Gulls are royalty amongst birds. Discuss. Well, I suspect most folk would disagree – aren’t gulls just the things that crap on your car, nick your chips, dive bomb you in the town and terrify the kids into dropping their ice cream? While there’s no doubt they can do all these things, there’s a bit more to them than that. So,we’re going to take a closer look at them this week as we can’t get out and about to see all the normal wildlife on the reserve…and they may well be something you can see from your own window in town.
Let’s start with the ubiquitous herring gull. These are the gulls you are most likely to see in many cities. As their name suggests, they are fish-eaters and would have followed the herring boats 200 years ago. But they are also smart, and adaptable, and there are far more fast-food outlets around than herring boats these days, They have a very varied diet and can, and will, eat almost anything … walk through a town centre at pub closing time and you’ll soon see that! As an illustration of how adaptable they are, check out this news story from a few years back – Sam the Seagull became quite the local celebrity and people were paying the shopkeeper to let him nick crisps!
Gulls have taken readily to urban life but, as so often is the case when a species benefits from our profligacy, they are labelled a nuisance. And, while it can seem like there are herring gulls everywhere – especially when they wake you up at 4am with ‘awak,awak,awak’ – there are half the number there were in 1993. Herring gull is a species in decline, and potentially in trouble.
A close relative of the Herring Gull is the rather suave and sophisticated Lesser Black-backed Gull. These elegant birds can be recognised by their dark slate-grey backs, yellow legs and bright bill colours. Unlike the Herring Gull, these are summer visitors to our corner of the world, heading south in autumn for the warmer climes of continental Europe. When the first ones reappear after their winter holidays in the sun, it’s a sure sign that spring is upon us.
Often confused with the previous species, the Great Black-backed Gull is substantially bigger, as its name somewhat suggests. In fact it would be worthy of the name Greatest – it is the largest species of gull in the world, with a five-foot wingspan, heavy bill and burly appearance. The adult birds are much darker on the back than the Lesser BB Gull – almost black, in fact – and the legs are pink, not yellow. These magnificent birds have a fearful reputation as predators – when you’re that big, you basically eat whatever you choose – and they have been recorded predating numerous other species from Puffins to Rabbits to Arctic Terns, as well as scavenging anything conveniently dead and meaty. They often nest on the very tops of sea stacks and cliffs, for a panoramic view of all the other food – I mean seabirds.
The smallest and arguably smartest of our resident gulls is the Black-headed Gull. In spring and summer – the breeding season of course – they wear a very dapper chocolate-brown hood (not actually black) with neat white eyelids and a dark crimson bill. In winter they lose the hood and show just a dark spot behind the eye – changing their appearance so much you could almost be forgiven for thinking they were a different species. Many years ago, Black-headed Gulls bred plentifully at Dinnet on the lochs and mosses, but as in many other places, these inland colonies have gradually faded away. On our sister reserve at Forvie, however, they continue to thrive, with upwards of 2,000 pairs nesting there in some years.
And now onto another inland nester. Common gulls, or mew gulls, don’t fit the description of ‘seagull’ very well. A lot of the older folks I know call them ‘heather gulls’ from their habit of nesting in the hills. They are smaller than a herring gull, with a gentler face and are often one of the gulls you see following the plough when the fields are being turned over. The north-east of Scotland used to boast one of the world’s largest common gull colonies, near Huntly, but this has declined over the past 20 years. Instead of being ‘heather gulls’ at least some of these could be renamed ‘Asda gulls’ as they can be found nesting in the gravel at the petrol station there!
The last of the gulls you are likely to see in the UK is the least urban of the gulls…you really aren’t likely to see these on your daily walk unless you live next to sea cliffs. These are kittiwakes – named after their kitti-WAKE call – and it’s the high-rise life for them. Kittiwakes build a nest comprised of grass, guano and hope on steep cliffs and are one of the main residents of the big seabird cities you see on these cliffs. Their chicks are programmed from birth to shy away from steep drops and don’t wander around the nest the way other gull chicks do – it would be instantly fatal! Of all our gulls, kittiwakes are in the biggest trouble. They feed out to sea, on sand eels and collecting morsels from the surface of the water, so are totally dependent on what happens in the marine environment. Climate change, changes in sea temperature and food distribution and over-fishing have all contributed to their decline and, even in my lifetime, the seabird cliffs north of Aberdeen are quieter places than they were when I first went birding. I hope this is not the precursor of a silent spring for seabirds but I do fear for their future.
Finally, we’ll have a quick look at two rarer gull species that you might be lucky enough to cross paths with. Iceland and Glaucous Gulls are collectively known as ‘white-winged’ gulls, owing to the complete lack of any pigmentation in their wingtips. This gives them a strikingly pallid, ghostly appearance and really makes them stand out from the crowd in a mixed-species flock. The Iceland Gull actually breeds in Greenland, though a lot of them do spend the winter in Iceland, with a few making it as far south as the UK each winter. By contrast the Glaucous Gull is an Arctic breeder, where it is essentially a northern counterpart of ‘our’ Great Black-backed Gull – a big, bruising, scavenging pirate, albeit demurely dressed in white! The one in this picture is attempting to mug a grey seal for some bit of gods-alone-know-what, in spite of the fact the seal is dozens of times it’s size and weight. What gulls lack in popularity, they more than make up for in attitude!
So, there we are, a quick run down of the gulls you may see on your daily exercise. We may not have convinced you to like them but we hope you’ll at least appreciate them for what they are! Thanks to Peter for pics and Daryl for co-authoring this blog.