Wednesday 18 March 2020

A Visit to The Mediterraneans 16th March 2020

Today, Monday, should have been just like any other day but it wasn't. The human world I know is being turned on its head as a lethal virus threatens death and economic mayhem. I have lived with anxiety all my life and learned to deal with it through coping strategies, one of which is to get out into the natural world and find a distraction from that which causes me to be anxious.

Fortunately, just such a distraction was at hand as a day that heralded Spring sunshine and light winds was predicted for this Monday and would coincide perfectly with my now annual pilgrimage in March to Hayling Oysterbeds, which lie on the coast of Hampshire, to view the pre-breeding gathering of hundreds of Mediterranean and Black headed Gulls on the bunds of the long abandoned oyster beds.

The story of the Mediterranean Gull's fortunes in Britain is a refreshing change from the usual litany of declines in our bird populations. A century ago they were only to be found in marshes around the Black Sea but slowly they moved westwards to eventually colonise Britain. In the Chichester and Langstone Harbour SPA's (Special Protection Areas) there are now 1761 breeding pairs, with Hayling Oysterbeds, located in the northeast corner of Langstone Harbour, host to a large pre-breedig assembly of Mediterranean Gulls.

I made an early start at 5am, anxiety acting as efficiently as any alarm clock to wake me and soon I was on the road, heading south, my head spinning into a slightly surreal state, as all around me life went on as before, a calming influence but countered by my knowing it was so very far from normal today and may not be for a very long time, if ever.

Once on Hayling Island I turned off the main and only road that runs down the island, at this hour made busy with commuting traffic, and drove up a short rough track to a tiny car park that serves the West Hayling Nature Reserve, incorporating as part of it, Hayling Oysterbeds. It was seven thirty. I stepped from the confines of the car into a morning that I had been anticipating for all the long winter months that now lay behind me. Immediately in front of the car was the sea wall and beyond, a panorama of sea and sky that formed much of Langstone Harbour. In the haze of distance, beyond the harbour, lay the urban sprawl of Southsea and Portsmouth but at this moment they were an unwelcome reminder of humanity's remorseless encroachment of the natural environment. I turned my face away, unwilling to chance breaking the joyous spell that this spring morning was casting upon me.

The tide had retreated, leaving an expanse of wet, grey mud and rivulets of seawater, dotted with rocks and humps of muddy seaweed, a transitory wasteland patrolled by lingering parties of Brent Geese, growling in contentment as they ate the green strands of the zostera weed they so love.

Dark bellied Brent Geese
Further out, at the distant edge of the sea, Curlews and Redshanks probed the soft mud endlessly and fruitfully. The sky was the palest blue, the colour of a heron's egg, the ascending sun meanwhile  casting a benign and golden light across both the land and sea. From the hedgerow behind me a Blackbird's notes meandered through the still air, forever unhurried and untroubled, the bird pausing  as if musing upon what it had been singing to itself.

I could hear them before I had walked any distance. The Mediterranean Gulls. Crying a strange exclamatory yelp, almost a yodel, a call sounding as if of surprise, shock even, clearly distinguishable from the incessant, raucous and ear grating calls of the Black headed Gulls, their temporary companions on the bunds.There were hundreds of them, over four hundred each of both species, concentrated onto the two  bunds nearest to where I stood on a rough track, the gulls secure from the land, protected by the deterrent of an encircling lagoon of seawater, currently shallow enough to be able to see the bottom but soon to deepen on the rising tide.

The Gull colony on the disused bunds at the former Hayling Oysterbeds
The gulls are protected here by the RSPB, and although not normally having a presence until a voluntary warden arrives in May, they have a board asking people to respect the breeding birds. I walked away from the main track and out along a narrow grassed spur of land to stand with the saltmarsh at my back and the blunt rounded end of the nearest bund in front of me. 

It was as if I was on an island, alone with a myriad of gulls, strewn along the crown of the bund in constant confusing motion, a profuse littering of white, standing on or flying over the pebbles and rocks that formed the bund

The Mediterranean Gulls, slightly larger than the Black headed Gulls took top billing, occupying the prime sites on the bunds while the Black headed Gulls had taken possession of the spaces left between their larger companions, their surplus numbers spilling down the sides of the bunds. The Med Gulls appear a shade whiter than the Black headed Gulls, gleaming in the sun, the luminescent effect enhanced by the grey on their mantle being distinctly paler and possessing wing tips of pure white. Marginally longer in the leg and with stouter bills they are dominant but rarely bully the smaller gulls. They stand in groups of up to half a dozen, the individual gulls in each group constantly shifting position as they posture, while maintaining close contact with each other. These groups are dispersed in concentrations all the way along the top of the bunds and are too busy attending to more pressing matters concerning themselves to pay heed to the activities of the Black headed Gulls. 

