In Praise of Gulls

Herring gull en-route from Calais to Dunkirk, 2012.

Herring gull en route from Dover to Dunkirk, 2012.

I rarely pass a day without seeing a red kite. Despite living in a town so blessed with Milvus that it’s almost like living in Shakespearean London, the sight of their bold, rangy frames lofting above Reading’s streets never fails to raise a smile. But even if no kite passed by to delight my eyes in the course of 24 hours, the sky hereabouts is full of other sleek, agile, beautiful birds. I’m talking about gulls.

Yes, that’s right. Boring old, common old ‘sea’ gulls, the smelly noisy ones which folk in my local park generally curse when they come swooping in for bits of bread – ‘hey, that’s for the ducks!’ These are large, powerful and intelligent animals, every bit as entertaining to watch as many a tropical species on a nature documentary. Yet many people seem more eager to chase them away than stand back and look on in admiration.

Even some birders are guilty of overlooking gulls. At least a few species probably fall quite often into the invisible-birds category, ones we look straight through whilst looking for something ‘better’. As though a herring gull isn’t worth looking at – which is odd, as I as much as any other birder have always been ready to acknowledge the visual appeal of rare gulls, which don’t look altogether that different. No May is really complete without picking up a passing little gull, for example, and Iceland and Glacous gulls are never short of admirers during their occasional forays south in winter. Looking even further to the north, the ivory gull is certainly high on many a birder’s global wish list: not surprising, with elegant looks like this.

Ivory Gull by Jomilo75 on Flickr.com (Creative Commons).

Gulls also offer the closest thing us residents of landlocked counties have to the spectacle of a seabird breeding colony. Just to the south and west of Reading, an impressive gathering of black-headed gulls nests each summer at Hosehill Lake LNR, on the gravel island in the lake’s centre as well as on two purpose-built rafts. Sit in the viewing screen, close your eyes, listen to their raucous, edgy screams and smell the scent of guano drift in from the islands: you might even be on Skomer or the Farne Islands, if you manage to screen out the dull roar of the nearby M4.

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Newly ringed black-headed gulls at Hosehill Lake in Berkshire.

Over 100 juveniles from this colony have been ringed every year since 2009, most fitted with a white plastic ring designed to be readable at distance on a live bird. Despite the involvement of a fumbling trainee (yours truly), this has been another successful year for the project, with over 70% of all this year’s ringed young already re-sighted and thus proved to have fledged. Past recoveries have come from as far afield as Cork and Brittany, so if you see a ringed black-headed gull anywhere in north-west Europe in the next year, make doubly sure to send a record in to the BTO. It might be one of ‘mine’!

Even outside of the excitement of visiting a nesting site, I’m starting to succumb to the charm of gulls. One morning last week I opted to keep my binoculars stowed out of temptation’s reach, since I needed to walk to work fairly briskly. Yet halfway there I couldn’t resist fishing them out of my bag to admire a superb specimen of an adult lesser black-backed gull perched on a lamppost, even if I knew perfectly well what it was without having a closer look. In their own dramatic, raucous way, the family Laridae offers a daily riposte to any inhabitant of suburban Britain who has ever looked out of the window and declared there’s nothing interesting or beautiful to see here.

Lesser black-backed gull in Brittany, 2011.

Lesser black-backed gull in Brittany, 2011.

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