Thursday, 15 March 2018

Revisiting the Mediterraneans 13th March 2018

Last Friday, myself and Moth went to Hayling Island on the south coast of England to view the pre breeding assembly of Mediterranean and Black headed Gulls that congregate at the former Hayling Oyster Beds at this time of year. Due to the cloud and drizzle we encountered it was impossible to do justice to the birds with a camera and any images we obtained were to my mind far from satisfactory.

This was particularly frustrating for me, as precisely the same thing happened the year before when I visited the colony at almost the same time and I vowed that this year I would endeavour to go on a day when there was sunshine and the gulls could be seen and photographed at their best in optimal weather conditions. Sadly the weather confounded me, as last Friday evidenced.

Unbeknown to me I was also succumbing to a mild virus last Friday which resulted in my spending most of the subsequent weekend in a state of lethargy, trying to shake off whatever was ailing me. I was so debilitated that not even the occurrence of a Snowy Owl in Norfolk could ignite the embers of twitchiness within.

Over the weekend, from my almost permanent residence on the sofa, I had plenty of time to regularly check the weather forecast at Hayling Island in the coming week and every day looked unpromising. An unsettled week of cloud and rain was predicted and the weather charts displayed not a sign of the hoped for icons of yellow sun on any of the coming day's predictions. Monday turned out to be truly horrible with constant heavy rain all day and the Snowy Owl promptly disappeared. By that evening I was feeling better and checked the forecast once more for Hayling Island. Still no go, cloud and yet more cloud was predicted for the next two days with possibly some sun on Thursday but then anything could happen between now and Thursday. I was grabbing at straws and I knew it but with our notoriously fickle weather and variable quality of weather prediction there is always the vague hope that someone gets it wrong.

Today, Tuesday, I awoke to find sunshine outside the bedroom window. What's this? I checked the forecast for Hayling Island and a vertical line of yellow sun icons was indicated on the chart up until noon when it was predicted that it would cloud over. Something had clearly changed overnight.

I had been waiting and hoping for exactly this. A window of opportunity had unexpectedly arrived and I was determined not to waste it. Seize the moment! I was up, dressed and had the car loaded with camera, bins and scope in no time at all.  I left home at seven thirty and headed south. If I had been half an hour earlier departing my home all would have been well but the extra thirty minutes ensured  that I encountered delay after delay, due to nothing more than the sheer volume of traffic at all the favourite bottlenecks on the way to Oxford. People going to work endure this day after day but for me, unused to this, it was singularly frustrating. Finally I made it onto the infamous A34 to the south of Oxford but it had taken me double the normal time to get there. At this rate the sun would be long gone by the time I got to Hayling and indeed the sun was nowhere to be seen as I drove southwards. Doubts had begun to creep in but I was committed and now was almost two thirds of the way to my destination. I drove on, more in hope than expectation, but on reaching the south coast and Hayling in particular my gamble paid dividends, as here the sun was shining and on decamping from the car in the tiny car park at Hayling, I found myself standing in a wonderful Spring morning, sunny and still, and a sea so smooth it resembled glass. Such a change from last Friday. A Blackbird sang his whimsical contralto notes from a nearby tree and out on the saltings Brent Geese quietly muttered to themselves and a small group of Mediterranean Gulls, some asleep, lazed in the sunshine on a muddy strand, well away from the hubbub, bustle and congestion of the frenzied gull colony that lay a few hundred metres beyond. All was well with me and this time, surely, I had got it right.

I wasted little time in walking out to the two  stony bunds where the gull  colony was situated. Another sign of Spring was evident as I walked along, in the form of a cluster of wild Daffodils that had forced their way through the dead grass of winter to display their butter yellow trumpets and pale lemon tinted petals to the world.

On this occasion I walked out to where a narrow channel of sea, of no more than twenty metres, separated me from an end of the nearest bund, so I was looking down the length of the bund with gulls massed on top of it, scattered down its sides and around its edges. I stood on the grass top of the embankment and looked out across the water onto the rocks, pebbles and sand of the bund. These bunds are all that remains now of the former oyster beds, and beyond was a haze of blue sky, white clouds and  the expanse of Langstone Harbour 

The bunds on which the gulls congregate
I was completely on my own and sat quietly on the embankment's grass to survey the gulls. Although the gulls showed little alarm at my presence it was important to make sure my profile was as discreet as possible. The Mediterranean Gulls, noticeably more wary than the Black headed Gulls were a little uneasy when I initially stood on the embankment but once I lowered my profile, by sitting on the bank, they relaxed and soon were carrying on as if I was not there.

A nice contrast between a Black headed Gull (centre) and two Med Gulls
Note the brown hood on the Black headed Gull and black on the Med Gulls!

I have no idea whether all these gulls will breed here, probably not, although I am sure some will do so. Later, Common  and Little Terns will arrive to breed here and this is the primary reason for the reserve. Many of the Mediterranean Gulls will move on to other nearby islands in Langstone Harbour to breed and the congregation of gulls here looks more to be a pre-breeding assembly rather than one where most are going to breed. It will still be a while yet until nests are made and eggs are laid, probably not here and not until late next month or even May. Whatever the situation, one thing could not be denied and that is the great business of renewing life had begun in earnest for another year.

To visit a gull colony such as this is to be ceaselessly entertained by the constant activity of the birds, accompanied by a cacophony of cries, mainly from the Black headed Gulls which provided an endless soundtrack of harsh grating calls whilst the slightly more melodious querulous calls of the Mediterranean Gulls provided a more discreet accompaniment. 

