Thursday, 25 November 2010

Twelve Step Programme for Gull Addiction

My name is Adam Hartley (damm, I've given away the secret identity of Gnome at last) and I am a gull addict. There, I've said it and they're right, it does feel better. I don't really know how it all started, I used to be blissfully ignorant of gulls, they were just too hard to bother with. In fact I remember when I was just starting out: I'd read something about Dix Pit here in Oxon being a good spot for Caspian gull so I went along and picked out a gull with a vaguely white head. That'll do - tick! Now with my greater knowledge I feel deep shame in telling that story but it's all part of the healing process.

As a bit of background, despite being about as far from the sea as it is possible to get, Oxfordshire is blessed with more than its fair share of gulls. It has several tips which attract lots of gulls as well as a reservoir and several pits and indeed the county boasts what were described by someone as two of the top four gull experts in the country in the form of Ian Lewington and Nic Hallam. It is a real hotspot for Caspian gulls and indeed Ian knows each bird individually (by name no doubt) and apparently there were getting on for twenty different Caspians in the county last winter. All this somehow had infiltrated my sub-conscience and at some level I was taking notice.

To start with I knew nothing but I gradually got my head around the commoner ones. However, there were these difficult gulls: yellow-legged and Caspian that seemed a closed book to me so I started reading up on them. I'd study lots of photos of them and try to pick them out. I took to standing around near gull roosts at dusk videoing them and then sending the grabs to Ian asking whether it was what I thought it was - usually it wasn't but occasionally I would get it right: just enough to keep me interested and to draw me further in. This was how it all started and it's only got worse over time. Also it seems I'm not alone in my addiction. A fellow addict, Jason "Badger" Coppock recently sent me this chilling e-mail of how he got hooked:

"Yesterday, I suddenly found myself sat at the far side of Farmoor II in near darkness scanning through the roost... it then occurred to me where and how it all started... unbeknownst to me at the time... Mediterranean is a "gateway gull". I mean everyone likes the winter white-wings don't they? And well,while you're there you start looking through the black-headed gulls for a Med... I tell myself ''I'm honing my ID skills... I'm training my eye''... then, after a while... It's not enough... You start noticing that the bigger boys have moved on to harder Gulls... They let you have a look through their scopes a few times... and before you know it... I'm lying to friends and family, sat shivering in the dark wondering if I can look for Caspians just little a bit longer and still get back to the car park before they lock the gates... I mean It's no sort of life is it!!?"

Badger even told me how a few weeks ago he was stopped by the constabulary at the Appleford Tip as they were wondering what he was up to - they'd even noticed that he'd been there the previous day as well. Badger told me about the look of such pity that came across the officer's face as he'd confessed that he was watching the gulls. He told me that he wished that he'd said that he was dogging instead, he would have felt less shame!

Gull Porn
or as Badger puts it: Bad Gulls Doing Dirty Stuff

So why do I do it? Well, let me show you some photos, then you'll understand. In fact sometimes my wife comes into my office and though I try to hide the screen she can tell from my guilty look that I'm up to no good. Imagine her shame when she catches me looking not at nice healthy porn but instead at pictures of gulls. For those of you who dare, there are some pretty good sites that I've found though be warned, this is seriously hardcore content:

Birder's Playground: Gulls
Rudy's Gull Index
Gulls in the West Midlands
Yellow-legged gull: more than just a mantle

The other sign that I'm a hopeless case is that I've not only shelled out a fair chunk of money for "Gulls of Europe, Asia and North America" ( Klaus Malling Olsen and Hans Larsson, published by Helm) but I find myself constantly looking stuff up in it.

