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Every summer, UK tabloids set out to demonise the UK’s ‘seagulls’. To these papers, our gulls are aggressive vermin, out to steal our chips and ice creams. For many birdwatchers, though, they are admirable and beautiful survivors, adapting to cope in a world that seems set against them. An even smaller group of people are dubbed larophiles, from the family name of Laridae. They can think of no better pastime than spending hours looking at a seemingly identical flock of gulls, searching for the tell-tale sign that they have found a mega rarity. But you don’t have to be a true larophile to appreciate this beautiful and much-maligned family. Join me as I write in praise of gulls and explore the UK’s varied species.
There are seven species of gull breeding regularly in the UK. However, to the uninitiated, all of our largish, white seabirds might seem like one species, the ‘seagull’ of tabloid headlines and council ‘do not feed’ signs. They are usually referring to the herring gull, our most familiar and visible gull. It is one of our largest gulls. Adults have silver-grey upper parts, white heads and lower bodies and pale pink legs. In winter, adults get grey head streaks. Wing tips are black with a series of white ‘mirrors’. Juveniles are a mottled brown colour and get gradually greyer over the four years it takes to reach maturity.
I’ve written before about our increasingly urban herring gulls and the fact that they have moved into our towns because of the drop in food ability at sea. These clever birds have learnt to exploit our messiness and wastefulness. If we are coming into increased conflict with them, the fault is ours, not theirs, for depleting the seas of fish and then making it easy for them to find food in our towns. This species is actually endangered and despite it seeming as though there are more of them, they are in serious decline.
Away from urban sites, herring gulls nest in colonies in a variety of habitats. Cliffs, dunes, small islands and even coastal moorland can hold nests. After making a depression in the ground, they add seaweed and/or grass to make a large nest. They sometimes share colonies with lesser black-backed gulls. In the winter, many birds move inland to take advantage of different feeding opportunities such as tips and reservoirs.
Lesser Black-backed Gull
The lesser black-backed gull is another species accused of anti-social behaviour as it is also moving increasingly into our towns and cities. In addition, it is now more visible throughout the year, instead of just during the breeding season. Until recent times, our birds migrated to West Africa for the winter, but many now stay all year round. This species breeds exclusively in Europe, with Britain home to 40% of this population.
Often confused with the herring gull, it is slightly smaller, and adults have dark grey, slate-coloured wings and back. Their legs are a bright yellow rather than pink. Like the herring gull, winter adults have grey streaky heads. Juveniles are similar to herring gull youngsters and also take about four years to reach full adult plumage. As with many gulls, individual birds will be slightly different shades of grey when it comes to their upper parts. These subtle differences lead to the joy or nightmare, depending on how much of a larophile you are, of trying to separate some species or subspecies of gull.
Great Black-Backed Gull
The largest gull species in the world, the great black-backed gull is a big, bulky bird, as large as a brent goose. They have very dark back and wings and pale pink legs. Like their smaller relatives, juveniles have brown mottling. In adult plumage they are unmistakeable due to the nearly black uppers and large size, but they may be less familiar than some of our other gulls as they breed in much lower numbers in the UK. Our 17,000 pairs are also less urban, although they aren’t as strictly coastal as their scientific name, Larus marinus suggests.
Great black-backed gulls are less colonial than herring and lesser-black backed gulls during the breeding season, with pairs either nesting alone or in small groups. Like many large gulls, they are opportunists and will eat pretty much anything. As well as scavenging, they will actively hunt other birds including ducks, auks and shearwaters. Indeed, avoiding predation by this species is one of the main reasons our shearwaters and petrels only visit nest sites at night.
Superficially, common gulls look like a mini version of the herring gull, with their silver-grey back and wings. However, on closer inspection, you will see these much smaller birds have what is sometimes described as a softer or kinder face, with a dark iris. Legs are yellowish green and are brighter in the summer. In winter, adults have grey streaky heads and a black band towards the end of the beak. Juveniles have a scaly appearance, with quite a lot of grey on their backs.
The ’common’ title is something of a misnomer as it is one of our less widespread gulls. Breeding strongholds are in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Northern England and East Anglia. They will happily breed inland on marshes, moors and lakes, as well as on urban roofs. In the winter, many birds will move inland across the UK and can be seen feeding in fields in large groups. Until 2021, birding authorities thought that the bird called the mew gull in America, which breeds on western coasts of Canada and the north of the USA, was the same species. It has now been designated a full species in its own right and renamed the short-billed gull.
Along with herring gulls, black-headed gulls are probably the species people are most familiar with. Along with the kittiwake, this is the smallest of our regularly breeding gulls. In summer, its dark hood is actually a deep chocolate brown rather than black, and in winter it disappears almost completely, leaving a dark smudge behind each eye. The back and wings are pale grey, while legs and bill are red. Juveniles can look quite strange and not even like a member of the gull family, with fawn patches on the head and neck and scaly grey and brown wings.
I love gulls and want to change people’s minds about them, but one thing that I can’t deny is how noisy they are, and black-headed gulls are noisier than most! Whether on the breeding grounds or in winter groups, they are extremely chatty with a variety of harsh calls. I once went to the Minsmere area in the very early hours of the morning for a bird race and the noise from the colony there drowned out everything else. They form large breeding colonies on lake islands and wetlands across the UK, although they are more coastal in the north of Scotland.