It was primarily the Mediterranean Gulls that I had come to see, for at this time of year they are in their pristine and very attractive breeding plumage that will only last for three or four months before they start to moult into their duller winter plumage. They are really spectacular at this time of year with black hoods, poster paint red bills and legs and all white wings. Some, however, were still to attain full summer plumage, their foreheads showing white feathering much like an elderly dog shows round its grizzled muzzle. 

Mediterranean Gulls are fully adult when they are three years old and virtually all the birds I saw were adults. I did see at least four immature birds which look different to the adult in that they have an incomplete hood on the head and the white outer flight feathers are  marked with black. At least three individuals, two adults and a third calendar year bird were colour ringed which enabled me to get details about them from the ringers and these are shown at the end of this blog.

Immature Mediterranean Gull
The Med Gulls formed discrete little enclaves amongst the squabbling aggravation of Black headed Gulls, insular and concerned only with the process of courting and pairing unless a Black headed Gull intruded, when the interloper was threatened with outstretched wings and open bill. The Med Gulls were generally dominant over the Black headed Gulls but occasionally the burgeoning testosterone of the Black headed Gulls drove them to attack a Med Gull and often they would then become the victor. Watching the Med Gulls, standing fractionally taller amongst the Black headed Gulls, looking slightly supercilious with those clown like white surrounds to their eyes, I noted how the shape of the black hood differed in appearance depending on the gull's stance and posture.Sometimes when relaxed it was a complete hood encompassing the head and neck and at other times when the head was extended the hood only partially covered the hind neck. 

It was only too apparent that many were still in the first stages of forming pairs,coming together in their small gatherings, strutting and posing in a somewhat sedate and ritualised fashion, whilst others seemed to have already tied the bond. There was conflict where three or more were together and wings would be raised but even in such situations their displays were more discreet and possessing a casual elegance denied the Black headed Gulls. In courtship they would slowly bow with  an exaggerated posture, head and neck tilted downwards, tipping their breast to the ground and with wings and tail raised to the sky and then reverse the procedure so their neck and head were stretched up, with wings slightly held away from their body as they stood on tiptoe and opening their scarlet bills would call querulously, often in unison. 

A regular coming and going of these birds was in progress, some flying in close formation, as pairs, over the sea and calling constantly to one another as if strengthening their partnership whilst others would abandon their supposed mate and fly off into the harbour or land further down the bund to display elsewhere in a protesting commotion of flapping and outspread wings from others of their kind, indignant at the unwelcome arrival of another competitor in their midst.

A constant procession of both gull species flew out from the bund to circle over the sea, sometimes to settle and bathe on the sea and at other times to return to the colony to land and stand briefly, before repeating the whole process as if the impulse of the impending breeding season was too much, too vital,  to allow them to remain still for more than a minute or two.

It was impossible not to get caught up in the contagious excitement of the gulls, and whilst sitting and watching them the world slipped away behind me and I entered the beguiling alien spirit of the colony and became subsumed in its endless activity and noise.This is why I love to go birding. It is a release from all the cares. worries and anxieties of my human existence, as for a few hours I watch other beings in an existence totally uncaring of my world and that tells me it is not all about us. I come away as invigorated as having gone to a good play or exhibition, maybe more so. Sure we humans affect the natural world more and more with our non stop rapacious despoiling of the Earth but there are still places and sights in the natural world to imbue the spirit with optimism and this is one of them.

The Black headed Gulls were also in the process of forming pairs and strengthening their pair bonds.They seemed further advanced than the Mediterranean Gulls and their courting attitudes were more exaggerated and energetic, the proverbial noisy and annoying neighbours to the more aloof Mediterranean Gulls. Pairs would lower their breast almost to the ground with head and bill slightly upraised and trip slowly in small steps around their mate or repeat the same procedure on the sea flattening their bodies on the water and with head and bill just slightly raised above the water, swim in unison before raising their heads, all the while squawking noisily to proclaim their ardour. A very similar display also seemed to be employed as a threatening gesture.

The above three images show Black headed Gulls in a threat display

The above images show the courtship display of a pair of Black headed Gulls
Immature Black headed Gull

Adult Black headed Gull
The attitudes of the gulls and the various ritualised postures they adopt in their displays were a source of constant interest and entertainment. At no other time of the year can you see this, only when they are commencing their breeding cycle.

Some of the Black headed Gulls, but very much in a minority had already staked a claim to a tiny patch of sand and pebbles, often with a patch of dry seaweed or other vegetation as the base for a nest site and were defending it. Whether this was just a dummy run for the real thing somewhere else I could not know. Most of the gulls seemed to be only at a stage of ordered confusion, where sorting themselves into pairs and establishing a tiny area on which to pretend or practice to build a nest was their sole intent.

After two very pleasant hours I left Hayling Oysterbeds and its gull colony and made my way back to the car and in two more hours was back home.

Details of  the colour ringed immature Mediterranean Gulls that I  saw today 

It was ringed as a chick on 2nd July 2016 in Vendee France. 

Ring number RJ8L

It has been seen subsequently at the following locations: 

Morbihan France on 16th 16th July 2017 September 2016
Malaga Spain on 29th March 2017
Lodmoor RSPB Weymouth on 27th October 2017
Radipole RSPB Weymouth on 6th December 2017

and finally at West Hayling Nature Reserve Hampshire today 13th March 2018

I also saw two adult birds both of which had been ringed in Belgium

Ring number 3TRR

Originally ringed as an adult on 31st May 2017 at Antwerp Belgium

Subsequently seen by me on 13th March 2018 at West Hayling Nature Reserve Hampshire

Ring number 330A

Originally ringed as an adult on 20th May 2017 at Antwerp Belgium

It has been seen subsequently at the following locations:

Mumbles Swansea Wales on 16th July 2017

West Hayling Nature Reserve Hampshire on 13th March 2018

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff - sorry to hear you weren't well but glad you're feeling better!!!!