Thursday 28 March 2019

More on the Med Gulls at Hayling Island 25th March 2019

Two weeks ago I went to the defunct Hayling Oyster Beds, which are now part of the North Hayling Local Nature Reserve owned by Havant Council but managed on their behalf by the RSPB. I went  to see the annual pre-breeding gathering of hundreds of Mediterranean Gulls that is centred on the oyster beds. Unfortunately the weather was hardly conducive to viewing the gulls and photographing this splendid natural spectacle in the teeth of a  howling gale and vicious rain squalls made life very difficult and unpleasant both for me and the gulls.

I persevered despite the foul weather but the outcome from my point of view was not entirely satisfactory as I struggled to get any decent images of these most beautiful of gulls.

Spring arrived this Sunday and with sun and relatively benign conditions forecast for the entire coming week I made hurried plans to head back to the oyster beds at Hayling Island on Monday to hopefully achieve some better results, knowing that this lovely looking gull would be highly photogenic in such sunny conditions.

A monumental traffic jam due to an accident held me up for forty minutes on the M27 west of Portsmouth, so my arrival at Hayling Island was about an hour later than planned but once I was parked in the reserve's tiny car park  I stepped out into a morning of full and pleasant sunshine although a  northerly breeze kept the temperature down.

I walked out to the rocky bunds, all that remains now of the oyster beds and was delighted to find the gull colony in full swing. A raucous and all action blizzard of flying and perched Mediterranean and Black headed Gulls greeted me as I stood on the track opposite the bunds to assess where best to go to view the birds.

The Black headed Gulls were by far the more numerous and noisiest of the two, their grating irascible vocalisations a constant background, almost drowning out the more diffident  yodelling, exclamatory calls of the Mediterranean Gulls. It was hard not to compare the two and find favour with the almost aristocratic demeanour of the Med Gulls, standing slightly taller amongst the Black headed Gulls, the latter their noisy, forever bickering neighbours from hell. In plumage and looks the Med Gulls also scored heavily with ghostly white bodies and wings and the softest of grey upperparts set off by a jet black hood and bright red bill, legs and feet. The Black headed Gulls looked almost dowdy by comparison with their chocolate brown hood, dull brownish red bills and legs and more marked grey and white plumage but they were the gull which would breed here whilst only a few pairs of Med Gulls would remain to breed amongst them. Later, Common Terns would arrive to breed on rafts put out by the RSPB on the sea near to the bunds. 

A pair each of Med Gulls and Black headed Gulls
I started at the western bund but with the wind blowing almost into my face it did not seem so good an idea so I soon moved to the easternmost of the two bunds on which the colony is based. Here it was more sheltered and soon, ensconced on the pebbly beach in the lee of an overhanging bank I was happily clicking away and watching the ceaseless activity of the gull colony.

A trio of Med Gulls the centre bird being a second year bird whilst
the other two are full adults and therefore three or more years old

Adult (centre) and Second year (right) Med Gulls
I defy anyone not to be enthralled by the sight of an active gull colony such as this. On coming round the corner from the car park, the sheer volume of sound, initially muted by the contours of the land as you walk out, is unexpected and immediately hits your senses, quickly followed by a constant bewilderment of movement from this teeming city of gulls. It is a living kaleidoscope of  beautiful creatures, arraigned in their finest plumage, indulging in endless instinctive activity, with never a quiet or still moment. It just goes on and on, sound and movement, mesmerising and fascinating in equal measure as the birds bicker, threaten, court and pose on the bunds or the sea.

There were definitely less Mediterranean Gulls than on my last visit as presumably many of the adults had already paired and dispersed to their breeding areas around and about the harbour or even further east and west. A number of  the Med Gulls were second year birds, so possibly not planning to breed this year, their age told by the fact they still sported the black chevrons on their white outer primaries although many had already acquired a full black hood. The full adults remaining were going through their courtship rituals, bowing and contorting their body and head into their stylised poses.

Displaying Mediterranean Gulls
I saw only two first winter/second calendar year birds, distinctive in not having a black hood but just a smudged highwayman's mask around the eyes, a band of brown at the tip of the tail  and with wings much patterned with grey and brown

Second calendar year Mediterranean Gull
Gulls are notorious for showing variations from the norm and the gull below was in what appeared to be second year plumage but unlike the other second year birds present which had fully black heads this one had a head pattern suggesting it was a first winter bird.

I watched this on going spectacle that continues day and night, as if sleep is something not required, the gulls consumed by the urge to procreate. The gulls and particularly the Med Gulls were constantly taking to the air, restless, as if being on the ground, shoulder to shoulder with other gulls, was almost too much to bear. They would rise and make a wide circuit out over the sea and then come back to the bund, sweeping into the northerly breeze and with much hesitant fluttering and obvious dislike from those already on the ground, land in the throng once more before others would rise to perform the same routine.

A man stood along from me on the beach and producing a plastic bag of bread proceeded to throw slices of bread out onto the water. A tsunami of gulls, virtually all Black headed  hurtled off the bunds and in a frenzy of wings and loud calls descended on the bread. It was quite a sight but the Med Gulls kept their distance, just a first year bird and briefly one adult joining them, but then thinking better of it they retreated to the periphery of the scrum.

Spot the Med Gull!
Spending a lot of time with the gulls you tend to notice things that a casual glance would miss. I noticed that some of the second year Med Gulls were paired with a full adult and were going through courtship rituals, so the question arose would they breed this year or was this just a full dress rehearsal? Conversely it could be their moult had been suspended so really they were full adults but they just had not moulted their outer second year primaries.

Second year Mediterranean Gulls showing the distinctive
black chevrons on their outer primaries

Also the full adult Med Gulls seemed to vary in their bill tip pattern with some sporting the yellow tip on the bill whilst others, no different in plumage, had all red bills. Would they acquire the yellow tip in a few days or was this just a variation possibly with age? The gulls with yellow tips being older? 

I also found an adult Med Gull that had been ringed and researching the code on the ring 36BF I learned it had been ringed at Antwerp Belgium on 20th of May 2017 and was subsequently seen at Antwerp on 29th June and 3rd July 2017 and was not seen again until I saw it today. 

The ringed adult Med Gull
That is the fun and fascination of birding, well for me anyway, as the more you observe and study the more questions arise that often do not have an immediate answer.

I must add that having slightly disparaged the Black headed Gulls I should say that in their own way they are appealing. I would not call them elegant but the courting and aggressive attitudes they strike are fascinating and more extreme than the Med Gulls, and when looked at closely their plumage is also attractive but less obviously so, lacking the strong colours and subtle beauty of the Mediterranean Gulls. 

Black headed Gulls
After three hours I left the gull colony, not without some regret but with uplifted spirits. There is always next year to come and see them again and later, in a month or so,  I will pick another sunny day to return here to see the breeding Common Terns and if I am really lucky maybe Little Terns also.

For now I will leave you with some images of the Hayling Island Mediterranean Gulls in flight.  Seen against a background of blue sky or sea is there any creature more beautiful and sublime in our still wonderful natural world that is now so in peril.

                  Please take the time to click on any image to view a larger version

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