Gulling Around

Gulls are tricky buggers. Their plumage goes through several different stages as they age, which to the inexperienced eye, mine for example, can make them seem like four different species. They’re basically white, narrow-winged and ubiquitous. Something which allows normal people – that is to say, non-birders – to side-step the identification process altogether, and simply class them all as seagulls. Job done.

It’s not just the non-birders who duck the id question. There are many experienced bird-lovers who can tell the difference between a Meadow Pipit and a Rock Pipit at 50 paces who will tell you they simply “don’t do gulls.” They understand that Yellow Legged Gulls or Second winter Caspians are out there somewhere but identifying them is a bridge too far. Mind you, as soon as classification starts to get difficult you can be sure there are others whose eyes light up. Larophiles revel in the sort of distinctions among gulls that to the rest of us are largely invisible.

There’s a picture of a gull on the waste bins on Yarmouth sea front. It’s hard to be sure about the species. The Lone Ranger mask and stripy vest don’t help. Watch out, it says, in bold letters. There’s a thief about. The Yarmouth gulls find an easy living among the discarded take-away wrappers. They are opportunists. They will sidle up to a bench where people are eating their lunch brazenly weighing up their chances. This looks like straightforward larceny rather than intelligence. Being looked in the eye by a Herring Gull is very different from being looked in the eye by a Crow. Gulls will steal your last chip but they don’t give the impression – the way corvids do – that what they’re really after is your keys and pin number.

A flock of gulls is an untidy thing. Each bird moves independently in its own scrap of sky. Not like the neat chevrons of Cormorants heading inland to roost from Scroby Sands. Or the high skeins of geese over the Halvergate marshes, where every bird has its wingman, conserving energy, riding the slipstream of its neighbour. Gulls seem to tumble through the air in the same general direction. Perhaps because they have an agility the Cormorants and geese can’t match, they don’t need to steady themselves with geometry.

I’m surrounded by gulls. They are in the air and on the rooftops every time I look out of my window. On the river, on the warehouses by the Outer Harbour, weaving among the cranes on the docks. For three months of the year I sleep in the middle of a colony as the Lessser Black-backs and Herring gulls nest among the chimneys of the terrace where I live. I’d love to say you get used to the noise, but you don’t. By the end of July the first clumsy fledgling will have stumbled down among the houses and found itself trapped in my narrow yard from where it has to be guided out through the back gate and into the lane while the adults do their best to strafe me into submission. So I have skin in the game.

Mediterranean Gull trying to look inconspicuous

I’ve even learned to identify – given good views and long enough – a Mediterranean Gull. So I was feeling smug when I photographed one in a line up of Black Headed Gulls on the Gorleston promenade. I was smugger still when I realised by enlarging the photo I could read the ring on its leg. Here was my chance to contribute to science and at the same time put some detail on the random movements of the ocean wanderers I saw every day. I turned to the internet and started researching. During the course of the next few days I discovered a good deal about the ringing process, the coloured rings and codes. I spoke to ringing groups up and down the country – who all seemed pleased to hear from me but invariably came back with no, not one of ours, why don’t you try Nick (or Dave or Will) it’s probably one of his. It took almost a month, but I eventually found the right person and discovered where the bird (I had by now begun to think of it as my, own personal Mediterraean Gull) had been ringed. Great Yarmouth. About 200 yards from where I photographed it perched on a handrail. It may have been recuperating after its arduous journey.


Sparrows are the loose change of the birding world. Unremarked and undervalued they gather in the neglected pockets of our townscape where their busy lives attract little notice. Yet this spring they have given me more pleasure than almost any other bird.

The yard outside my kitchen window is part of the well between two rows of terraced houses. Beyond the fence is a confusion of alleyways, lean-tos and flat roofed sheds. From upstairs you can see the Ivy that has swallowed the asbestos roof of a neighbouring  outbuilding; Elder has found purchase in a crack in the concrete by some bins next door and produced a stunted tree that in May and June puts out a creamy froth of flowers. A Hop has scrambled from an abandoned garden further down and run riot over the expanse of a corrugated bin store. Gulls stare down into this urban valley from the rooftops. From first light the joyous chirruping of Sparrows fills the space. 

House Sparrows are red-listed birds. According to the BTO their numbers have declined by over 70% since the 1970s.  Much of this can be put down to loss of habitat. Today – like typhoid, unemployment, and drug-dealing – they tend to thrive in areas of social deprivation. They love unkempt gardens that are strangers to pesticides. Undulating clay pan-tiles that offer access to roof spaces. Cracked concrete where rainwater gathers and weeds and invertebrates thrive. Unmodernised run-down buildings are prime sparrow real-estate. Redevelopment is all too often their nemesis. Building regulations usher in plastic mesh to keep them out of the eaves. Roofs are dressed with modern interlocking tiles, which offer no access. Weed filled gardens become sterile patios. The inevitable result is that gentrification deprives them of their traditional nesting sites just as surely as neglect offered them a home.

Sparrows are never still. More than any other bird they seem to bustle. The females are slim and agile. The males, despite their diminutive size, have an almost matronly heft. They shoulder their way in and out of the guttering with all the purpose of Hattie Jaques arriving on the ward. They are the comic turns of lockdown, wheeled on to keep the audience happy before the main event.

My own sparrows share the yard with a pair of Dunnock, who were sparrows once – Hedge Sparrows – but after a name change are sparrows no longer. Dunnock are promiscuous birds. They lower the tone like a couple of swingers at a family barbecue. What passes for Dunnock foreplay involves the male pecking at the female’s cloacal opening trying to encourage her to eject any sperm left by a previous amorous male. When he’s satisfied at last his leap onto her is so ungainly that it sometimes leaves him flat on his back. A moment of pure carry-on comedy to follow the sordid preparation.

Inevitably the birding world tends to favour the rare and the exotic, the vagrants from distant lands, the megas. Sparrows don’t really cut it in this company. But the Sparrows don’t give a toss. They’ve got things to do. Nests to build, young to rear, seeds to find. They are the cheery, round-shouldered ambassadors of Here. Sparrows are a reminder that you don’t have to dash up to Fair Isle to see a doomed Desert Wheatear to feel your world enlarged.  Instead you could just pull up a chair near the open back door, pour yourself a glass of wine, and soak up their joyful celebration of the everyday.