The Gulls of Bristol

I’ve been itching to write my next post all week and have been busy taking photos ready for it, so here goes. I’ve also got exciting peregrine-related stuff to talk about but thought that peregrines might overshadow gulls somewhat, so decided to give the gulls a fair go first!

I’ve been living and working in Bristol for two and a half years now, and while it’s a great city I have to confess that I’m definitely not a city person and start to get jittery if I don’t get a regular fix of countryside. Bristol is a good place for wildlife, as cities go – and a
great place to be if you’re into natural history – but in the part of the city where I live, you’re lucky to see a blade of grass, let alone trees or much wildlife. This gets to me at times, but on the other hand it does mean that what wildlife I do see (and it is around) I learn to appreciate even more. So I thought I’d start off my blogging by writing about the one thing I’m guaranteed to see every day – gulls.

Lesser black-backed gull
Lesser black-backed gull

I know they’re not everyone’s favourite birds – they have a reputation for stealing food, being aggressive and making a mess (just ask the suited man I overheard asking someone for a paper towel this week, as he’d just been “dive-bombed”) – but I find gulls quite impressive. Even in the middle of a city they always manage to look sleek and immaculate – which you can’t say for the city’s pigeons – and a gleaming white gull flying against a blue sky, with the sun making its wings look almost translucent, is surprisingly beautiful.

Yes, they can be aggressive, and I can testify to what powerful birds they are after having to rescue an adult herring gull that had got trapped inside a bin a few weeks ago (don’t think he’ll be attempting that again in a hurry!). But I like them!

The gull species in Bristol

There are three main species in Bristol. In the winter, it’s predominantly the small and dainty black-headed gull (Larus ridibundus). Despite its name, this species actually has a chocolate-brown rather than black head in summer, and in winter just a dark mark on the cheek. I think they look almost fairy-like in flight, and they remind me of my childhood, when the school playing field always seemed to be full of them. (I even remember trying to
“talk” to them once, and being disappointed that they didn’t respond!)

Black-headed gull in winter plumage
Black-headed gull in winter plumage (taken at Slimbridge WWT, one of my favourite birding places)

In summer, the black-headed gulls are replaced by the larger herring gulls (Larus argentatus) and lesser black-backed gulls (Larus fuscus) – as its name suggests, the latter has a darker back than the herring gull, and it also has yellow rather than pinkish legs. These two species breed on the rooftops of Bristol and I’ve often seen the newly-fledged
chicks running around on the pavements, perilously close to the traffic. The adults can often be seen having a good wash in the harbour, and their calls replace the dawn chorus where I live. (Strangely enough, when I hear the same sound at the coast I think, “Oooh, what a lovely seaside sound!”, but in Bristol it just sort of fades into the background noise!)

Herring gull
Herring gull looking for some lunch in Castle Park, Bristol.

Gull photograph session!

It’s easy to start taking these birds for granted, though, so this week I decided to take my camera out in my lunch break and try a bit of gull photography. It was nearly an epic fail, as it turned out to be the first properly rainy day in months and when I stepped outside there wasn’t a gull in sight.

Lesser black-backed gull
Lesser black-backed gull preening.
Lesser black-backed gull in flight
Lesser black-backed gull in flight.

Thankfully, the sun eventually came out and the gulls returned for their lunch-time wash in the harbour – in fact, the rain made photographing them easier as there weren’t crowds of people around. Some of the results are on this page, and there are a few more on my Flikr page – although I did have to cheat slightly with the black-headed gull as they aren’t around at the moment.

Gulls in decline

While they often seem to be everywhere you look in Bristol,  and are sometimes considered a menace, the herring gull and lesser black-backed gull are actually in decline in the UK. So perhaps we should learn to appreciate them a bit more!

You can read more about these species and see some better photos than mine at ARKive – black-headed gull, herring gull, and lesser black-backed gull.

Lesser black-backed gull
Lesser black-backed gull
Lesser black-backed gull
Lesser black-backed gull wondering why I’m staring at it.
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