Gulls are the most puzzling of birds….

An extract from my old birdwatching diary, “Crippling Views”

Friday, September 23rd 1988

Another lunchtime visit to the local nature reserve at Attenborough. Look for the orange arrows:

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Paul has given me a stakeout for the Yellow-legged Herring Gull that is supposed to have been down here for the past few weeks, on and off :


I also would like another look at the funny duck that was down here two days ago.  Unfortunately, the duck is not there when I stroll over to the river, and I have to abandon hope on this one, after a good scout round.

A brief inspection of the birch trees near the car park however does reveal the YLHG, which I feel fairly sure is the same bird that I saw two years previously on the Trent sluices at Colwick, four or five miles or so further up the river. The legs are a cracking bright yellow colour, but I am to a certain extent puzzled by the paleness in the grey of the bird’s back, which, according to Grant’s excellent guidebook “Gulls: a stringer’s guide” should be significantly darker than the normal Herring Gull, but I would say that this individual is definitely quite a bit paler than it should be. This is a normal Herring Gull:


I am further puzzled by the presence on one of the lakes of an obvious Lesser Black-backed Gull. That bird, of course, has yellow legs, but again, seems paler than one might expect. Is it, therefore, a Darker-than-Normal-Yellow-legged Herring Gull?  Or a Lighter-than-Normal-Lesser Black-backed Gull? Who knows? And I am actually beginning to think:

“Who really cares?”

Here is a Lesser Black-backed Gull:

lesser black zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

And if so, then what is the first bird?

I hate gulls. You’re always on your own when you see them. Or else you are with people so expert that they only ever discuss unbelievably rare birds and never ever mention common ones.

“Did you see the Red-Legged Kittiwake at Flamborough last week?”

“No, but I was lucky enough to find another Relict Gull yesterday, up near the lighthouse, second winter, third in the brood, it had a slight cough.”

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Anyway, I tick the Attenborough Two as two more Firsts for Britain, namely California Gull and Slaty-backed Gull. Who knows? They might be.

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I make my way back to the car park. On the way I see a kingfisher:


Thank God. At least you know where you are with a kingfisher. You never have to worry whether it’s a Glaucous Kingfisher or a Glaucous-winged Kingfisher.  A Brünnich’s Kingfisher or a Lesser Crested Kingfisher. It is just a kingfisher, a good bird to spot.

Gulls are the most puzzling of birds. Every single group of ten or more seems to contain at least one individual that might be of another very similar species. No wonder that American birdwatchers are reputed to arm themselves with photographic colour charts which allow a damned sight more than fifty shades of grey to be distinguished one from another.

And so many gull species hybridise on a regular basis. This is a frequent hybrid, the so-called “Nelson’s Gull”:


It has characteristics reminiscent of both Herring Gull and Glaucous Gull, its two parents:

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On the other hand, it is really quite wonderful how Mother Nature can create so many different species across the whole world using black, white and grey as the colours from the genetic paint box, with mainly red, yellow or black for the beak and legs.


Filed under Nottingham, Science, Twitching, Wildlife and Nature

7 responses to “Gulls are the most puzzling of birds….

  1. The kingfisher pic is nice. Seagulls are pretty birds, aren’t they? They’re aggressive and annoying for the most part, but when they stand still, your shots remind me of their loveliness.

  2. I remember when I took a group of children to the beach for the day. It was lunchtime and one of the boys was holding his sandwich. A seagull swooped right down and snatched the whole thing away! Of course then the boys spent the next half hour trying to lure them closer by holding their food up to the sky.

    • Seagulls are very adept at snatching food away. I have watched two of them working as a pair in Cornwall. At lunchtime, people sit on the seats on the promenade, eating their fish and chips or sandwiches or whatever. Gull A will stand in front of the person and clearly try to persuade them to feed him. Quite often, the person will tease this bird by offering the food but then snatching it away. When the person finally stretches out too far, Bird B, who has been standing on a telegraph post or a fence or whatever, out of the human’s view at the side, then launches himself hard towards the food, knocks violently into the victim and the chips all go on the floor. The human doesn’t ever see it coming. They hunt exactly as a pair of velociraptors if you remember the Professor lecturing the kid in Jurassic Park 1. It’s so impressive that it’s even featured occasionally on TV Wildlife programmes. Thanks a lot for your interest, by the way.

      • Oh wow! They worked as a pair? That’s really something. They’re smarter than I thought. The crows by our house take nuts from the trees, fly high over the road, then drop them to break them open so they can eat the inside. That always amazes me when I see it. Wishing you a great and relaxing weekend!

  3. Wow how many types of gull are there? I always thought a gull was a gull! As my friend says “everyday is a school day!”

    • “Gull” is an all-encompassing word like “dog” or “horse”. Within each general category there are lots of specific ones…”dog” contains bulldog, poodle and golden Labrador and “horse” contains lipizzaner, appaloosa and so on.
      Gulls can fly and land on the sea with no real problems. They can eat virtually anything. This means they can travel far and it is no real problem to them. So, you get five basic species of gull in England but other rarer species appear every now and again from Scandinavia, Greenland, the USA, Asia and so on. The five basic species can thus be extended by perhaps another twenty or thirty others, hence the particular difficulty in identifying gulls. I hope that helped. Thanks for your interest.

      • I vaguely remember colouring a gull’s beak at secondary school a (very) long time ago as part of identifying them (the one with an orange spot?) so had an idea at least there was more than one. This is really helpful and explains it very well. I’m not an expert yet but am learning! Thank you for taking the time to explain it, much appreciated.

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