Six reasons to love gulls

Gulls are not exactly everyone’s favourite birds. They’re often fairly plain and overlooked, and some of the more piratical ones have taken to violently stealing people’s chips and ice cream.

I must admit there have been days when I’ve cursed them myself, when I’ve spent fruitless hours standing in the freezing cold, scanning thousands of very similar-looking gulls, hopelessly trying to find one of the rarer species.

But there are plenty of reasons to love gulls, and here are six of them.

They readily pose for photos

This cannot be said of most birds I try to take photos of, which often end up being nothing more than an indistinct blur or a distant blob. Herring Gulls and Black-headed Gulls are particularly amenable to posing for pictures. Look at these poseurs.

Herring Gull perched on amusements sign.

This Herring Gull fancies a flutter in the arcade at Filey.

Black-headed Gull, Windermere

This handsome Black-headed Gull in its breeding plumage was happy to pose on a post on the shore of Windermere.

They’re actually quite beautiful after all

Look at these Kittiwakes – such immaculate little gulls, and they would never pinch your chips.

Kittiwakes on Inner Farne

A pair of Kittiwakes on Inner Farne.

The cry of a gull reminds me of the sea

I love being by the sea, and the call of gulls – usually Herring Gulls (yes, they’re the robbing ones, but there are some nice ones, honest) – is immediately evocative of trips to the seaside, digging on the beach and paddling in the sea. And the distinctive, repetitive call of Kittiwakes immediately takes me back to the precariously balanced colonies I’ve seen at Bempton, Filey and Seahouses.

Herring Gull in flight.

A Herring Gull flies overhead, possibly on the look-out for an opportunist snack.

They’re more varied than you might think

Yes, most gulls are some variation of white, grey and black, but the imposing Great Black-backed Gull is a very different beast to the dainty Little Gull, which remains a bogey bird for me. Then there’s the endless variety of plumages, depending on the time of year and age of the bird. Telling the difference is potentially a rewarding challenge – not one I’ve managed to succeed at myself yet.

Great Black-backed Gull, Seahouses.

Great Black-backed Gulls are huge beasts.

They have different characters

Common Gulls seem pretty shy birds that are happy to blend in and not make a fuss, whereas Herring Gulls strut around like they own everywhere and everything.

Herring Gull perched on a sign.

“None shall pass,” says Sentinel Herring Gull.

You can find them everywhere

You don’t have to be by the sea to see gulls. There are large colonies of Black-headed Gulls at inland wetlands, sometimes along with Mediterranean Gulls, and in the winter you can find massive numbers of gulls on rubbish tips or hanging about in fields.

Black-headed Gull, winter plumage.

A Black-headed Gull in its winter plumage takes a bracing dip at Fairburn Ings, Yorkshire.

 

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Close encounters of the bird kind

Puffins so close you can see every feather. Arctic Terns so close you can feel their beaks tapping your scalp and see their runny white poo dripping off the end of your cap. Witnessing a Herring Gull versus Guillemot egg battle. And as for how near you can get to a Shag… These are all birding delights I experienced on holiday in Northumberland.

It wasn’t just the birds, though. We saw armies of Atlantic Grey Seals patrolling the Farne Islands, and even some almost within touching distance when we walked on the rocks around Seahouses. And we were treated to stunning views of Bottlenose Dolphins alongside the boat. We were even able to watch them from the beach, when I saw one rise clear out of the North Sea and perform a flip – an amazing sight.

Here are some of my photos of this wonderful wildlife: birds and beasts so incredibly easy to see that no fancy camera kit is necessary.

Puffins

There are Puffins almost everywhere on the island of Inner Farne at this time of year – on the beach, on rooftops, just pottering about… They’re charming little birds, with faces full of character, and although I’ve seen plenty of them before, these were the best views I’ll ever get.

