20/02/2004
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Cork City Winter Birding – Gulls or Wagtails?

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This article follows previous BirdGuides pieces by Graham Gordon. The author grew up a birder in north-eastern England at Whitburn, Tyne and Wear. He spent almost ten years living in Cape May, New Jersey; and now resides in Cork City, Republic of Ireland, where he works as a waiter and freelance photographer.

American Herring Gull: Nimmo's Pier, Galway. Why is it an American Herring Gull and not a Herring Gull – and do you care anyway? (Photo: Paul and Andrea Kelly)

As some of you may remember from a series of articles I wrote last year, one of the chief motivations behind my decision to come to Cork City after leaving Cape May in 2001 was the search for American waders and American passerines on or around my local 'patch'. Now, come winter, we visit the third group of my current birdwatching ambitions - the gulls.

Many years ago, growing up in northeast England, scouring flocks of gulls in winter was, as the late great Peter Grant once put it, a 'gateway' to my becoming a more competent all-round birder. Studying the various plumage sequences and individual variations within different species of 'seagull' certainly helped discipline the eyes and brain into looking more closely at birds and helped to create some sort of template which could, with appropriate adjustments, be applied to other, completely unrelated groups of similar-looking species. In those days, studying large gulls with their various taxonomic and sub-specific complications was tempered with the joy of regularly occurring Glaucous Gulls and Iceland Gulls around the beaches and fishing ports of the River Tyne and the knowledge that I was part of a growing band of birders who were pushing the boundaries of identification of such things as argenteus Herring and intermedius Lesser Black-backed Gulls to new dizzying heights.

These days, I'm sorry, but I just can't be bothered! I'm not quite sure what it is that's happened to me over the preceding 15 or 20 years, but, nowadays, I take grumpy satisfaction in simply not taking the blindest bit of notice of all the current splitting or lumping shenanigans to do with Caspian and Yellow-legged Gulls and all that sort of thing. Maybe I've looked at too many Bee-eaters or spring Chestnut-sided Warblers or something…but I just can't get excited any more about anything that's identified by scrutiny of minutiae from any other closely related species. I think my desire to learn everything there is to know about the identification of British and Irish birds - from the very common to the very rare - more or less stopped the day I set foot in America. Understandable really, I hope you'd agree. Since I've come back I've not managed to pick up where I left off and I'm afraid I've rather let a lot of this new stuff go by me. I have become what I tell my friends, "a Shell Guide birder, me!" In other words I know about as much as was known about the 'state of the art' in British birding in the mid-to-late 1980s when Ferguson-Lees et al.'s beautiful little book was published. And, I'm afraid, very little after that!

To think I once travelled all the way from Newcastle to Cork City rubbish dump for something as challenging as what (it now turns out) was Europe's very first documented Thayer's Gull! And I enjoyed it…I really did!

That rubbish dump has gone now (ironically, I myself signed a petition that was one part of the reason the local council closed it down!). What used to happen was that the gulls, masses of them, used to gather on the tip, six working days a week, rummage around for a few hours' feeding, then sally down the short distance over a posh residential area and wash off all the muck in a little duckpond known locally as 'the Lough' (the loch). That day we saw the Thayer's there were also five or six Ring-billed Gulls and one of Britain and Ireland's very first smithsonianus Herring Gulls there. What a splendid, memorable collection of uncommon gulls, eh?

The two and a half winters I've been living here I've gradually seen the Lough lessen in its attraction for gulls - and though I might feel grateful for the fact that my new-found aversion to large gulls doesn't have to feel compromised by the slight guilt I feel that perhaps I ought to still be looking at them, my contempt for the Larids does not extend to anything Ring-billed Gull-sized or smaller (and I do still adore Glaucous and Iceland as exceptions to the 'let's-be-honest-big-gulls-really-are-quite-ugly' rule!).

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Ring-billed Gull: Helston, Cornwall. The benchmark in terms of size for an 'interesting gull' – many will probably share Graham's rule of thumb. (Photo: Nigel Blake)

My relationship with the Ring-billed Gull is really a rather extended one. Again, hard to imagine I know, but I once, in some strange other life before I went on to see over 30 in England and thousands upon thousands upon thousands in the USA, hitch-hiked four hundred and fifty miles from Newcastle to Devon to see my first one, in 1984. I even hitched the 250 miles back home from college in Norwich when I heard that one had turned up on the rooftops of Newcastle General Hospital alongside the famous Laughing Gull during the course of its on-off three-and-a-half-year stay.

Two afternoons ago, I nipped out and saw five Ring-billeds together at the bottom of my street while I waited for some clothes to dry in the machine in my house!

Though the odd Ring-billed does still come to scraps of bread at the Lough (and I found one right in the middle of the city centre in 2002) most attention has now turned to a small sewage outfall three quarters of a mile east of the city where, as I say, I've seen up to five already this winter, and where up to seven could be seen on occasions in early 2003. I find it quite odd to see Ring-billed Gulls feeding at a sewage outfall like this. Especially to be returning as frequently as they do and not loafing around lazily to snatch up bits of grub offered to them by humans as have the majority I've seen. Four of the birds this winter are adults: the same number as last year - so, presumably, the same birds again. There was a second-year there too (there were three of them last winter), but I'd really like to see another first-winter. I think they're the ones with the most 'character', don't you? The pattern of demographics in Ireland at the moment seems to be that there are still plenty of returning adult Ring-billed Gulls but not so many newly arriving youngsters. We can't blame it on the lack of knowledge surrounding their identification any more. Are we seeing a change in fewer following ships across the Atlantic after the big range-extension in the eastern United States that brought hundreds to Western Europe throughout the eighties and nineties?

Aside from the eye I keep on the gulls most days on my way to and from work, there's a rather smashing gathering of Pied Wagtails every night right outside the main cinema that I wanted to tell you about. It's not often we see small birds roosting at night is it? Most of our garden birds disappear into holes or thickets and dream their dreams in privacy away from our prying eyes. These Wagtails, some 500 in number, sit huddled in some very brightly lit, bare trees, in full view of the city's thriving throng of night-clubbing revellers. If you think you stand out in Britain with your khaki waterproofs and binoculars and telescopes, I tell you, you want to come to an Irish city centre and see how it feels to be stood there with your neck craned up, smiling esoterically while gaggles of Giorgio Armani-shirted males and DKNY females go frollocking by playing 'Spot the weirdo in the woolly hat!'

Now, I don't want to insult any of my Irish friends by insinuating that Ireland is in any way 'behind' English culture (indeed, I'd be hard pressed to find a single Internet café or cappucino bar in the English town I grew up, while Cork has dozens of them), but, it's just the English media have 'cottoned-on' so much to 'birdwatchers' or 'twitchers', I suppose, that there can't be that many people in England who don't know exactly what it is we're up to? How many of the people who see us acting 'weird' ever wonder what has lead you to note something just at that moment in time, a captivating spectacle there just above their heads? Not many, I bet!

Good birding.

Pied Wagtail: Gigrin, Powys. More interesting than gulls? (Photo: Steve Round)
Written by: Graham Gordon