Features Archive Life Thru a Lens 2011

March 2011 – Gulls and Gullibility By Nick Tomalin

A series of events occurred yesterday which, upon reflection, demonstrate how far my birdwatching career has come. These events indicate to me a progressive evolution of my knowledge and enthusiasm for birds, but at the same time will no doubt render me even more nerdish in your collective esteem than I already was. You may mock me, brand me a fool or an outcast, or even take umbrage with my opinions, but as I recently told a friend, we need to embrace our inner geek, and not shy away from embarrassing tendencies. So to prove a point, and because I felt guilty for not doing so yesterday, I now lay myself bare at the altar of ridicule.

And the reason for such self-dissection? Gulls. Sea gulls if you must, though there is actually no such thing. There is instead a plethora of different species, myriad sizes and types, a menagerie of form and function. But we insist on lumping them all under one broad, usually derisory, all-encompassing name, and dismissing them as vermin, bullies and boring. These things they can occasionally be, but a better description would be opportunists, predators and hugely varied. So why do I leap to their defence?

It started during the afternoon. I was indulging my passion for chocolate hobnobs and ‘Countdown’ simultaneously, when there was a knock at the door. Our residential volunteer, Will, leant in and informed my colleague, Stuart, and I that there were a lot of gulls on the beach. Within five minutes Stuart had gone, and when I’d failed to get the conundrum (‘gleefully’ – I should have known), I went to join them both. And so it was that passers by would have found three chilly spectators sitting on the damp ground on the cliff top in a gale, peering down at the masses below. Sure enough, there were a lot of gulls. We counted perhaps 200 in all from six species. When my numb hands could bear no more, I retreated to the safety of home, passing on my way a known wildlife enthusiast (who shall remain nameless in this instance), who enquired if there was anything interesting around. I mentioned the spectacle we had just witnessed, which was greeted with less than 100{c8c3b3d140ed11cb7662417ff7b2dc686ffa9c2daf0848ac14f76e68f36d0c20} enthusiasm. ‘Nothing interesting, then’ was the reply.

I should have told him about the downward trends in many gull species, including herring gulls, which are often maligned as pests. I should have described the subtle differences between black-headed and Mediterranean gulls, and how the black-headed actually has a brown head and the Latin name for Mediterranean gull actually means black-headed. I should have explained that some of the small gulls take two years to reach maturity, but the larger gulls can take four years. And I should have poured over the variation in plumage between the different seasons and ages of gulls, so that phrases like ‘2nd winter lesser black-back’ become meaningful! Instead I kept quiet, thereby condemning gulls to a lifetime of anonymity and misrepresentation. If you don’t believe me, think how many among you were tempted to stop reading at the title!

In an attempt to ease my conscience, I now present to you a guide to gulls. I am by no means an expert, but this is a family that requires considerable patience and dedication to come to terms with. All I ask is that you read on with an open mind, and maybe you’ll discover something new.

Black-Headed Gull
The black-headed gull (above) is a common winter bird on the Roseland’s coasts, rivers and fields, but breeds further north and west in the UK. Our resident birds are joined by 2.5 million more from the continent which over-winter in the UK. At this time of year, it lacks the dark hood that gives it its name (falsely, since the hood is chocolate brown), but retains a small dark spot behind the eye. Adults have bright red legs and a red bill with a black tip, and have black in the wing tips as well. First-winter birds may have yellowish-pink legs and have darker patterning in the wing, until they reach maturity at two years old – described as having two age groups. In flight the adults have a white leading edge to the outer greyish wings, which makes them easy to identify, although it can be confused with the Mediterranean gull. Black-headed gulls and their eggs used to be a reliable food source, with one London market handling 300,000 eggs a year in the 1930s, and ‘gulleries’ kept to provide live birds for the cooking pot. Sometimes the eggs were traded as lapwing eggs, which look very similar, and fetched a much higher price!

Mediterranean Gull
Mediterranean gulls, or ‘Med’ gulls, are superficially similar to black-headed gulls, but have a deeper red bill and legs (blood red) and, as adults, no black in the wings. They appear much whiter in flight than black-heads, and are ever so slightly larger. Personally I think they have a slightly ‘meaner’ look about them. Although they are comparable to the black-heads, they have three age groups, with birds breeding at three years old. They are becoming increasingly common on the south coast of England, and more are more are breeding here, though not on the Roseland. We get large numbers (our counts have reached up to 60!) in winter, often associating with black-heads. Bearing in mind there were only a dozen records in the whole of the UK before 1940, this is an exceptional place to see this species. The oldest recorded Med gull is ‘Paddy’, who was at least 23 and wintered in Teesside at the same spot every year between 1982 and 2002.