Small groups of up to six birds, stand shoulder to shoulder and fuelled by testosterone, the males indulge in ritualistic bowing, pouting breasts and pointing bills to the sky, contorting into a series of attitudes and shapes as they threaten  or cajole, depending on the sex of the recipient of their attention. I assume the females respond with similar actions but if they do they were, to me, indistinguishable from the males. 

It is non stop open air theatre, a production running endlessly, night and day, free to view and that has many acts, none of which are the same. For a limited season only it is played out on the rough and rocky stage of the transformed bunds. The action is accompanied by a soundtrack, a non stop barrage of sound throughout night and day. The gulls never fall silent and it would not seem the same if they ever did. The sound of the calling gulls is an integral part of this pre-breeding assembly just as much as the all action visual experience. It is a performance with a constantly shifting company of actors unwittingly providing a sublime natural spectacle .

The gulls, for the most part, remain on the bunds but there is a ceaseless exodus and arrival of both species.The Mediterranean Gulls, arriving from exploring the outer reaches of the harbour, come in pairs or singly, yelping and flying ghostly white in the blue sky, their black heads a shock against the predominant white of their plumage. Like feathered darts they swoop down, passing low over the lagoon that lies between me and the bunds, then circle into the breeze and land with infinite grace on the bund, there to be engulfed amongst the throng and be either accepted or repelled. 

Dominant males seek out the largest rocks on the bund and stand tall, presiding over their companions who do not seem too worried and rarely attempt to usurp any such individual.

This colour ringed adult - 2H60- was first ringed as an adult at Great Yarmouth Beach on
30th November 2013 which makes it almost 8 years old.

Others, often single individuals, for no apparent reason rise up and calling loudly, fly around the bunds, arcing  a low level circuit before landing amongst another group of Mediterranean Gulls that takes their fancy  It is as if  they desire a change and maybe better luck in searching for a mate. Speed dating Med Gull style! 

Mediterranean Gulls are a truly beautiful gull in their full breeding plumage. Their head is encased in a black hood, unlike the perpetually misnamed Black headed Gull, whose hood is not black by any stretch of the imagination but the colour of dark chocolate. The Med Gull's black hood also extends further down the neck, like a proper hood, whereas the Black headed Gull has a hood that looks like it has slipped up the back of its head and needs pulling down. The eyes of the Med Gull are ringed with deep crimson which in turn are highlighted by semi circular gashes of white, above and below the eyes. 

The mantle and wing coverts are the most subtle of pale grey as if infused with white and the flight feathers pure white as are their underparts and tail.The bill is crimson red, banded with black and yellow at its tip and the legs and feet are the red of poster paint.They slowly and with great deliberation strut, bow and pout their smooth white breasts and perfection of plumage in ritualised displays. To me the gulls posturing looks chaotic but to the gulls it is obviously not so. There is method, as there  always is in nature and it is the gull's way of establishing the pair bonds which will allow them to go on to breed, not here but in the colonies that exist on islands in Langstone and Chichester Harbours and nearby Farlington Marsh. Possibly some of these gulls, once paired, will migrate further east along the English Channel to other colonies in Sussex, Kent or even Europe.

A few of the Mediterranean Gulls sported large plastic leg rings of various colours; green, white and yellow, all with numbers and letters on them. They will have been ringed by various schemes in European countries such as France, Belgium and The Netherlands. There is a web site devoted to all European Colour Ringing Schemes where you can look up the rings and find who has ringed a particular bird. The ringers contact details are there and if you send the details to them they usually reply with a full life history and sightings of the bird since it was first ringed. Nowadays the ringers always reply, recognising it is in their best interests but in former times it was not so straightforward or reliable.

Colour ringed Mediterranean Gull- this one from France or Belgium
The Black headed Gulls are understandably upstaged by the beauty and elegance of the Mediterranean Gulls that bring a continental glamour to put our more humble and common Black headed Gull into the shade. The unfortunate Black headed Gull just does not possess the elan and pristine whiteness of the Med Gull especially when you can compare one against the other. Its back is a darker grey and its wing tips black, whilst its legs and bill lack the bright red colouring of the Med Gull and, although the same basic colour, are a more subdued shade of brownish red. However, in flight they too can be graceful.

