February / 2020 - Michael Ryan
There’s a poster on the wall of the RSPB visitor centre in Belfast which asks “What do a Unicorn and a Seagull have in common”? The answer given underneath is “Neither Creature Exists”. This is an attention catching way of saying that the term seagull, like falcons or owls, refers to a family of birds rather than an individual species.
On Ireland’s east coast we have a number of gull species including Black Headed Gull, Herring Gull, Greater Black Backed, Lesser Black Backed and Common Gull. Uncommon ones such as Little Gull, Ring Billed, Ivory and Iceland Gulls occasionally turn up in winter but another species of gull that would have been very rare twenty five years ago can now be seen regularly near the Forty Foot in Sandycove. Mediterranean Gulls naturally expanded their range and arrived in Ireland in the mid 90s. A small number breed in Wexford but most of over 250 Med Gulls that winter here depart in March to breed in France, Belgium, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands. During winter they can be seen off the coast in Sandycove, perched on the rocks or swimming on the sea often between the parking bay on the coast road and the Forty Foot.
Similar to the much commoner Black headed Gull they are slightly bigger with larger deep red beak but the most distinctive difference is the pure white wing tips which are held behind it when perched or swimming whereas the Black headed Gull has black wing tips. At the moment Med Gulls only have a dark smudge on their face around their eyes but in full breeding plumage they’re a strikingly handsome bird with black head and red bill and are well worth having a look for, easily seen from the coast road.
Mediterranean Gulls at Sandycove, note the white wing tips
Photo: Michael Ryan
The word seagull is often seen in the press in reference to stories about them robbing chips and other food off startled residents and visitors of coastal towns and attacking people who get too near their nests. A number of gulls have taken it a bit further and have been recorded in the UK walking through automatic doors into shops, waddling around the aisles and stealing crisps and nuts with one even attempting to haul a loaf of bread out of a shop.
The gulls carrying out the anti social activities are almost always the imposing Herring Gull but gulls are a large and varied group of different birds some quite elegant like the Mediterranean Gull which I’m fairly sure has never been known to snatch away anybody’s ice cream cone! I know a local resident who feeds a pair of Hooded Crows who come and perch on a railing outside his kitchen every morning
waiting for him to serve them breakfast. It’s nice to see somebody has a benign attitude to a species of bird that usually don’t elicit much sympathy.
They’re often complained about for scaring away smaller birds from feeders and their formidable bill can dig serious holes in a lawn. Without doubt there has been a noticeable increase in the numbers of Hooded Crows, certainly locally and certainly nationwide, and I couldn’t be surprised if they are responsible for a drop in Magpie numbers since the Hoodies’ will rob their nests.
From my garden I’m lucky to be able to witness great numbers of them in a dramatic evening spectacle throughout autumn and winter. As dusk approaches they fly in from all directions to the eucalyptus trees in the wood beside Torca Road. Much cawing and bill rattling will take place before they sporadically take to the air, well over 100 swirling about before settling down again. Some will fly west to a bare tree perching on its outer branches and forming a crown of crows silhouetted against the glow of the sinking sun before dark stills them.