About the same size as the black-headed gull, the kittiwake is a beautiful white and grey bird with a yellow bill and black legs. In North America it is called the black-legged kittiwake to distinguish it from its relative the red-legged kittiwake. Juveniles have no brown markings, unlike our other gulls. Instead, they are grey and white like their parents, but with a black bill, black collar and a distinctive dark ‘W’ marking across their wings. Despite the adult birds’ pretty appearance, they are noisy birds on the breeding cliffs, shouting a harsh version of their name, ‘kittiwake’.
There are colonies around the coast of the UK, usually on cliffs, but also on manmade structures at sea. Incredibly, in the 1960s, birds began nesting along the River Tyne in Newcastle and Gateshead, the world’s furthest inland colony. Numbers continue to grow and they now nest on various structures including the Tyne Bridge and the Baltic Art Gallery. Although not popular with everyone due to the corrosive nature of their guano, along with the noise, they are important because kittiwakes have been in steep decline elsewhere. Of our breeding gulls, this species spends the least time on shore and outside the breeding season it is exclusively found out at sea.
The Mediterranean gull is a recent addition to our list of breeding gulls. It is superficially similar to the black-headed gull but is a larger bird with a black rather than chocolate hood in the summer. In breeding plumage, adults also have a white eye ring and a black and yellow tip to their bright red bills, which are chunkier than that of the black-headed gull. In contrast to all our other gulls, adults have completely white wing tips, with no black on them. Juveniles have more black patches on their wings. Winter adults are a beautiful bird with very pale grey wings and back. The rest of the bird is nearly all white except for a smudge of black behind each eye.
It was first recorded breeding in the UK in Hampshire in 1968, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that regular breeding occurred here. Despite their name, they were originally more of a Black Sea breeder, with the Mediterranean largely a wintering area. The spread west began in the 1950s. Their breeding habits are similar to those of the black-headed gull, which it often nests with. Numbers are increasing in the UK with about 600 breeding pairs at present. Many more birds winter here.
Caspian Gull and Yellow-Legged Gull
As well as our regular breeding gulls, we also have a number of fairly reliable winter visitors. These include a couple of true larophile’s gulls, the Caspian gull and yellow-legged gull. Both were once viewed as subspecies or races of herring gull. Some authorities still disagree about whether or not Caspian gull is a full species. Both can turn up at any time of year, but most arrive in the autumn. I have to admit, separating Caspians from herring gulls is beyond my humble birding powers, but they generally have slightly darker backs and wings and a longer bill, neck and legs than herring gulls. As their name suggests, yellow-legged gulls have bright yellow legs. Their backs and wings are slightly darker than herring gulls. They breed mainly around the Mediterranean.
Iceland and Glaucous Gull
Iceland and glaucous gulls are much easier to identify. This is mainly because, despite resembling herring gulls, adults have completely white wing tips. Juveniles of both species have much paler mottling than our other gulls and are cream with pale flecks ranging from oatmeal to an almost pink colour.
Glaucous gulls are real beasts, almost the size of a great black-backed gull. Iceland gulls are smaller than herring gulls and have a softer, kinder face. Both these birds appear in the UK over the autumn and winter months, mostly on the coast but occasionally on inland waters. Active fishing harbours, such as Newlyn in Cornwall and Mallaig and Peterhead in Scotland, are hotspots. Both are Arctic breeders.
The last of our regular winter visitors is the little gull. This is the world’s smallest gull and breeds on wetlands across large parts of Eurasia. In winter, it becomes more coastal and can be seen around UK shores from July to April. The species actually bred in Aberdeenshire in 2016. Summer adults have a black hood, red legs and a black bill. In winter, the hood disappears apart from a dark cap and smudge behind the eyes. One of their most distinctive features in flight is the very dark underwing.
This North American species was a very regular visitor until about 20 years ago. Individual birds would return each winter to favoured locations in Britain and Ireland. Some spots, like Tralee in Kerry and Nimmo’s Pier in Galway, held multiple birds each year. But as these individuals died of old age, no younger birds have replaced them. No one is quite sure why this has happened, however. Odd birds do still turn up, though, so they are worth looking out for. And incredibly, a bird that has been wintering in Poland since 2005 bred with a common gull in Russia this year! Essentially, they are a larger, angrier-looking version of a common gull. The bill is also deeper and its dark band more pronounced than in summer common gull.
Gulls, Gulls, Gulls
Gulls are a divisive family of birds. Many non-birders hate them for their noise and supposed aggression. Even some birdwatchers aren’t that keen because they find identifying them too complicated and disheartening. I’m more philosophical on the ID front; if I can pin it down, great, if not I’ll enjoy watching it anyway.
Ultimately, this is a fascinating group of birds, though. We are lucky enough to have a number of species either breed here or visit, all with different approaches to life and survival. Any conflicts that have arisen from their move into towns and cities is due to our behaviour, whether overfishing, contributing to climate change or wastefulness. And all seven of our regular breeding gulls are of conservation concern. It is time to start appreciating these diverse and dynamic seabirds as well as learning to live alongside them.
In The Gull Next Door, Marianne Taylor sets out to change our negative opinion of gulls, exploring all the different aspects of their lives and behaviour that make them so remarkable. She also looks at their presence in our stories and folklore, as well as the conservation issues involved.
For the budding larophile who wants to get stuck into the intricacies of gull ID, this is the perfect guide. It contains detailed illustrations of all the gulls likely to be encountered in the Northern Hemisphere. All ages and subspecies variations are covered along with useful range maps. Maybe not one to take out in the field, though!
Like Marianne Taylor, Tim Dee wants us to change how we look at gulls. In Landfill, he argues that those species that have chosen to take advantage of our talent for creating rubbish deserve admiration, not ire.