November 10th   Leave a comment

As we move from migration season into winter, there is a shift from looking out for the rare to appreciating the common. As I cycled the circuit around Fife Ness, Kilminning and Saucehope today I spent more time than usual looking at the gulls. It is easy to overlook the gulls around Crail. There are a lot of them and they are everywhere. But next week when I am back in West Africa I won’t see a single gull. We have five species that are here commonly in the winter. The commonest is the large, pale grey backed one with pink legs (that breeds on rooftops and makes the noise in the summer) – this is the herring gull, the traditional “seagull”. Then we have common gulls and black-headed gull. Common gulls are like smaller, sweeter herring gulls. They have dark eyes and more rounded heads so look, well, nicer. The main difference between a herring gull and a common gull is you hold on to your sandwiches with the former – it looks like it might mug you – whereas the latter you feel like sharing your lunch with. Black-headed gulls are much smaller than herring gulls and have red legs and a red bill. They favour feeding along the surf in Crail picking up morsels washed out from the seaweed on the beach – although all the gulls will do this in really stormy weather or exceptionally high tides. Then we have great black-backed gulls. These are the really big ones that mostly hang out down at the harbour. They have black backs and pink legs – lesser black-backed gulls have the same but with yellow legs and in any case are absent during the winter in Crail. Great black-backed gulls are a scarier larger version of herring gulls that look like they are not only eyeing your sandwiches but your pet dog too. A lot of gull identification is actually based on head shape and proportions and these anthropomorphic markers do actually help a lot: splitting Iceland and glaucous gulls (very rare winter visitors to Crail with white backs) for instance uses the nice/slightly nasty looking expression difference that will split a common and herring gull. Finally, we have kittiwakes, a neat typical looking grey-backed gull that is usually out at sea: its main feature is its all black wing tips looking like they have been neatly dipped in ink. They also fly in a very characteristic fashion with quite jerky wingbeats on swept back wings that never seem to bend, so even when far out to sea they are identifiable. A walk around Crail will always turn up all five of these species and they are all worth looking at. And there are of course always rarer species that might be among them: I have seen yellow-legged gulls from the Mediterranean and Sabine’s gulls from the arctic just because I was looking through another flock of seagulls.

Common gull - identified by its "nice" expression

Common gull – identified by its “nice” expression

Balcomie Beach today was all winter birds. 10 sanderling and ringed plover, a few dunlin, turnstone and ringed plover, and a single grey plover. This seems to have become a resident – I have been seeing it every visit for the last couple of weeks. Grey plovers are longer legged and greyer than golden plovers so look more elegant, and when they fly they have black armpits making them instantly identifiable. They occasionally turn up at Roome Bay too.

Grey plover at Balcomie showing its distinctive black "armpits"

Grey plover at Balcomie showing its distinctive black “armpits”

Posted November 11, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

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