Gulls used to be quite dull and quite simple. When I grew up, there were basically a couple of black-backs, Herring, Common and Black-headed (and Kittiwake on distant coasts and Little Gull if you were very lucky). All of these gulls were pretty common so there wasn’t much to be gained by being a gull-expert who could tell an immature Lesser from an immature Herring. And life was too short to want to be able to tell whether that greyish brownish gull was aged two or three years old.
There were also a couple of gulls with white wings that one never saw in the West Country and hardly anywhere else. Nowadays there are all of those, and they all seem to occur in different races and half of them have a North American counterpart too, but also Mediterranean Gulls are everywhere, and Yellow-legged and Caspian Gulls also turn up regularly. Not only do these two ‘new’ gulls turn up regularly, they turn up regularly at my local patch of Stanwick Lakes!
I can live without knowing how to tell the age of every brownish immature gull that I see, but I am quite keen on being able to recognise each bird to the species level. So, when I saw that an acknowledged gull expert, Martin Elliott, was beginning to offer gull identification days at the very same Stanwick Lakes I signed up for the very first one – last Friday.
There were four of us altogether, and we were taken through the intricacies of moult and ageing in gulls, with loads of photographs and drawings.
There were times when my confidence in being able to identify even the best-seen and most easily-identified adult gull took a bit of a dent because of the complexity of races, ages and hybrids. But then I was cheered by Martin saying that knowing you didn’t know what you were doing was half of the battle – I was half way there.
We ended the day just down the road at Ditchford as there seemed to be more gulls there and saw eight species of gull. Yes, Herring, two black-backs, Black-headed and Common but also Yellow-legged, Caspian (my first definite sighting) and Iceland. That’s pretty good for Northants! I could have identified the Iceland Gull myself but not the distant Yellow-leg and Caspian.
If you are already hooked on gulls, and are a pretty good birder who is keen to know more, then these masterclasses are for you. If you are a reasonably good birder interested in learning from a gull-expert then this course is for you. If you are a bit puzzled as to why anyone might want to check the gulls at a landfll site to see if there is one that is slightly different from the others then this isn’t your thing. Martin will be holding these masterclasses at Stanwick Lakes (good visitor centre with good food) on the second and fourth Fridays and Saturdays each month through to (and including) March.
I’m glad that I attended. It won’t turn me into a mustard-keen gull-aficionado but I always like listening to experts, and Martin is very obviously an expert. Also, I was relieved to find that I really hadn’t been missing something simple all these years – gulls are quite difficult. And I did, in the space of an hour, see three rarish gulls, within a few miles of my home, and one of them (the Caspian) was a species I had never seen before. Martin can’t guarantee what you will see, but I can guarantee you’ll be in good hands whatever brownish greyish gull flies past.