Black headed Gulls
Maybe if the Black headed Gull was not so ubiquitous, familiar and confiding we would not get so easily diverted to other rarer and prettier gulls. But look closely at the smaller gull with its shrill unattractive voice and there is much to admire.

Like the Mediterranean Gulls they were also consumed by and in the throes of breeding passion, their displays to us appearing comic, involving crouching on bent legs with their body parallel to the ground, holding their wings slightly away from their body whilst extending and lowering their neck and head almost to ground level, the head held slightly at an uptilted angle This is used in both threat and courtship and is conducted on both land and sea. On land they slowly circle each other taking tiny steps whilst on the sea they swim around each other. It seems to matter not to them where they display and as usual has to be accompanied by a constant querulous calling. 

Black headed Gulls displaying and establishing this year's pair bond

A Black headed Gull displaying aggression
Unlike the Mediterranean Gulls which kept very much to the bunds and only exceptionally took to the water to bathe or swim, the Black headed Gulls were content to swim on the sea and even settle near to me on the short turf. 

The Black headed Gulls will nest here later, some were already making the beginnings of a nest, moving their breast from side to side on the shingle to form the beginnings of a scrape. whilst others were mating. They will be joined by Common and Little Terns, arriving from Africa, later next month. The Mediterranean Gulls will have left by then, apart from the occasional pair which will remain to nest here in the company of the Black headed Gulls. It is a mystery and no one has so far explained adequately why they do not remain, as they have been known to nest in colonies of Black headed Gulls elsewhere. Perhaps with increasing numbers they now prefer to keep their own company. It would certainly be quieter!

Occasional fights do break out but apart from some savage pecks to body and wings it is all over very quickly and the birds part unharmed One such fight occured when the male of a pair of second year birds attacked an adult, the immature bird indistinguishable from the adult apart from the black lines and chevrons on its otherwise white outer primaries. They were the only immature birds I saw in the colony apart from one other second year bird that had not even moulted into its second summer plumage of black head and still maintained a dull grizzling of grey on its head. It is unusual for such non breeding birds to attend a gathering of adults such as here, as they tend to form their own groups during the breeding season, well away from the breeding adults.

The second year male attacking an adult while its mate stands by (bottom right in the picture)
Sometimes paired second year birds will attempt to breed in their second year and this may be the case here

Second calendar year bird still not having gained its black head.
It will not breed until next year
My early arrival meant that I saw no one until well after nine o' clock and even then it was only  the occasional dog walker that passed by and hardly gave a glance at either me or the host of gulls. I assume they are used to it but it is surely worth a glance of appreciation at this annual spectacle.

As the light became stronger I concentrated on the Mediterranean Gulls flying in and out of the colony. There can surely be no better or delightful sight than this ghostly white gull with its coal black head and bright red bill flying high in an unsullied blue sky. For the next hour they kept me pr-occupied as I waited for opportunities to find one in my camera lens and record its beauty. Not an easy task as they fly surprisingly fast and erratically.

Note the thin black leading edge to the outermost primary feather

If one can ever have enough of something, I was currently unaware of feeling that way about the Mediterranean Gulls, as I followed the track around the lagoon in which the bunds lay, looking at the gulls from every conceivable angle, but found I was constrained by the position of the sun. I walked back to my original viewpoint and settled there satisfied there was no better place to be.
A Mediterrranean Gull announced its arrival, excitedly yodelling as it approached the colony from behind me, coming in from the sea and sweeping down in front of me. I raised the camera, took one final image and then lowered my camera. It was enough. Desist! I had enough images to last me a year and left it at that. There is a chance that this will be my last birding blog for a while and these images will serve me well as I sit at home and reflect on this day.

I wonder where we will be in a year from now and how the world will look then? It is symptomatic of the arrogance of humanity that we view this planet as our world but it is not. We share this planet with many other life forms, all with an equal right to exist and watching the gull colony brought my emotions to a turmoil of conflict and sadness. However underlying it all, was a realisation, an optimism that, despite the unprecedented but inevitable self inflicted crisis that humanity is currently experiencing, as I watched these creatures enacting their natural lives, I lived in a world that just about remains wonderful and will go on whatever happens to the human race.


A colour ringed Med Gull I saw today, Monday 16th March

The above bird (second from the bottom) was ringed (2C91) as a chick in Langstone Harbour, Hampshire on 20th June 2017 and had not been seen since.

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