Summoned by gulls

By Marek Szczepanek (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Marek Szczepanek (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
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.

I, Jörg Hempel [CC-BY-SA-2.0-de (], via Wikimedia Commons
I, Jörg Hempel [CC-BY-SA-2.0-de (], via Wikimedia Commons

17 Replies to “Summoned by gulls”

  1. It sounds like a brilliant day. I now have to stop myself from saying anything when my friends use the words Sea Gull. I can see their eyes start rolling when I start my there’s no such thing as a Sea Gull talk.

    1. Findlay = you would probably have understood the moult stuff better than I did. Martin knows his gulls.

      Yes, we must clamp down hard on those who call gulls seagulls! There is no such thing as a Sea Gull!

  2. I find trying to ID gulls a complete nightmare, despite a couple of good books. This sounds perfect for me. I might just give it a go in the new year; cheers Mark.

    1. Holdingmoments – well, if gull id tips are what you need, this is the place to go for very good advice!

  3. I think Mark that if you title your blog today as “Summoned by Gulls” you should at least write it in rhyming couplets in homage to John Betjeman! I’m not sure whether JB was a birder but he called a gull a gull.

    Then before breakfast down towards the sea
    I ran alone, monarch of miles of sand,
    Its shining stretches satin-smooth and veined.
    I felt beneath bare feet the lugworm casts
    And walked where only gulls and oyster-catchers
    Had stepped before me to the water’s edge.

    1. Richard – I’m glad you spotted and liked the allusion but taking it any further was beyond my skills!

      Thank you for the quote – that’s pretty good isn’t it?

      I stood and looked at the statue of Betjeman at St Pancras yesterday evening – very nice.

      1. I always think that Betjeman is looking at the pigeons in the rafters at St Pancras, but perhaps there’s a gull up there as well!

        Martin Elliott’s masterclasses are being well advertised here in Oxfordshire on the local bird log. Considering the number of photos of distant gulls, one of which is always a rarity, that appear on the same log, he should attract a few students. As with you, Mark, I’m always amazed at the variety and number of seabirds we get so far inland, even including Kittiwakes and Gannets.

        1. Richard – he could have seen a Harris Hawk a few days ago.

          I’ve missed Gannet here in Northants and haven’t seen many Kittiwakes (in fact, I am now wondering whether I have seen one at all in Northants). But then, I don’t get out much!

  4. I am always amused that gulls have, seemingly uniquely amongst the bird families, spawned their very own distinct following, with a name for those who partake – laridophiles.

    You don’t get that with any other birds in the UK. Maybe the Latin genus names are putting people off – those who enjoy thrushes would probably baulk at being dubbed turdophiles, and as for those keen on dabbling ducks… 😉

    1. Jon – great comment.

      Reminds me that Peter Scott named his daughter after the scientific name for the beautiful Pintail, Dafila, but that was before the name changed to Anas.

      1. Thanks Mark. Before my son was born I was hoping he’d be a girl so I could either go for Pechora, or follow the great lepidopterist FW Frohawk’s example – he named his daughter Valezina in homage to the beautiful, scarce green female form of the Silver-washed Fritillary.

        Neither suggestion was finding much favour with my wife!

        1. Jon – my daughter is a Jenny (wren) and my son a Tom (tit) – neither choice though, had anything to do with birds really!

    2. Jon – great comment.

      Reminds me that Peter Scott named his daughter after the scientific name for the beautiful Pintail, Dafila, but that was before the name changed to Anas.

  5. I’ve always wondered whether the ‘scarce’ gulls are a lot more common than believed, just under- reported due to ID probs and their unreasonable habit of hanging around landfill sites. If I ruled the world, each birdwatching patch would have its resident gull expert on hand to assist. They could just hang around all day until called upon by us mere mortals.

    1. John – that sounds like a great idea to me. Somebody should fix that – why hasn’t the government done it already, I wonder?

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