Saturday, 15 February 2020

Always Look at Gulls

Badly misjudged the weather today. I can read a forecast like anyone else, but for some reason I thought we were getting just the odd shower until about 2pm. So I optimistically headed over to Seaton for extra helpings of American Herring Gull. Er...

Storm Dennis was going on. And a storm is a storm. The horizontal deluge, brim-full river and thin supply of gulls quickly persuaded me to make do with just the one massive helping I'd enjoyed yesterday, and go home. I spied a few birders huddled in their cars and silently wished them all the best as I slunk away.

There is no doubt that the Lyme Bay American Herring Gull has been a popular bird. A short video I stuck on Twitter has already been viewed in excess of 4,700 times, and yesterday's NQS post has had something like 6x the usual number of readers. And I'm sure some of that popularity is not simply because AHG is rare, but because it's a rare gull. There are a lot of gull fans out there. And yet...

Gulls are a bit Marmite, aren't they? My own interest in them goes right back to early days at Staines Res, and finding my first London Med Gull there in 1982. The species was actually quite rare in London back then, and a major prize. Fired up by this success I habitually scanned any group of gulls I came across, hoping for another. On 28th November that year I was picking through a distant flock on the drained north basin when a slightly odd bird caught my eye. It was smaller than a Herring Gull, very pale grey, and basically had no white tertial crescent. It was London's second Ring-billed Gull, a 2nd-winter bird. It was also only my third 'BB' rarity, and thus far the trickiest ID challenge I'd been faced with, full stop. Being quite 'new' to gulls I was aware of some features to look for on Ring-billed, but had no idea how much you needed in order to clinch the ID, so just noted everything I could see. Thankfully I got enough, but learned later that the description needed two circulations before it was accepted. A close call.

Thirty-eight years later my memory is a bit iffy, but I am fairly sure it was the virtual absence of a white tertial crescent which stopped me in my tracks and made me look again at that bird. But why would I notice such a thing? Because I had been making it a habit to look at gulls. And when you look at hundreds and hundreds of gulls on a regular basis it soon adds up to thousands and thousands. And that steady parade of familiar shapes, colours and patterns gradually becomes a sort of background noise, against which something different leaps out like a shout. That's my theory anyway, but I think it's true.

One of the local birders present yesterday admitted that he would most likely have looked straight through the American Herring Gull without seeing it. I am absolutely sure I would not have. Like Steve describes in his account of the find, it would have yelled at me from across the river. Why? Because over many years I have looked at countless gulls, and eventually you find that even the subtly different birds make you stop and look more carefully. I cannot always say exactly what it was that caught my eye - in fact I doubt that I consciously think about it - but something did. First-winter Caspian Gulls, I do know what it is. It's the white head. Not just white, but white!

A year or two after the Ring-billed Gull I still hadn't seen a London Iceland Gull, but old London Bird Reports told me they sometimes turned up in reservoir gull roosts. That was something I'd never tried, so began climbing in to Wraysbury Res late on a winter's afternoon and sneaking round to check out the roost. On only my first or second try I found a Glaucous Gull. Win! Just the encouragement I needed in order to persevere. Soon I had my Iceland Gull too. Brilliant! It had a dark mark beneath one wing, and turned out to be a bird which was spending its days many miles away in Berkshire, feeding on a tip. That winter I found one or two more Iceland Gulls in the Wraysbury roost, and other birders began to join me. We even had an adult Med Gull one evening. Bonus!

Back then, as now, I got a major buzz from finding a good bird, and looking at gulls was a great way to increase the potential for that happening. I realise that Caspian Gulls and the like are not as obvious as a white-winger, but the field characters are learnable, and with every manky young Herring Gull that you look at, analyse, identify and discard, you are one step closer to something a bit more special. And then one day a bird will stop you in your tracks, and you will realise you've got something different. Maybe a mild panic as you struggle to remember what features to look for. Then a growing realisation that this actually could be a Caspian Gull. And no 'expert' pointed it out. Not only did you find it yourself, but you can even say why it is one. That is a nice feeling.

However, I do realise that not everyone can be bothered with any of this...

I remember once going into the Tower Hide at Black Hole Marsh. Two or three birders were present, and lots of gulls on the estuary in front of the hide. Among them was a virtually white Iceland Gull. No one else had seen it; they basically didn't look at the gulls. When I pointed it out they did look, but it clearly made little impression. Fine. Each to their own I guess.

But boy, are they missing out! Apart from umpteen scarce and rare species to get excited about, there are other things. Like migration. Loads of gulls migrate, and noting the arrival, departure and passing-through of various species adds another facet of interest. And colour-rings. Many gulls are marked with plastic colour-rings which are designed to be read through binoculars or a scope. Recording and reporting them, and getting feedback on an individual bird's history, adds one more facet. And did I mention about the rare and scarce thing? Oh yes, I did. Well, it bears mentioning twice. Because if you don't bother with gulls, then this becomes a possibility:

You won't know what a Pallas's Gull is.

And if that's true, then this becomes a possibility:

Heart-attack material

One of the above could be sitting in the flock right there in front of you, and you would be totally oblivious. And if that's true, what is the point of living????

One day some poor soul is going to be hospitalised as a consequence of finding one of these in Britain. If I am the one destined to suffer this fate, so be it. I am ready.

And if you always look at gulls, you will be ready too.