To read my article as it appears in the Herts Advertiser please click here: Nature Notes – 22nd February 2018
There is no such bird as a seagull. I had to learn the hard way: early in my birdwatching career, at the tender and self-conscious age of about 13, I found myself in a group of older and wiser birders and was audacious enough to suggest a seagull had just flown overhead.
A confused and awkward silence followed and I was quietly but firmly corrected that there was no such thing as a ‘seagull’, instead my bird was most likely one of the five common species of gull (no sea) found in the UK! I felt foolish as I was aware of different sorts of gulls but had never thought to be more specific. And that really is the story of being a bird-watcher in a nutshell: be more specific and how specific you are will determine how much of a ‘muggle’ you are when with other birdwatchers!
The incident reminded me of another ‘awkward’ occasion whilst watching seabirds off Portland Bill in Dorset – thankfully this time it didn’t involve me directly. Picture a group of mainly middle-aged men staring out to sea down their high-powered and extremely costly telescopes, scanning the sea for whatever seabird might be passing at the time. Portland Bill sticks right out into the English Channel and as a result allows views of some of the scarcer passing wildlife that might otherwise be invisible from the mainland.
We had spent enough time there so prepared to leave but as we did so my friend mentioned quietly to me that we would need to stop for petrol on the way back. Never has such quiet, suppressed panic ensued as every birder began to desperately scan the sea, with sharp calls of “Where?!”… “Location please!” and, “Was that at 2 o’clock?” It suddenly dawned on us that we had inadvertently dropped a bombshell into the midst of the watching birders – the trigger-word “petrol” or I should say “petrel”, a small and rare little seabird that flits like a swallow over the high seas.
Like searching radar the combined senses of the assembled group had immediately picked up on the word ‘petrol’ and simultaneously started scanning the waves for it. We beat a hasty retreat, the disgruntled mutterings and murmurings already audible as we neared the car. We would get petrol but not Storm, Leach’s or Wilson’s Petrel, just unleaded.
It is moments like these that you realize the hobby you enjoy has an addictive quality: sea-watching and gull-watching being just two of the drugs on offer. As with real junkies, the thrill of the chase and the needlepoint accuracy needed in the moment of identification, fuel intense and devoted habits. When you are in the presence of such people you feel an outsider, unable to access the higher realms of knowledge that they possess. Hours and hours of observation, recording, photographing and reviewing have made them experts, able to dismantle feather-by-feather what at first appears to be a regular Herring Gull (the sort that steals your fish and chips) and reassemble it as what it actually is: a second-winter Yellow-legged Gull!
The idea of a “seagull” is as bewildering to them as the sheer array of gulls and plumage variations on view is to others! Their dedication to the task of gull identification has produced a wealth of new information about the gulls that visit our isles. Within many gull species it is possible to identify separate races – birds that visit Britain from different geographical zones, each having distinctive variations to plumage and body characteristics. Some of these races in turn have been reclassified as separate species – most recently a large gull, easily dismissed as ‘just another seagull’ and even by birdwatchers as ‘an odd-looking Herring Gull’, has now been recognized for what it is: a Caspian Gull, a full species in its own right.
So, if you’re looking for a challenge this winter it doesn’t get much trickier than gull identification. Of course, the starting point is to banish all thoughts of “seagulls” and instead take a good look at the different gulls in front of you. Verulamium Lake is an excellent place to start: the small and noisy Black-headed Gulls (unhelpfully they don’t have black heads in winter!) will even feed from your hand. Amongst them, some of the larger gulls will also come in to roost – Common Gulls, Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Herring Gulls. Learn to separate them and who knows? You might become addicted!