Common Gull
Perversely, this is probably the least common of these six species on the Roseland. It is larger than a black-head but smaller than a herring gull – the middle child if you will! It has three age groups, and at first glance could be confused with herring gull. If you can not separate them on size alone, the adults have a large white mark within the black wing tip (known as a ‘mirror’) which is bigger than on herring gulls. On common gulls this patch is obvious in flight. These are also birds of the winter, although we only get a handful on the Roseland during this season. The traditional name is ‘mew’ gull, relating to the wailing sound of the birds’ call.

Herring Gull
The herring gull is the one you will all be familiar with from our villages. This is an opportunistic bird that has made its home among us, using safe roof tops as nest sites, and feeding from the scraps we leave behind. It is actually declining in the UK, as we lose more birds from their natural habitat at sea. It has four age-groups, which means that there is wide variation in plumage. Young birds are virtually brown, but progressively lose the dark colouration until they reach maturity. By this time, they have grey backs and black wing tips, with some white at the tips similar to common gull but not as striking. The legs are pink, and the yellow bill has a red spot on the lower side. These will be visible all year round, and you won’t need to look far to find one. Indeed you will hear them on many TV and radio soundtracks, as theirs is the archetypal call universally favoured by sound technicians to signify ‘the coast’. They have learned to drop mussels and whelks on hard surfaces to reach the tasty insides, and have discovered an optimum height for doing so: too high and they will lose the snack to other scavengers, too low and the shells won’t break! At various times we have tried to prevent them from nesting in our urban environs, and measures deployed have apparently included pricking the eggs, using birds of prey to scare them off, feeding them contraceptive sandwiches, and tying fireworks to broom handles and firing them at the birds.

Lesser Black-Backed Gull
This is a species that looks like a half-way house between herring gull and great black backed gull. Lesser black-backs are smaller than herring and great black-backs, and have a darker grey top to the wing than herring, but lighter than great black-backs. I find the easiest way to tell them apart is the legs and feet. Lessers have yellow legs, but both others have pink legs. Of course if you see them sitting on the water this may not be of much use! Like herring gulls, the younger age groups have a much darker plumage which they lose as they develop. The UK holds 40{c8c3b3d140ed11cb7662417ff7b2dc686ffa9c2daf0848ac14f76e68f36d0c20} of the European breeding population, and the numbers resident on the Isles of Scilly are of international significance. These too have taken to nesting on roof tops, with over 2000 pairs breeding above the houses of Gloucester.

Great Black-Backed Gull
This is the largest of all our gull species, and indeed the largest gull on the planet, with a wingspan of up to five feet. It breeds at four years old, and is often seen further out to sea than other species. They have pink legs, a heavy looking bill, and very dark black tops to the wings. Young great black-backs have a mottled appearance, and appear less brown than young herring or lesser black-back gulls. They are voracious predators, taking a wide range of prey including other sea birds, migrating land birds which they knock into the water, and even mammals which they sometimes drop into the sea to drown. I even heard a rumour that they can swallow a puffin whole.

Other Gulls
The six species listed above will make up 99{c8c3b3d140ed11cb7662417ff7b2dc686ffa9c2daf0848ac14f76e68f36d0c20} of gull sightings on the Roseland, but that does not mean they are the only ones! Several other species have been recorded locally: little gull, which is even smaller than a black-headed gull; ring-billed gull, which looks similar to common gull; Iceland and glaucous gull, which are herring gull sized birds with white wings; and kittiwake, which prefers open sea but can be seen flying past offshore. Picking one of these out from the crowd can be tough, and the challenge of doing so is what draws some birders to gull flocks. A lot of rare gulls turn up at landfill sites!

There are several spots locally where you can fine-tune your new-found gull identification skills. Portscatho is a good starting point. From the post office you should be able to see black-headed and Mediterranean gulls through winter, with occasional common gulls. Out to sea you can spot the huge great-black backed gulls, and herring gulls will be present all year round, many breeding on roof-tops in the village. Towan beach can hold large aggregations, especially when easterly winds have blown a lot of debris onto the beach. Here you will find all six species, though lesser black-backs are the least common species. The best site to see all of the gulls side by side, and allow your self time to compare them, is the estuary at Ruan Lanihorne. The shallow waters are an ideal site for gulls to preen in safety, and large numbers will be found here through winter, especially at high tide. The down side is they can be quite a long way off, so a good pair of binoculars or a telescope is necessary.

Still with me? For those who are, I hope you to can reflect on your continued development as amateur avian enthusiasts. In days of old I doubt whether the offer of a gull gathering (apparently known as a screech of gulls!) would have raised me from my chair. Indeed I’m not sure people would even have bothered mentioning it to me in the past, as I too was one of the unenlightened. But now I see the error of my ways. My inner geek is now an outer geek, and I consider it fully embraced!

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