The black-headed gull could at first sight seem like the most mundane species of this wild 12. It’s a common bird, common to the point of ubiquity, one that in the winter months especially graces almost every playing field and torn-open rubbish bag in Britain.
Look again. Here is an eye-catchingly sleek bird, a streamlined vision in white and silver. Its beak is a subtly beautiful orange-red, and in summer the ‘black’ hood is in fact a rich chocolate brown. Soon after the breeding season the hood seemingly retracts, reducing to a spot on either side of the head. It’s as though the gull’s summer colours have not gone, but are merely tucked away awaiting redeployment at the appointed time.
Now see hundreds of black-headed gulls massing together over a gravel island dotted with nests. A raucous, riotous performance that is the closest Berkshire gets to a seabird colony. What black-headed gulls lack in rarity value they make up for in spectacle and grace, a truly overlooked everyday wildlife wonder.
As part of my ringing training I’ve had the opportunity to participate in a black-headed gull colour ringing project. Stepping into the melee of the colony for a carefully limited period of time, we place a white plastic ring on one leg of each chick and a standard metal BTO ring on the other. The easy-to-read number combinations allow the birds’ movements to be tracked without the need for recapture, and so far the project has seen Berkshire-hatched gulls reported from as far afield as the Iberian Peninsula.
One late afternoon a few weeks ago, I heard a black-headed gull calling, far above my head. Two were flying with purpose towards an unknown roost site. I stretched my neck back as far as I could and watched them dwindle into the dusk. When at last I looked back down, another gull was standing on the asphalt mere feet from me, head cocked, watching. A familiar bird that I have held in my hands and yet one that at the same time exists on another plane – sweeping into the skies with such ease that it can cross entire countries in a few days.