Sunday, 12 March 2017

Gulls, Gulls, Gulls 11th March 2017

A Mediterranean Gull was the first ever real rarity I saw in Britain. It was an adult in full breeding plumage in 1976, frequenting the unlikely inland surroundings of Stamford Green Pond, at Epsom in Surrey.

Mediterranean Gulls were, up to 1950, very rare in Britain but since then, as their population increased rapidly in their core breeding areas around the Black Sea and central Turkey, they expanded westwards to Hungary in 1953, followed by Germany and Belgium in the 1960's and the Netherlands in the 1970's. Further expansion has resulted in birds breeding in Denmark, Sweden, Estonia, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and the Balkans.

A pair first bred in Britain  in the large Black headed Gull colony at Needs Oare Point, Hampshire in 1968 followed by a pair at Dungeness in 1979. Since then the number of breeding pairs in England has increased steadily so by the year 2000 the number of pairs was 100 and by 2010 there were getting on for 700 pairs, mostly on the south and south east coasts of England. The number of pairs is probably considerably more now but nationally no  co-ordinated count has been made since 2010. This gull is also now frequent on the southern British coastline in winter as it is along other parts of the Atlantic coast in Europe.

Appropriately, as they first bred in Hampshire, I made my way on a misty and cold early morning to Hayling Island just within Hampshire and to Hayling Billy Local Nature Reserve in particular, which is based around some former Oyster Beds that date back to Roman Times. Since the eighteenth century various attempts, with limited success, have been made to make them a viable commercial enterprise but these always ultimately failed until in 1996/1997 they were finally turned into a local nature reserve which is now owned and managed by Havant Borough Council.

The former Oyster Beds at high tide
The rocky bunds that surrounded the former beds now form a major part of the reserve and are a protected site for Black headed and Mediterranean Gulls as well as for breeding Little and Common Terns which arrive later after many of the gulls have paired and moved on to breed elsewhere. At this time of the year there is a large pre-breeding assembly of Mediterranean Gulls gathered on the two largest bunds, bickering and fighting as they pair up prior to a minority breeding here whilst many others will move on to various colonies along the south coast.The bunds now encompass a tidal lagoon and when I got there the tide was rising and almost full.

The bunds-all that remains of the retaining walls of the Oyster Beds

A chilly east wind was blowing off the sea and the horizon was lost in a white mist as I walked along the muddy track from the small car park and out to the bunds. Two Rock Pipits flew along the bleak shoreline and fifteen or so Dark bellied Brent Geese, yet to set off northwards on the first stage of their migration to the staging post of The Waddensee, fed amongst the seaweed on the shore. I could hear Mediterranean Gulls calling above me, hidden in the opaque whiteness of the morning mist and sky.

There is always a thrill on encountering a gull colony such as this. As you get nearer the cacophony and constancy of noise becomes ever more insistent and incredible in volume, the ceaseless raucous, grating, peevish calls of the Black headed Gulls are interspersed with the yelping, yodelling calls of the Mediterranean Gulls. There is also endless activity as birds fly up and away from the colony either singly or in pairs, calling loudly, some flying off whilst others circle and return to land amidst the throng of gulls standing on the tops of the bunds. Watching the Mediterranean Gulls it was not really apparent where they were flying to, although they looked to be flying further out into the adjacent Langstone Harbour but just as many returned as departed. Consequently there was a constant procession of  Mediterranean Gulls flying past and over me, back and fore, their dazzling whiteness blurring the outline of their wings against the sky

A strange ethereal light was emanating from a diminished sun that was being filtered through wraithes of mist as I walked to the extreme northern point of the lagoon where a channel between the shore and one end of the outermost bund allowed the rising tide to pour through in a burbling, foaming, inexorable ingress, slowly swelling the seawater levels inside the lagoon. 

The shoreline and the sea coming in on a rising tide through the open channel
I sat on a grass bank by this channel, almost at sea level, out of the wind and some thirty metres from the end of one of the two most populated bunds. The majority of gulls I could see were Mediterranean Gulls, standing on the rocks, many in full summer plumage whilst others still displayed grizzled black hoods as the white feathering of their winter plumage was in the process of being replaced by the black of summer.

The bird on the right although an adult has yet to attain its full black hood

Mediterranean Gulls
They are arguably one of the most beautiful of gulls when in breeding plumage. Marginally larger than a Black headed Gull they have a ghostly pallor about them as their flight feathers when adult are pure white and the grey on their upperparts is paler even than that of the Black headed Gulls. The ultimate glory is their head which in summer plumage is entirely black with a red orbital ring around the eye, encompassed by broken white crescents above and below the eye. A slightly drooping bill of deep crimson red with a yellow and black tip adds to the beauty of their form and plumage.

Where I chose to sit was away from the footpath and any possible disturbance, as today being a Saturday, the footpath was being made frequent use of by the dreaded dog walkers. I was left to myself, probably un-noticed as I sat inconspicuously below the bank to conceal my presence from the nearby gulls. I sat, taking inumerable photos of the flying gulls, no easy task as they wheeled surprisingly quickly across the lagoon or sky in front of me, to then turn into the wind and descend with lowered crimson legs and feet into the truculent, resentful throng of those already stood on the bund. 

At other times I just sat and watched the endless activity of the gulls commencing their annual breeding cycle. You can never be bored with the birds constant adopting of strange attitudes, with the bowing, displaying and squabbling of both species, with the flights of gulls circling around the colony only to land again and immediately go into elegant contortions of courtship, with the formation flying of pairs as they strengthened the pair bond between them. All this and more kept me forever interested. It was non stop, exhilerating in a way, watching these beautiful gulls, never still or quiet for more than a second or two.

An estimate was made a few days ago of the numbers of Mediterranean Gulls here and it came to in excess of four hundred and fifty and I could well believe it. An incredible sight and so fortunate that it is so readily visible, free and easily accessible to anyone who is interested. 

I came away elated after sharing my morning with the gull colony. The coming Spring, despite the slightly gloomy conditions, was never more evident.

Lesser Celandine
By now it was noon and as I was on the border of Hampshire and West Sussex and it was only half an hour's drive away, I decided to make another visit to Broadfield in West Sussex to see how the Rose coloured Starling was progressing. It has been at Broadfield in the same back garden for almost four months and now is in adult plumage and even singing but still  remains ever faithful to its favourite tree in the tiny back garden at Beachy Road.

The drive took me inland across West Sussex and once away from the coast the cold misty conditions changed rapidly into a warm and sunny day. Sussex was at its best and banks of primroses and daffodils by the roadside or briefly glimpsed in sunlit woods only served to lift my spirits further as I passed over the South Downs, 

I duly arrived at Beachy Road and after a five minute wait the starling flew up into the now famous tree, posed for around ten minutes and then promptly flew off and away from the garden. 

A wait of nearly forty five minutes ensued before, just as suddenly as it had departed, it returned and dropped down through the branches of its favoured tree to feed in the back garden, then flew back up into the tree to spend fifteen or so minutes perched there before once again flying off.

It's a bit of a nightmare trying to photograph the starling as it loves to sit well inside the tangle of branches and twigs of the tree but somehow I managed eventually to get a reasonable image of it. Although in adult plumage, the pink colouring has a brownish caste and the black feathers are rather dull with a slight greenish gloss. Only if it survives to undergo another moult will it gain the glossy black and bubble gum pink plumage of full adulthood.

A nudge came on my shoulder. I turned and there was Ads, a long time colleague who lives in Sussex and was the illustrator of 'Stonechats'. It had been a long time since we last met so it was a good opportunity to have a chat and a catch up. The perfect end to a perfect day.

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