Apart from my "research" at home on the internet I've been trying to score some hot gull action out in the field as well. Luckily at this time of year even my own patch, Port Meadow gets a reasonable gull roost so most days I've been out there at dusk peering through my scope into the gloom at the assembled throng of gulls trying to pick out something interesting. Encouragingly, this year I'm finally starting to make headway with the tricky gulls and have been confidently picking out yellow-legged gulls from the roost. There's something really striking about an adult yellow-legged gull: it's wings are such a deep shade of grey but it has an extra smartness to it that really makes you sit up and take notice. I know it's sad but when I see one it's seems to "sing"- it's the only way I can describe it. Here are some grainy videograbs that I've taken recently.

Yellow-legged gulls

Aren't they great? As I wrote on one of my daily Port Meadow updates: "How can you not like a smart yellow-legged gull? They really stand out in the roost at this time of year and look really striking compared to the scruffy winter-streaked herring gulls"

I know that yellow-legged gulls are comparatively easy (though you should read the "yellow-legged gull: more than just a mantle" before you get too complacent). What I was really after was to find my own Caspian gull. I had done this before but it's the real mark of a hardcore guller to be able to do this successfully and I was keen to prove my gulling manhood. Therefore each evening there I was shivering away but determined to stay as long as the light lasted. Ian had been reporting several birds at the Appleford Tip so I knew that they were around and that they didn't roost there but came north probably to Farmoor but perhaps they might stop at the Meadow instead, you never know.

Well a few days ago I came across a white-headed gull that had the trademark long parallel-sided washed-out pale yellow bill rather than a chunky bright yellow one that the yellow-legged gull sports. Hoping that I was on to something I took loads of video footage so that I could get all the diagnostic features. I didn't bore my Port Meadow readers with the full nerdfest of all the photos but if you're still reading this far then you must at least have a passing interest in gulls so here's the Full Monty:

Note the kind expression with small bullet-hole eyes...

...the long parallel-sided washed-out pale yellow bill...

...the long fingers of grey eating into the black of the outer primaries...

...and the diagnostic small black "lozenge" created by the long grey area on the inner web of the underside of the P10 primary. This is not mentioned so much in the literature but was taught to me by Gull Guru Ian Lewington himself as a clincher for the ID.

Some video of it preening. The Port Meadow readers got a short version at just under a minute of video I felt that this just wasn't long enough so this one runs at almost three minutes footage of a preening Caspian gull. What more could you want?

Nice Gulls vs. Evil Gulls
I made a bit of a breakthrough on the gull-understanding front when I managed to find the same bird again the next night. I'd just spotted a yellow-legged gull with it's striking mantle and I started to video it when I noticed a second white headed gull which turned out to be the returning adult Caspian. The video footage is rather brief but it does nicely illustrate the differences between the two birds including their differing facial expressions.

Comparison footage of a yellow-legged and a Caspian gull

This idea of differing facial expressions is actually key to identifying gulls. So now I have to try and get into the mind of these gulls and work out how they feel! Notice how gentle and kind the Caspian gull looks compared to the yellow-legged gull. I feel that there's a "kind, sad aloofness" to a Caspian gull whereas with a yellow-legged gull they can look quite fierce whilst still looking very smart. For herring gulls argentatus look very fierce whereas argenteus can look rather wimpy. This test is also useful for other gulls: common gulls of course look nice unlike the otherwise similar ring-billed gull.

This yellow-legged gull looks rather sullen but to me it's very much a case of "I'm just biding my time until I can I'll get you".

Here's a wider shot of the same gull with it's argentatus companion. Note how evil the latter looks. Note also the darker and bluer tones of the yellow-legged wings compared to the argentatus and how the wings just look really smart and neat by comparison.

So there you have it, the confessions of a gull addict. The truth is that I've only just started on this subject and there's a whole lot more to learn about still such as when exactly each species moults and which feathers. Then there are aberrant gulls and hybrid gulls, that's when gulls studying really gets nasty. There's still some time before the herring gulls start to lose their streaky heads and it gets much harder to pick out the interesting ones from the throng so until then I'll be out there staring into the darkness trying to decide whether some distant blob looks nice or evil. Be warned, it can become a compulsion!

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