mostly stood in one place while preening and would fly off after.

might it be a herring gull, em asked.  it could, we answered. the kennedy field guide had 3 suggestions: herring gull, slaty-backed gull or black-tailed gull.

at a loss, we took down notes and tried to document the bird.  it was too far away for both my short 350mm lens and even for adri's digiscoping set-up.  the harsh lighting and strong wind did not help our cause.

the mystery gull: with pictures like these it could be the loch ness monster

that night, adri posted a "possible herring gull" message on the wbcp facebook page, but nothing could be confirmed. black-tailed gull though was looking to be a better candidate, according to more experienced birders.

we didn't think it would generate much interest, but little did we know that 2 wbcp-ers, irene and rob would be back in balanga the next day to try to find the mystery gull.

did they find it? no, but they did find and photograph a beautiful laughing gull, the first record in the country!

now, that picture got several people twitching, and the very next day, i found myself in the company of a group of them: ivan, mel, rob, irene, tonji and sylvia! what the hey, it was still just past january (my personal "waterbird season") so might as well try to pin down the id of sunday's gull, and maybe get a laughing gull lifer! besides, it was a school holiday. adri, unfortunately could not join us as he was off guiding another group.

we all arrived at the wetland park just before the peak of high tide, which again would hopefully gather the birds closer to shore. it was now a weekday, it was virtually empty of people, although the stifling heat and burning sun could have also chased any normal person away.

we scanned the nearby mudflats again looking for any unusual gull. nothing but whiskered terns and black-headed gulls. it was a hard wait under the hot sun. later, a few common terns caught our interest, but still nothing more interesting. we waited in anticipation as the gulls and terns began flying in as the ocean level rose. a couple of great crested terns (i was excited about them the last week though), still not very interesting.

a whiskered tern (left) and a common tern (right):
if only they could always be side by side for size comparison

when it became painfully obvious that neither mystery gull nor laughing gull was there, we decided to move to another baranggay where we could take a bangka out to look around the fishpens.  talk about a determined group!  somebody likened it to looking for a needle in a haystack.

whiskered terns and black-headed gulls

so we took two small outrigger boats out, and circled the nearby fish cages and even took the boat all the way back to the wetland park. for the next couple of hours: black-headed gull and whiskered tern galore.

a pair of elegant black headed gulls

whiskered terns all in a line

a sand martin, spotted by rob, flying with some swallows over newly planted mangroves was consolation enough. 

a sand martin among the swallows

on the way back we did get out of the bangkas one more time to take a look at some fishponds. more waders, but no gulls. and no unusual waders.

assorted waders plus whiskered terns and gulls in the fishponds

oh well, you win some you lose some. we left balanga as the sun was setting. mystery still unsolved.


  1. Tonji saw Caspian Terns at the far end of the fishpond. But really far, noticed them when he was looking at his pics.

    1. really?!? that would have been a lifer for me. *sigh* next time i will not be so lazy and will walk further to get better views.

  2. Sigh, the life if a twitcher... hehehe =P

    1. haha. i-d-deny ko sana pero parang futile.

  3. awww. as you said, that's how birding is. sometimes you twitch sometimes you twitchn't. :)

    1. the important thing is... you tried. :)