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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Bird On Wire

Floral Foray

IMG_6291At the end of a morning’s bird surveying I often treat myself to an extra wander, especially if I’ve ended up somewhere particularly lovely. Freed from the pressure of getting in another count before the late morning lull, it’s finally possible to relax and pay attention to the myriad other sights and smells of spring. For example: earlier this week I finished up next to the adjacent wildlife trust reserve’s information board, which sported a tiny picture of an early purple orchid. Thinking this sounded a good object for a quest, I ignored my stomach’s persistent rumbling requests for the fat rascally deliciousness waiting back at the car, and plunged into the woods in pursuit of the real thing.

IMG_6249Perhaps due to the stop-start-stop nature of this spring, most floral displays I’ve chanced upon so far this year have been of one or two species, desperately throwing their energies into flowering at the first sign of a decent weather window. In one little corner of Berkshire’s Moor Copse, however, the ground flora has got itself organised and put on as varied a display as one might see in a shop window, as if preparing for a one-stop field guide photography session. The show began just a few paces in from the wood’s edge, and I immediately began to lose myself in a reverie of petals and sunlight.

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One May Morning

I have no doubt that so many folk songs* start early on a May morning because it is the most charming time of day or year to be outdoors. The sun is bright soon after it rises and the air is filled with both the heady scent of blossom and the sweet sounds of birds, for whom this is the peak of the singing season.  Insomuch as birds are composed of the food they eat, which is in itself a product of the peculiarities of a place – of plant and insect communities determined by local conditions – their song might be called the very voice of the earth itself: the landscape’s character transposed into a musical score.

Like an orchestral symphony, the wonder of the dawn chorus is in the combination of disparate voices: the singular melodies, tones and timbres of each species woven together into a glorious whole. In fact the resulting wall of sound can be so overwhelming that it’s unwise to start surveying birds too close to dawn; better to wait until the sun has come up and the clamour has died down just a little. With concentration, individual singers can then be picked out from the crowd, in much the same way I recall being taught to pick out the different instruments in an orchestra or band during A-level music lessons. A thread between musicology and ornithology.

Of course the dawn chorus is not always overwhelming in a landscape that is degraded, fragmented, and polluted by noise, from which the full richness of bird life has long since departed as a result. In his fascinating book The Great Animal Orchestra, ‘bio-acoustician’ Bernie Krause defines noise as any sound which is out of place; so, in this way, noise is the polar opposite to bird song as I describe it above. When by our actions a species is removed from the wild choir, or when modern human sound invades its acoustic space, the full evolved order of non-human biological sound – what Krause calls ‘biophony’ – is disrupted and diminished. Whilst we celebrate what remains, the English dawn chorus is largely a remnant, a mere tribute band to an act that was forced into retirement generations ago.

Still, if you can escape the traffic noise which, to my dismay, is all too evident in much of Berkshire even before the sun comes up, the avian musical ensemble yet sings with surprising power in our land. Blackbirds, robins, wrens, thrushes and warblers take their cues in turn (not to mention the pesky deafening woodpigeons), building gradually to quite a cacophony, if you’re in an area still densely populated by birds. As it happens (indeed, it’s probably what inspired me to write on this subject), tomorrow is ‘International Dawn Chorus Day’, which started in Birmingham of all places. By chance, I will be up early enough to have a listen on the day itself. I know it’s a lot to ask, but wherever you are in the world** I can’t recommend enough that you follow suit, at least once this spring, and rise with the larks. For the experience of a world in which the birds still just about rule the air waves, it will be worth it.

*e.g. this one

**Those in the southern hemisphere may wish to wait six months…although I gather the tropics enjoy a dawn chorus all year round.