A Touch of the Med

By Martin Olsson via Wikimedia Commons

We’ve hit the second of March already. And all through the run-up, through the slowly warming past two weeks, signs of spring have been showing up one by one. Busy yellow black and white bumble bees zip past in a blur of wings and self-important buzzing, snowdrops and crocuses have been blooming for a while now, and the willows and hazels alike droop with a crop of catkins. Returning home on a particularly mild night late last week, I noticed that the chill in the air had a gentler, almost soothing edge. Above the treeline where the rooks have their nests, a bright crescent moon was being escorted closely across the sky by both Venus and Jupiter, making for a quite brilliant trio: not a sign of the season, per se, but definitely a sight to lift the soul. Then from out of the darkness of the trees, a rook croaked deeply, answered softly by a neighbour. These birds at least had abandoned the winter roost and begun spending nights at the rookery: the surest sign of spring yet. The rooks would know when it’s time, even if nothing else did.

So when a friend and I hit the Hampshire coast for a spot of birding on Tuesday, you could have forgiven us for expecting the first wave of migrants. A little wader movement, perhaps, or the year’s first wheatear perching resplendently on the sea wall. We might even have hoped for an overwintering chiffchaff to finally pluck up the courage to start advertising its presence by way of cheering, two-tone song. In the end, a general gloom and somewhat chill wind served to remind us that it was, after all, still only February, and the closest we heard to chiff-chaffing was a great tit whose pronunciation of ‘tea-cher’ was typically original. I should have known: the sea wall along Pennington Marshes can feel bleak even in August.

Gloom and lack of migrants notwithstanding, there were, as always, some worthwhile birds to be enjoyed along this prime stretch of birding real estate. On arrival, a Cetti’s warbler did its best to take our heads off with a burst of furious song, and, fearing reprisal, kept movement to a minimum inside the bushes; it remained unseen. More confiding was a water pipit, calmly feeding on the flooded fields and showing off a few key ID features much more clearly than I’d seen on what might have been the same individual back in November. Several spotted redshanks fed elegantly amongst the ducks and lapwings and, speaking of elegance, Keyhaven lagoon sported three avocets, standing in deep water – which may not sound like many, compared to the hundreds just along the coast in Dorset, but is a good record for the site. And of course the usual frustratingly distant dots sat to be squinted at on the sea, turning out to be red-breasted mergansers almost to the bird. No eider today alas, so, feeling the effects of standing against the wind, we gave up on the sea pretty quickly. But one bird in particular did hint at the anticipated but sorely missing warmth and exotica: the Mediterranean gull.

About the same size as a black-headed gull, if slightly larger, Mediterranean gulls have starkly silver-white wings, looking almost barn owl-esque in flight. Their beak and feet are a bright orange red, and in the summer, breeding plumage sees them sporting a full true black hood*, and a clown-like white eye ring. Even those not terribly interested in gulls would concede that a Med. Gull is striking in any plumage, which makes them a worthwhile and increasing addition to our native avifauna. From being quite rare in the 1950s and 60s, and more usually found in the Eastern part of their namesake sea, they’ve gradually colonised western and northern Europe. Now we have a healthy 500 breeding pairs in Britain (the first breeding was actually in Hampshire, in 1968) and about 1800 birds spending the winter. Which, for me, means they’ve just about hit the scarceness sweet spot. Not so rare that they’re a very infrequent pleasure; not so common that one starts to overlook them – as you might a black-headed gull (which would be a shame, since black-headed gulls are also entertaining and beautiful birds). Locating one is made that bit easier by their distinctive, ringing call – a characterful ‘Aow’ which sounds, if you can imagine it, like a cross between a gull and an eider. Worth keeping an ear out for.

I daresay that the three days that have passed since Tuesday will have been enough to warm things up with or without such exotic southern imports, and spring will be thoroughly underway wherever you are. It certainly felt spring-like in Hampshire today. But if not, seek out the Mediterranean Gull – a star species, and, for the first time in a while, my official ‘Species of the Week’.

*Unlike the chocolate brown of the inappropriately named black-headed gull; ironically the Mediterranean gull’s scientific name is Larus melanocephalus, which means ‘black-headed gull’. Nomenclature never tends to be sensible.

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