This summer I’ve developed quite a tan. People keep asking me about how I got it. Reminiscent of the time when one of my best friends went to Mallorca for Easter holidays and I went to Scotland, where hikes and a little skiing in the remainder of the Highland covering of snow acted as a far more effective solarium than the Balearic sun.
Now, as then, I haven’t “been anywhere nice”, I’ve just been absorbing our native British sunbeams far more efficiently than most, with a sojourn or three most days for just long enough to bronze but not to burn. Imagine me and my bike turning on an enormous spit anchored somewhere between Ferry and Coppermill lanes.
But the last few days have… well, they’ve been a bit much, haven’t they. On just two days have I been out in the middle of the day (today included) and it. is. sweltering out there. Hence I’ve mainly been sticking to fairly early mornings, no more than one excursion a day and some days have chained myself to the shady walk between my blessedly not too warm flat and the corner shop. Yesterday I went to Sainsbury’s despite a well stocked larder purely in order to treat myself to air-conditioned surroundings.
As luck would have it, this period of stifling heat coincides with an impressive uptick in ornithological interest. The warbler flocks are starting to get a bit more interesting, with willow warblers getting fairly numerous and the occasional lesser whitethroat and garden warbler (which I’m yet to spot myself) making an appearance. Today Steve found the second whinchat of the year. At some nearby locations — Wanstead Flats in particular — pied flycatchers and redstarts have begun to appear. I shall have to cycle up there one day. Once all this heat is over.
Black-tailed godwits have been seen on a number of occasions and I have now missed not one, but two turnstones despite being in about the right place at the right time. Woe is me. Yesterday my early morning walk gave up little of interest, in the sense that if a birdwatcher asked me if I’d seen anything I’d probably have answered “not much”. Though I did see a fat-bellied dead coot floating in the water and made the pleasant discovery that both the black-headed gull chicks that had strayed too close to the sun and ended up stranded away from the breeding raft are still alive.
Had I, instead, ventured out a little later I might have chanced upon the first skylark to have been seen at the reservoirs this year. They pass over in small numbers each autumn, but this one had the good manners to land and stay around for a while. While not a rarity in itself, nor even a particularly interesting bird when not filling the air with song over its breeding terriotry, it is always a disappointed to the voraciously listing birder to not get the tick.
Even more infuriating as I cycled down to Bethnal Green on a social visit, a text came through announcing that a great white egret — prince among herons, and a bird I’ve only ever seen once — had flown over the reserve, making its way north, where it’d been told it can be cooler.
So today, after these and a growing catalogue of lesser mid-afternoon birdwatching highlights I’ve missed out on lately, I thought I’d take the plunge into the fiery pit of the early August London climate.
And was rewarded.
For the second year in a row, I’ve found a juvenile Mediterranean Gull lounging around among its black-headed cousins. The irony being that the med gull is far blacker headed both in extent — a full hood rather than an open backed welding mask — and in colour — the black-headed gull is more of a dark chocolate brown, whereas the med’s is black as coal.
It’s a detail that’s immaterial for the juvenile birds though as both are variants on the typical young gull complexion of variegated greys and browns with some streaking on the head. Last summer was the first time I’d seen a juvenile and, not familiar from books with how juvenile meds are supposed to look, spent a good half an hour attmepting to notice every detail that was a bit off in the “unusual black-headed gull” I’d found.
Juvenile black heads — as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before — have a lovely sandy, birkenstock catalogue tinge to their nape, mantle (shoulders) and forewings. Mediterranean gulls replace each of the sandy feathers with a dark, pale-trimmed one, giving an art deco scalloped effect. As soon as I saw its back today I knew what I was looking at, but the younger, less-experienced birdwatcher of a year ago was far from certain.
So he would have looked for other clues. The black-headed gull is clown-like and naive looking. If you know Blackadder, think of Sir Percy in the Elizabethan series, or any character Hugh Laurie ever played in his earlier, pre “House” incarnations. The med is, by contrast, an old meanie, its forehead flatter, giving a squinty, antagonistic air quite unlike the black-headed gull’s open-faced friendliness. Its beak is also a bloodier red and heavier; a hunting knife next to a pipette.
But, though sedating and measuring the juvenile birds would probably uncover very similar physical differences between the species as lie behind the adults’ diametrically opposite countenances, the young med gull is far from mean looking. Its black bill sat on its clean white chin makes it look more like a happy-go-lucky mime artist.
Which leaves one last clue, and a surprising one at that. Adult mediterranean gulls are among our palest birds. Their wings are rounded, pale grey and white tipped and they float through the air with the softness of an oceanic barn owl. Down in the South-East of England they are reasonably common these days (having begun to colonise the country in the late sixties) and can easily be identified even at great distance by their ghostly appearance.
Black-headed gulls, though also lacking the clearly demarcated black wing tips of many of our other gulls, do nevertheless have a lot of dusky and black bits towards their wingtips (more so underneath than on top), but a bright white leading edge to the top of the wing. It’s not a beautiful pattern, but a fairly complex and distinctive one. Birds of all ages reliably share in these details — black underneath towards the wingtip, and white on top at the front — so last summer when my odd gull took flight and had a lot of black on the top of the wing this was the one, un-subjective fact I could take back home to check against the literature.
So the counterintuitive way to identify the young of our whitest winged gull is that they are blacker than the confusion species. Mind. Blown.
But I digress. Back to today, to paraphrase Noel Coward
Med gulls and birdwatchers go out in the midday sun
I walked back south and ran into Dave, who was also braving the heat, and bemoaning his own recent run of birding bad luck. The med gull would be an OK consolation prize for the elusive egrets and turnstones of this world.
A little later, I sat down in the shade of a hawthorn to watch the fisherman’s hut woodpile and take a break from the sun when Dave, via my phone, pointed out that the gull had a colour ring on its leg. If you’re not familiar with bird ringing… well, this blog is already getting long, so you can read about it here, but essentially they can let you know where a particular bird has come from. I’ve never paid too much attention before — they’re illegible at distance, and I guess I’m also a ringing phillistine — but my new camera and a little online research pinpointed the ring (red - ZAR1) to the Czech Republic. What a Bohemian adventurer this bird is, and there I was assuming it might have made its way up from some of the small colonies that breed on the south coast.
I also learned that mediterranean gulls only winter in the Mediterranean Sea, and mainly breed in the Ukraine. Every summer they manage to pull some new factiod out of their existence and make me reappraise what I thought I knew about them.
I wonder what next year’s will be.
🦅 First boring bird
Related boring birds: Willow warbler, Lesser whitethroat, Coot, Black-headed gull,
🦚 All boring birds