Laughing in the face of the storms
Laughing Gulls are found primarily on the Atlantic coast of North America and the northern part of South America. It is a rare vagrant to Western Europe. The species for me, as a birdwatcher in Ireland, has always meant one of rarity and excitement. The reason for this is that before I started birdwatching in the mid-80's, Jim Wilson found a 1st-winter Laughing Gull in Cobh, which is my hometown. Having not started birdwatching yet, the story of the "Cobh Laughing Gull" told by Jim and others who saw it, always conjured up a feeling of wonder and excietment. This wonderment was further fuelled by pouring over the black & white photographs of the species in the "gull bible" of its day - "GULLS An Identification Guide" by PJ Grant, particularly as Jim's photo of the "Cobh Ross's Gull" from 1985, which I saw, was in the book.
The Laughing Gull still is a very rare bird for Cork, and for Ireland. I had to wait a long time to see my first one in Ireland, missing out on the unprecedented influx in 2005 following a spate of violent hurricanes which whipped up from the Gulf of Mexico along the eastern US and across to Europe. In that October 2005 episode, at least 18, possibly as many as 40, individuals occurred on one day across the UK and Ireland. I was living in Japan at the time and couldn't believe what I was witnessing from reading blogs and reports online. However, it was in July 2010 that I saw my first Laughing Gull in Ireland; a second-summer bird in Ballycastle on the Antrim coast (see photo below). To top it all, it was my 300th species of bird seen on or from the island of Ireland! A nice bird to hit that milestone with.
Roll on January 2014, and following a spate of violent hurricane-force storms ripping up the North Atlantic, a first-winter Laughing Gull is found in Ballycotton, Co. Cork. It is the first record for Cork since the influx of 2005. Happily, the bird stayed around for a long period of time and was still present 2-months later up to 16th March 2014. Luckily for me, as well as the bird staying around, I had planned a trip to Cork in early February 2014, the week after seeing the Pacific Diver in Co. Tyrone. A quick trip to the pier on a cold, wet and grey Friday morning looked like it was not going to pay dividends. There were plenty of gulls about, but no sign of the "Laugher". Norma Gleeson, the finder of the bird, arrived on the pier and we were chatting when the bird appeared right in front of us. The feeling of panic had subsided and was replaced with one of elation and joy. Smiles all around, a few record shots, a few minutes watching it fly by with the binoculars and the naked eye. I had forgotten how small these birds are, no bigger than a Kittiwake. I was thrilled. A Cork "tick" and my first time seeing a Laughing Gull in this plumage. Once that was all done and absorbed, it was time to concentrate on the photographs.
The gull was sometimes in the company of odd companions such as a Grey Heron (not superficially unlike the American Great Blue Heron) and the energetic Pied Wagtail. There were also a swarm of Herring, Great-black Backed and Common Gulls to keep it interesting, with plenty of Kittiwakes and a nice supporting cast of a couple of Glaucous Gulls and a Kumlien's Gull. I spent quite a few hours standing and kneeling on the pier in cold and blustery conditions, ever so aware of the time and having to be elsewhere. The conditions were difficult with low cloud, blustery showers and very little usable light. Concentration was required to ensure the camera settings were set properly for the changing conditions. The bird behaved so well, flying within arms reach of the enthralled bystanders on the pier. Despite the uncomfortable conditions, it was an enjoyable few hours spent with the Laughing Gull. In fact, it was difficult to drag myself away from this magnificent (that's right, magnificent) of gulls.
Addendum: at the time of writing, what is probably the same bird was seen and photographed at Groomsport in Co. Down on 23rd March 2014. A straight line distance between the two ports of Ballycotton and Groomsport is about 360km. Not too far for this trans-Atlantic vagrant. I wonder where this bird will end up next?
Keywords: Ballycotton, Birds of Ireland, Birdwatch Ireland, Canon, Canon Professional Network, Carmody, Collins Press, Cork, Ireland, Ireland, Jim Wilson, Laughing Gull, Mark Carmody, Photography, larus, laughing
Nice story Mark, and the threesome picture says it all: "Who's he?"
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