Monday 11 March 2019

The Med Gulls at Hayling 10th March 2019

The now defunct Hayling Oyster Beds situated at Hayling Island on the coast of Hampshire have become an annual pre-breeding gathering place for Mediterranean Gulls, which take the opportunity to form pairs and generally get themselves together, before dispersing throughout the adjacent Langstone Harbour and surrounding areas to breed.

I make a trip every year to see this early Spring spectacle as Mediterranean Gulls are a lovely looking bird in breeding plumage and to see a congregation in excess of three hundred, often many more,  is a sight that it is well worth making the effort to see.

Due to recently moving house my opportunities were very limited to find the time to travel south to see them but today presented just such an opportunity although the weather looked anything but encouraging. True it was going to be sunny and with only the occasional shower predicted but the winds were going to be ferocious, gale force, blowing at up to sixty miles per hour from the southwest. At such an exposed place as Hayling Island it would surely make viewing nigh on impossible.

I refused to be deterred and with a surge of cussed optimism set off on the two hour drive to Hayling Oyster Beds, arriving in the small car park at just after nine thirty. The prediction about the wind speed proved to be only too correct and looking out across Langstone Harbour I noted a sea that was a mass of white waves running before the wind and with not a bird in sight. I tried to open the car door but such was the force of the wind it required a huge effort to get it open.

Once out I fled to the other side of the car, away from the main force of the wind, and got my bins and camera around my neck and set off into the teeth of the gale towards the remains of the oyster beds, a series of rocky bunds that required a short walk along a small track to an even more exposed point from which to view them. Ooooerr!

It was head down and just walk into the wind as best I could wondering if there would be any gulls at all in such conditions. Hayling Oyster Beds are now a small local nature reserve managed by the RSPB and consist of just the remnants of the oyster beds in the form of rocky bunds, the two main ones being where the gulls congregate but today not a gull was to be seen on the bunds as to perch there was impossible due to the force of the wind.

The remains of the Oyster Bed bunds as seen from the shelter
No, all the gulls, sensibly, were on the water between me on the exposed windswept track and the even more exposed and windswept bunds. It was slightly more sheltered on the sea here, as to a certain extent the gulls were in the lee of the wind due to the bunds forming a barrier against the worst of the gale and fast running sea. 

It was quite a sight before me as upwards of five hundred gulls, two thirds of which were Med Gulls with Black headed Gulls forming the remainder, were all facing away from me, heads to the wind on the water, a constantly moving, bobbing phalanx of grey and white bodies bouncing on the ceaseless waves.

Med Gulls with the occasional Black headed Gull amongst them riding out
the gale force wind
The distinctive exclamatory yeeeooww calls of the Med Gulls came to me on the wind as I fought my way along the path, the wind whipping at my clothing, its sheer force blowing me sideways at times. A small glass shelter half way along the track was my target, as here I could wedge myself in a corner and the wind's force would be much less, enough at least to just about hold a camera or bins steady.In fact the shelter saved the day as otherwise it would have been impossible to either photograph or look at the gulls through my bins such was the force of the wind.

The shelter by the track which saved the day
Looking out from the shelter  I surveyed the spectacle before me and wondered how I was going to manage as all the gulls were facing into the wind and thus looking away from me. As a few minutes passed my concerns grew less for I noticed the gulls seemed much less troubled by the wind than was I. They paddled steadfastly, almost shoulder to shoulder maintaining position on the wind tossed sea but still had time to preen, bicker and display amongst themselves. I wondered why they did not stand on the lee side of the bund as surely this would be more restful but it was some time before a couple of gulls did this.

Two Med Gulls with a Black headed Gull for comparison

Gulls are forever on the watch for what their fellows are doing and once one does something the others gain confidence and follow suit. So it was that a number of Med Gulls and Black headed Gulls  commenced standing on the rocks that formed the bund and I had some prime opportunities to get some nice images of them displaying, preening or just loafing about. However many still preferred to remain on the sea.

Displaying Med Gulls
Firmly wedged in my corner of the shelter I clicked away or just watched this ever moving, ever changing spectacle. A large congregation of gulls is never boring as they are continuously active accompanied by a ceaseless cacophony of calls. 

The two species kept discreetly apart not really mixing unless forced to by the weather conditions. Mediterranean Gulls were continuously rising from the flock and flying off out to sea whilst others came in from the harbour, flying low into the full force of the howling wind with supreme mastery, never looking inconvenienced even in these most extreme of conditions. It was truly exhilarating to watch them.

Black headed Gull

Black headed Gull with Med Gull

When the sun shone the Med Gulls became almost white, so delicate a shade of grey were the upper parts of their plumage. Many had already acquired black hoods but quite a few had yet to achieve this, the hood still messily infused with white feathering around their bill and forehead, like the grizzled muzzle of an ageing dog. Even so, such birds were still pairing up and no doubt in a few days would be as pristine as their prospective partner.

Displaying pair of adult Med Gulls with one yet to acquire a complete back hood

Two Med Gulls showing varying progress to acquiring their full black hood

A second winter Med Gull told by its lack of a black hood and black chevrons
on its wing tips.It will not breed until next year

Adult Med Gulls in full breeding plumage
The crowning glory of Med Gull's is their head which is black with red rimmed eyes, each of which is surrounded by white semi circles above and below, together with a scarlet bill variably tipped with yellow and a black sub terminal band. They appear slightly larger than a Black headed Gull, an impression enhanced by the fact that their poster paint red legs are longer. The rest of their plumage including the wing tips is pure white.

Some of the Med Gulls on the leeside of the bund were wasting no time and began displaying with a series of bows, where the bird, on rigid legs bends its breast low and dips it head while tilting its rear  upwards and then raises itself up on extended legs to pout its breast outwards and stretch its head and neck skywards to their utmost. All this is done with a ritualised and exaggerated slowness as if to give the recipient of this display the maximum opportunity to appreciate the perpetrator's suitability to be a mate.

More displaying Med Gulls!
I felt I could stand here for hours and indeed did, but remained sequestered in the shelter. To venture out from the shelter would be unwise and would only subject me to a relentless battering from the wind. Brief rain squalls had also commenced, the rain striking the glass of the shelter with an explosive spattering. Venture outside even for a few seconds and the force of the wind made the raindrops feel like pellets, stinging one's face.

A few Brent Geese were also braving the elements on the shoreline, their larger and more bulky structure  less prone to be inconvenienced by the wind. 

Dark bellied Brent Goose
A discarded, well travelled fast food container, hurled by the wind across the harbour arrived on the bund and did a wild jig in the swirling air currents which caused consternation amongst the gulls at the edge of the bund, scaring them into a flying  panic back onto the sea and to warily eye the manic gyrations of the  styrofoam container as it continued its erratic progress over the rocks.

I had to laugh. It was that kind of day.

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