Seagulls are for Muggles!


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.


Gulls at Verulamium Lake – 3 different species and 3 different age groups – from left to right:  a second-winter Common Gull; a first-winter Common Gull; an adult-winter Common Gull; an adult-winter Black-headed Gull; and an adult-winter Lesser Black-backed Gull

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!


Make your Love of Nature Count!

To read this article as it appears in the Herts Advertiser please click here: Nature Notes – January 2018

I have to confess to having a love-hate relationship with statistics – perhaps this is true of most people? Statistics, numbers, charts and tables have the power to petrify us in boredom and the subsequent analysis can lead to mental paralysis! And yet all that collected data is powerful – it tells us things we need to know and informs us about action we need to take. This of course is no less true when it comes to data about wildlife.

I have always subconsciously resisted serious data collection and analysis when it comes to my love of nature. For me it is like reducing my marital relationship to how many times I’ve bought flowers, washed up or provided a taxi service for the kids. I love nature, like I love my wife, and any form of serious statistical analysis feels reductionist and, well, unromantic.

Nature, for me, has always been a kind of romance with magical moments of discovery, vast swathes of beauty and complexity, and layers of mystery and wonder. The words of the biblical proverb resonate with me, “There are three things that are too amazing for me, four that I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a young woman.” (Proverbs 30:18-19)

And so I have been a reluctant latecomer to data collection and analysis, but like so many things I have initially resisted, it has proved rewarding in its own way. Regularly recording and submitting my observations to organisations such as the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) via BirdTrack their online data collection portal, has demanded of me a more rigorous approach to nature observation – not just vague incomplete lists, but times, dates and numbers recorded over regular, sustained periods.

All of this has been counter-intuitive to me but it has deepened my understanding of the places I go and the wildlife that inhabits them. Regular detailed observations have revealed patterns and behaviours that I wouldn’t otherwise have appreciated: the Little Owl’s favourite tree; the best time to watch gulls amassing in their pre-roost flocks and when they will have left for their final roost; and more recently, the feeding habits of Hawfinches – their love of hornbeam seeds. This in turn has led me to become expert in identifying hornbeam trees as this winter, as never before, finding hornbeams gives you a very good chance of finding that elusive finch!

While I never want to lose that sense of open-mouthed wonder when it comes to the natural world there are also moments that give pause for thought when we realize all is not perhaps as it should be. In the last thirty years, House Sparrows, Spotted Flycatchers and Swallows have vanished from my garden, both as breeders but also even as visitors. It seems that, in the same way that we occasionally have to sit down as a married couple and work out how to make improvements when things aren’t working, we must also stop and work out our relationship with nature.

Birds and wildlife that might feel scarce in our area may turn out to be thriving elsewhere, however, the data is often revealing a decline on a national scale. Swallows and House Sparrows really are vanishing and Spotted Flycatchers have all but gone. The observations that I have made in my own garden over the years suddenly connect me to a wider world of nature and a greater understanding for what may be at stake for the birds visiting my garden.

This weekend (27th-29th Jan) is the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch and an opportunity for everyone who has a garden, however small, to do some serious (but not onerous) data collecting and contribute to the latest snapshot of the state of our nation’s birdlife. By spending just one hour recording what you see in your garden and submitting the data to the RSPB you will be making sure the national picture that emerges is as accurate as possible.

greenfinch 17

Last year’s survey revealed that Greenfinch numbers have declined by 66% in the UK over the last 10 years.  The species may now be added to the conservation ‘Red List’ of most endangered species in the UK.  Photo by Steve Round

Equally it’s an opportunity to connect with your nearest green space and one that often gets overlooked most of the week, especially at this cold time of year. Gardens by their very definition are enclosed spaces but not to the birds that visit. Instead they are vast arterial networks of greenery providing food, shelter and migratory routes for thousands of birds right across urban spaces.

Great Tits at Feeder copy