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Two puffins on a rooftop

Arctic Terns

Arctic Terns are incredible. They may look fairly dainty and rather graceful, but they have remarkable spirit and stamina, flying ludicrous pole-to-pole distances on migration. Inner Farne is their island, and they let you know that when you walk past them. It’s hard not to get close to them – they nest right next to the path – and you can see them checking you out as you pass. Are you a potential threat? Do you want to steal their eggs?

The first warning you get is an open beak and a clicking sound, then they rise up from their nests and hover above you. If they don’t like the look of you, they divebomb you and give you a peck on top of your head. That’s one good reason to wear a hat. The other is the poo bomb they might splat on you. I was one of their favourite targets when we visited.

Me with Arctic Tern poo on my cap

Other terns breed on the Farne Islands – Common Terns and Sandwich Terns, and we saw both – but they’re greatly outnumbered by the Arctics.

Shags

The smaller ‘Carry On’ cousins of Cormorants, Shags are striking, cliff-nesting birds, whose dark plumages shimmer with bottle green. On Inner Farne, there’s just a rope fence between you and their piercing green eyes.

Shag with mouth wide open

This Shag loves every shag joke it hears.

Guillemots and Razorbills

Puffins get the glory, but Guillemots and Razorbills, their relatives in the auk family, are great birds too. Guillemots nest in huge numbers on the Farnes, balancing precariously on ledges. You can smell their colonies before you reach them – the sights, sounds and smells of the islands are a proper sensory experience. While Guillemots are dark brown, Razorbills are pure black and white, with chunky bills.

Bridled Guillemot

This is a Bridled Guillemot – the name given to those Guillemots that sport a white monocle.

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More Guillemots!

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A cosy pair of Razorbills.

Herring Gull versus Guillemot

This is the moment a plucky Guillemot rescued its blue egg from the clutches of a scavenging Herring Gull. The gull had seized the egg and started pecking at it, but the Guillemot was having none of it, and snatched it back, before safely tucking it under its white belly.

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Kittiwakes and Fulmars

Kittiwakes are smart little gulls that, like Guillemots, nest in hair-raising spots in colonies on cliff faces. We were surprised to find such a colony just five minutes’ walk from our cottage on the edge of Seahouses. When we visited last August, the Kittiwakes weren’t there – but this is breeding season and they were in full voice, repeatedly, noisily calling their names in a broad gull accent. We also saw them in generous numbers on the Farne Islands.

They’re joined on the cliff at Seahouses by a handful of Fulmars – much quieter companions. From a distance, they look superficially like gulls, but they’re ‘tubenoses’, related to Albatrosses. They glide with stiff, straight, grey wings. From a vantage point above the cliff on Seahouses golf course, you can see Fulmars and Kittiwakes (below) fly right past your face.

Fulmars taking a rest.

Fulmars taking a rest.

Fulmar in flight

A Fulmar glides past the golf course.

Eiders

If you’re in Seahouses harbour, you can’t fail to see Eiders. The males are boldly patterned – black white and green – while the females are rather plain brown. Every time we walked into the village, we passed a small group of Eiders with their babies – very cute ducklings that didn’t seem to have learned how to be wary of humans just yet.

Seals and dolphins

As soon as we arrived on our holiday, we walked down to explore the rocks, and came face to face with this great big seal – a very placid fellow, and one of two lolling about, with a couple of its friends bobbing about in the water nearby.

Atlantic Grey Seal

We saw a lot more seals on our trip to the Farnes, and they got nearer and nearer to the boat as we pulled in to land.

Atlantic Grey Seals

One of the most memorable moments of our trip to the Farnes was being accompanied by Bottlenose Dolphins swimming around the boat. Magical. My photos don’t do them justice. Here’s my best effort.

Bottlenose Dolphins

My wife, Jane, did better.

Bottlenose Dolphins

This blog post gives just a taste of the wonderful wildlife we encountered on this beautiful stretch of the Northumberland coast. To be amongst the seabirds on Inner Farne is an enthralling, engrossing and unforgettable experience. It wasn’t my first visit, and I’m sure it won’t be my last.