Black-headed Gulls

One of my images (the one of the Troon day boat) from the Ringed Plover post  got me thinking back to one of the most analysed utterances ever made by a professional footballer – one Eric Cantona – who said, in 1995, “When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.” Cantona’s quip came at a 1995 press conference after a court appearance following his two-footed lunge at a spectator during a Manchester United match against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. In the years that followed a glittering career on the pitch, Cantona strode into the world of acting, decorating Shekhar Kapur’s 1998 film Elizabeth in his role as French Ambassador, unforgettable.

So Cantona’s bon mot got me thinking about gulls working around human activity, and back to childhood and seeing tractors climbing the local fields around Rainford with a clamour of Black-headed Gulls behind them. I would see clouds of Lapwings rise from these fields too, but that’s another story entirely. The BHGs were looking for nematodes and ground-dwelling beetles as the plough turned the land over.   Evidently the late C. F. Tunnicliffe RA had seen similar sights – his Black Headed Gulls Following The Plough sold at Christies in 1996.

These BHGs have lost their breeding plumage, not unreasonably as this work cannot represent a summer scene. In Tunnicliffe’s woodcut on the same theme, there is a single distinctive black head to be seen amidst the throng of bigger birds.

I always see BHGs when I run along the Clyde in winter; they are lively presences and they seem to glitter in certain lights.

The Clyde was partly frozen on this day and open water was at a premium.

I remembered seeing a large group on the wing near North Berwick and went back a few years and found the image. I think there are a few plovers in the background – the image was taken just after a Merlin flew over the rim of the dunes towards some Sanderlings and I think all the birds were on high alert.

I had another group feeding near Aberlady.

I like the way that four birds seem to be queueing or following each other through a sequence in this image. It’s a crop out of something bigger so a little grainy, alas.

This is my best image of the non-breeding plumage, taken at Irvine Harbour in the winter.

I read Esther Wolfson’s Field Notes From a Hidden City some years ago. She’s quite keen on gulls, and generally speaking, I’m not. I remembered that she’d mostly written about Herring Gulls. Looking at her writing for August 11th again (it is mostly about Herring Gulls), I found that she had raised the ideas of philopatry (the tendency of an organism to stay in or habitually return to a particular area), nest site tenacity and mate fidelity. Far from being no more than urban anarchist shredders of bin bags, it seems that Herring Gulls are very socially organised.

I hadn’t really thought about BHGs in this context until our visit to Belfast WOW. The reserve has large rafts which the BHGs use early in the season. Arctic and Common Terns follow them later in the year.

The rafts were a source of constant activity and clamour and it was very hard to follow individual behaviours. However, there were many pairs much closer to the hides and some of them were going through rather stately dances with remarkable posturing.

I haven’t been able been able to find much comment about this in the literature. I found a few moves in this YouTube video but not the whole business.

The posturing behaviour was widely reproduced, suggesting strongly that there was a degree of social organisation, and I found this article which discusses philopatry, nest site tenacity and mate fidelity. BHGs test high for all three. The study did report the odd breeding threesome.

Our final visit of the Belfast trip took us to WWT Castle Espie in the sunshine and I was pleased to find some birds posing in excellent light. I love the crispness of the fanned tail, its whiteness emphasised by the blackness of the crossed wingtips. The lifted wings are so elegant and the five colours work beautifully together.

The typical lifespan of this numerous species is around 10 years, with the oldest individuals living for 30 years. Despite their breeding taking place in large colonies, their reproduction in Scotland seems to be slightly fraught. I quote from this article: “Productivity is affected by mammal predation, especially by American mink Neovison vison at west coast colonies. Comparisons of productivity at colonies where American mink were controlled against those with no control, or where control was unsuccessful, found that on average, between 1997 and 2011, American mink lowered success from 0.79 to 0.32 chicks fledged per pair – an estimated 59% reduction. However, from 2012 to 2014, success at colonies where American mink were controlled (0.06, 0.44 and 0.00 in each year, respectively) was actually lower than at colonies with no, or unsuccessful, control (0.44, 0.65 and 0.69 in each year, respectively), suggesting other factors (e.g. predation by large gulls, predation by otters Lutra lutra, or due to inclement weather) were impacting on productivity.” On the whole, anything approaching a gull colony on the ground gets a good slapping but I guess there are limits to the effectiveness of their communal defence.

I’ll be paying more attention to BHGs in future, whether they’re on the Clyde or at Stevenston.

Backwoodsman will post again on Saturday 13th May, all being well.

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