Wednesday, 23 October 2019

The Mediterranean Gull

This is a Mediterranean Gull...

A super-smart adult on Burton Bradstock beach

The date of my first encounter with one of these lovely gulls is lost in the mists of time, but I can remember the location precisely. It was right here...

This is the coast road just W of Kelling in North Norfolk. It was some time in the autumn of 1982, and that stubble field was all ploughed up. Mrs NQS and I joined a handful of birders here on this bend to look for a Med Gull that was hanging out with a crowd of BHGs [Thank you, Google Street View]

That bird was an adult, and I made a nice pen-and-ink sketch of its head in my notebook. I was pleasantly surprised at how distinctive it was, with its pure white primaries. I thought to myself "Hmm, gulls aren't as scary as I imagined. I reckon I could do one of these..."

My second Med Gull wasn't long in coming. Within a few days I had indeed found one for myself at Staines Res. Also an adult, I picked it up flying S over the causeway with BHGs late one afternoon. A couple of days later it did it again, at the very same time. That particular bird became so reliable that you could stake it out and predict its arrival within a few minutes. Local birders would turn up and wait for it to appear. Yes, they twitched it. Twitched a Med Gull. In W London in 1982, Med Gull was a pretty decent find!

Until 1963 Med Gull was actually a BB rarity. I no longer have the relevant London Bird Reports, but I'll bet there were no more than a dozen or so records a year in the early 80s. In that context you will appreciate that it was a bird well worth searching for in any gathering of small gulls, and quite a prize whenever you found one. Which wasn't often.

So I've always had a soft spot for this handsome species, because it is probably responsible more than any other for encouraging me to painstakingly sift through gull flocks.

Or perhaps I should curse it...?

Anyway, throughout my time as a birder in the London area, Mediterranean Gull was never common. Not even slightly. So when I moved to Seaton in Devon in 2002 it was still a 'good value' bird. Following a birding hiatus of several years, the move slowly rekindled my interest, and I was delighted to learn that Med Gull was a regular winter visitor to the Axe estuary. Soon I was seeing them quite often, usually just one or two at a time. It became routine to check through  the estuary gulls in order to find them and count them, sometimes even the Seaton Bay winter roost too. I do have records from my time on the Axe, and I can tell you that in the years 2004-2010 I recorded Med Gull some 298 times, that I made double-figure counts on just four occasions, and that my highest tally of 16 (all adults) on 19 February 2010 was never bettered before I moved to Dorset in 2015.

Well, what a difference a few miles make!

Here I am in Bridport now, probably 15 miles E round the Lyme Bay coast from Seaton, and something has happened to my beloved Med Gull. Something dreadful...

Initially there was nothing to worry about. I quickly noticed that Med Gulls were a bit more common, but that was all. I was still noting that I'd seen 4, or 6, or 9, or however many. And then one day I realised that I wasn't being quite so fastidious about the number. It became 'about 4', 'half-a-dozen or so', 'circa 10'. And if the bird was close enough to identify with the naked eye, I sometimes caught myself...gasp!...not raising my bins! Yes, not even bothering to look at them properly.
 
I had barely noticed it happening but, reluctantly, could not deny the obvious fact: Med Gull had lost its value.

Don't get me wrong. I still think they are one of the smartest, most handsome small gulls. Even the first-winter birds are usually neat and crisply marked. But whereas I used to search through a flock of gulls to look for them...well, now I don't. In fact, in the last week or so things have taken a distinct turn for the worse. In an East Bexington field I found a flock of gulls containing so many Meds that sheer curiosity made me want to count them. It was tricky with binoculars alone, but there were at least 44. A day or so later a different field held even more. Here are just some of them...

There were certainly more than 100 Meds in this field

But yesterday was the final straw...

In the afternoon I walked from Abbotsbury to East Bexington, and all along the shoreline was a frenzy of feeding gulls. Huge numbers of mackerel were driving whitebait into the shallow water, and even onto the shingle. There were thousands of gulls and, among them, many, many Meds. Hundreds for sure. Quite possibly they were the most numerous small gull.

What happens when Med Gull becomes the most numerous small gull in a flock? Well, you then start picking through them to find something better...

And what do you call the gulls that you pick through in order to find something better...?

Begins with D. Ends with S.

Just can't bring myself to say it though.

Today I learned that the record Med Gull count for the Weymouth area is 2,200. I was simply amazed by the hugeness of that number, and there's no denying what it means.

But.

Still can't say it...

4 comments:

  1. Still scarce enough here for me Gavin. My max count was last year with 4 together. I always feel that I should take notes or something, because like you I do remember when Northumberland only had a single bird wintering in one location for about 10 years!

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    1. Hopefully things will remain that way for you Stewart. When I lived in Seaton I always thought the status of Med Gull would change because of its apparent abundance further round Lyme Bay in the Weymouth area, but it hasn't really happened yet. There seems to be some invisible force field keeping them from spreading that far, so they're still a nice treat whenever I'm checking the Axe gulls.

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  2. I remember my first ever Med Gull Gav. On a bowling green on the edge of Southsea.

    Under the circumstances you mentioned I'd have had a dabble with a light spinning rod for the Mackerel.

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    1. The beach fisherman were getting a few on feathers. It's funny, I live right on the coast but sea angling just doesn't do it for me at all...

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