On Wednesday 24 January 2018 I took my wife to the hairdresser in Vlissingen and promised to pick her up 45 minutes later. I decided to go and do some birdwatching in the harbour; maybe I could take some pictures. I do this with a simple camera that fits into my pocket and therefore goes everywhere with me: a Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ70. I mostly use it for insects and to be fair it is not at all suited for birds, except when they are really close and not too active, because there is quite some time between pressing the button and taking the actual picture. I parked my car at the edge of the quay near the fish auction and saw a small, mobile gull, which looked like a first winter Little Gull at first glance that kept on flying low and close along the quay, fluttering up and down in the stiff breeze. It flew up and down and dived down to the surface close to the quay, disappearing out of sight. Therefore it took me quite some time to take pictures which showed the bird. I was much more engaged in taking pictures than in watching the gull, something many ‘real’ photographers will be familiar with. Most pictures only showed water, air or a whole or partial bird, but very blurry. When I finally managed to take a reasonable picture at 12:20, I saw a bird that was not a first winter Little Gull, but a first winter ROSS’S GULL.
Ross's Gull Rhodostethia rosea, Vlissingen, January 2018. "It is no 1st winter Little Gull!" (Jan Goedbloed)
Within a few seconds my adrenalin-level rose through the car roof. I got really anxious. What to do now? I really had to immediately go and pick up my wife, but I also wanted to report the bird. As I enjoy being left alone, and have no internet phone, I am not member of any app groups or other internet-related networks. I decided to call Angelique Belfroid, asking if she could put the message on the app group for Walcheren [note: the former island on which Vlissingen is located]. And because a group of professional birders was having a meeting less than a kilometer away, the cars of birdwatchers were parked around me in no time. I can sort of imagine how fast the meeting room must have cleared. That day, 35 people got to see the bird. It flew off a couple of times across the sluices towards the outer harbour and the Westerschelde estuary, but it always returned within an hour.
On Thursday 25 January the Ross’s Gull was present in the harbour again all day, delighting 140 birders with nice observations. On Friday 26 January, the bird was unfortunately absent most of the time, but still was seen by some 15 people between 16:30 and 17:00. On Saturday 27 January the bird was only reported at 12:00, but nevertheless was seen by some 120 people [note from the translator: an underestimate - at 13:00, some 250 observers were spread along the harbour!]
On 5 February the bird was still present, but ever more intermittently. It was also seen in the outer harbour of Vlissingen and on the Westerschelde, often behind ships. It was not seen between 6-10 February but it returned on 11-20 February. The bird was reported over 1000 times on waarneming.nl.
In the harbour, the Ross’s Gull foraged mostly directly along the quay, probably for small fish and fish parts which end up in the water when the decks of the fishing boats get hosed clean. These boats usually enter from the sea on Thursday to leave again on Monday. But on the Wednesday of the discovery, some were already moored on the quay.
The Ross’s Gull did not just forage independently, it also mixed with Black-headed Gulls and larger gulls. It was not timid at all, defending itself well and even attacking Black-headed Gulls to steal their prey. It then uttered a magpie-like “kek-kek-kek”. The Black-headed Gulls were deeply in awe for the little rascal with its skua-like behaviour. The gulls present, including two Mediterranean Gulls, were regularly lured in with bread, which usually led to the Ross’s Gull showing up as well.
Other calls that were heard were a soft “kee-ee-ee” when it was more at ease, as “krrek, krrek, krrek” with shorter and longer breaks in between.
Ross's Gull Rhodostethia rosea, Vlissingen, 28 January 2018 (Vincent Legrand) - "Little rascal with skua-like behaviour."
Ross's Gull Rhodostethia rosea, Vlissingen, 24 January 2018 (Joop Scheijbeler) - The 'original logo' of Dutch Birding appears in living form exactly 40 years after its first publication (insert: Enno Ebels)
The Ross's Gull was named after the British explorer James Clark Ross (1800-1862), who was a participant or leader of several expeditions in the Arctic and Antarctic. He was not just immortalised in biology, such as in Ross’s Gull, but also in geography, such as James Ross Strait, Ross Bay, Ross Point and Rossøya in the Arctic. In the Antarctic, Ross’s Seal and Ross Dependency, Ross Island, Ross Ice Shelf and Ross Sea were named after him. Even a crater on the moon bears his name. In contrast, Ross’s Goose was named after Bernard R. Ross, a Hudson's Bay Company factor near Fort Resolution in Canada's Northwest Territories.
The breeding areas of Ross’s Gull were only discovered in 1905 by the Russian Sergei Alexandrovitch Buturlin near Pokhodsk in northeastern Yakutia. The entire breeding area lies very northerly in the Arctic, in the northernmost part of North America and northeastern Siberia. The birds breed in small colonies on the tundra and in river mouths, often together with Arctic Terns. Most birds winter at the edge of the pack ice in the northern part of the Bering Strait and the Sea of Okhotsk, but some stray further south. [note: the travel distances of Ross’s Gull are surprisingly impressive, as remarked by Rob van Bemmelen under the Dutch version of this article here and here].
In Europe, the species is a vagrant with, as expected, an emphasis on northern countries such as the UK (> 90 records), Iceland (> 45), Denmark (10), Finland (8) and Estonia (5). There are however some southern records, such as in Italy (3), Spain (4) and France (> 5). Also in the US the rule holds that it’s rarer the further south you get and it’s a vagrant to the 48 contiguous states. The most southern records were at Salton Sea [where else!?], just north of the Mexican border in California and in Missouri.
The bird in Vlissingen concerns the 18th record for the Netherlands, if accepted, which should not be more than a formality. In almost all cases the records were adult birds flying by during seawatches. The latest multiple day and therefore twitchable records were in 1992, 1995, 2004 and 2011.
This was only the second time that a first winter Ross’s Gull was observed in the Netherlands. The first time was also on Walcheren, on 4 November 1995 when one was seen for a short while and at a large distance off the Westkapelle seawatching spot. By coincidence this was one of the first times I was standing there. I did not see much of it through binoculars and a rather crappy scope. This time, things were easier. What a great bird to find. And how cooperative it behaved: kept on flying up and down, occasionally picking something off the water surface. Apparently, that’s just what they do in more northern ports.