Thursday, 19 September 2013

Life and Death in Wales part 1: Herring Gull Town

It was late June/early July when I visited Aberdovey, which is just about bang in the middle of Wales's west coast, for a week, and absorbed as much wildlife as is possible on a family holiday when you don't have your own transport!  I usually watch wildlife in Hampshire these days so every trip outside the county becomes an opportunity to see different birds.  (This is my first post with sketchbook drawings in it; I think I've mentioned in a previous post that I'm not really a wildlife photographer, but I love to draw, so I document by drawing. I aim to become a natural history illustrator one day, and I have a lot to learn but I practice whenever a good subject comes along!)

Flying sketches are hard...

We stayed in a holiday cottage for the week, and no sooner had we arrived than we were greeted the peeping of two grey, speckled Herring Gull chicks! The appeared to be ranging freely in the courtyard outside the row of houses, and though the adults could often be seen perched on the chimneys keeping an eye on things, the chicks were mostly left to their own devises. In size, they were slightly smaller than an adult Herring Gull, with one chick noticeably bigger than the other. Their heads were about the same size as the adults’, but still completely downy and with spots, so unlike the smooth, white heads of the adults. Their bodies were also downy, but their backs were feathered, and when they stretched their wings you could see that their flight feathers were well on their way to being full-grown, though the chicks were clearly not able to fly yet. Their tails were very small, just a stubby little row of dark brown and white feathers poking out from the down. Their beaks were as large as the adults, though a dull grey, not yet the bright yellow with the red spot boasted by the fully grown Herring Gull. And their legs and feet were as large as the adults’, though grey rather than pale pink. 

The little Herring Gulls

The cottage was on a hill overlooking other houses, so that you could see onto their roofs, and it soon became clear that ‘our’ chicks were far from the only chicks in the area. Like many seabirds, Herring Gulls nest in colonies, and while this was no ‘seabird city’ like a Guillemot or Kittiwake colony, it was certainly a ‘seabird town’, especially as we later began to suspect the gulls were nesting practically everywhere in Aberdovey! There were adults and chicks (and droppings!) on every flat area of roof we could see, with little piles of sticks marking out the actual nest where the eggs had been, though the chicks were roaming freely all over their narrow area of roof. Gull chicks, like ducklings, are active almost immediately after hatching, so they don’t stay in the nest, and though sometimes they would be seen huddling together on it for a rest, gull nests are only a pile of sticks so they were just as likely to huddle together on the bare roof. 

On the right of this sketchbook page is one of the little rooftop families! One parent was always on guard.

In the last week of Springwatch they had some great footage of Herring Gull chicks on the rooftops of Bristol, and it was so unexpected and fascinating to be able to see it for myself! Just like in Springwatch the older chicks (including ‘our’ chicks) could be seen flapping their wings to strengthen their flight muscles, and they would bounce into the air while doing it which made it incredibly funny to watch. I also found out from Springwatch that adult male Herring Gulls are noticeably bigger than females, so we wondered if this was the reason why our chicks, and also most of the groups of chicks on the rooftops, had a size difference. We also wondered if it could be because of brood reduction, which is when the female bird starts incubating before she’s finished laying the clutch, so some of the eggs get further along in their development than others. This is common in large birds like birds of prey such as Buzzards that have small clutches, and it means the smaller chicks often don’t survive if there’s not enough food. This means that even in bad years hopefully the biggest baby will still survive. (Small birds like Blue Tits that have much bigger clutches avoid this by waiting until the whole clutch is laid before starting to incubate.) Most of the gull families had 2 chicks, with a few having 3 but none that had only one (at least, not at first, but I’ll get to that!) 

One of the families on the far side of the roof. On the left is a separate gull who we think was still incubating; she'd get up and we'd see the nest between the chimney pots. And she almost always sitting there, except when she'd get up to stretch her wings. Towards the end of the visit she left the nest, and we decided the eggs that probably hatched, and the chicks had gone down to one of the rooftops.

‘Our’ chicks were always together for the first two days of our stay, and seemed able to forage about for their own food but were still attended and fed by the adults, who were always keeping a watchful eye on them from the roof of the house. My brother christened them Titan and Wilhelmina (don’t ask me why those names, but they stuck pretty quickly!) with Titan being the bigger one. Like adult Herring Gulls they were not particularly shy of people, and I took advantage of the close-up views to sketch them and take photos. 

That's a Jackdaw in the bottom left, there were a lot of them about. I think the Jackdaw came out better than the gulls on this page actually!
Some roof chicks
Little feathers coming in!

Every time they saw the shadow of a gull fly over they would start to peep, in the hope that it was one of their parents. Gulls flew over all the time so the peeping seemed to barely ever stop! I never managed to watch Titan and Wilhelmina’s actual parents feeding them, but I did spot two chicks on one of the roofs being fed. When the parent arrived, the chicks began to bow their heads up and down while calling, and then one reached its head under the adult’s beak to peck at the red spot on it (known as the ‘pecking spot’ for this reason), and the adult regurgitated a gross lump of something onto the ground which the chicks quickly gobbled up.
The feeding process! Plus a 'corner' chick.

Then something a bit sad happened. During the night of the second day of our stay, Titan disappeared. When on the third day we noticed only Wilhelmina was there we assumed Titan had wandered off somewhere, but he still hadn’t reappeared by the end of the day. What happened to him remains a mystery. The night he disappeared had been very windy, but that evening we had seen Titan and Wilhelmina sheltering under a low bush, which should have kept them very safe if they stayed there the whole night. I found a few little feathers on the lawn, which by their markings were clearly from the back of one of the baby gulls, along with a bit of down, and this made me worried for a while. But there weren’t really enough feathers to make me sure of a predator attack, there were really no more than might be found if the chicks had a thorough preen. 

Despite this, it is possible that a fox or cat caught him (though we never saw any cats in the area), but we all hoped that he’d instead taken advantage of the strong winds to take his first flight.  The cottage was up on a hill, with a cutting leading down to the main town, which while steep was covered in plenty of vegetation to break his fall should things not quite work out, though his wings would not have been developed enough to fly back up from the ground, which would explain why we didn’t see him again.  And there would be no reason why the adults couldn’t continue to check on him elsewhere.  He was larger and more grown than Wilhelmina, and it just seemed odd for him to have been the one a predator would catch.  Those were our thoughts.
One of the adults standing guard from the roof of the row of cottages

(On the same day that Titan failed to turn up, we noticed one of the chicks on one of the nearer rooftop nests appeared dead.  It was lying flat on the roof in a very unnatural looking pose, and we feared the worst.  But the next time we looked, the ‘body’ was gone and the two chicks inhabiting that roof were both present and correct; clearly there had been nothing wrong with the chick, and it was probably sunning itself.  Sunning always looks terrible, like the bird is dead, it just doesn’t look like a natural thing a bird would do, but it is.  It had been my impression that it was mostly birds with black feathers, like Blackbirds, that sun themselves, but clearly not!)

Another roof family
Wilhelmina continued to thrive, and one particularly comic moment occurred at the very end of our stay, where we could hear her peeping away as usual, when suddenly the call gave way to a deeper screeching sound, unmistakably a teenage version of the adult Herring Gull’s call!  She continued calling in this new voice, looking a little surprised, before after a pause her voice reverted back to a high peeping.  Her ‘voice breaking’ temporarily no doubt showed that her vocal chords were growing big enough for those chick sounds to soon be left behind for good. 

Wilhelmina calling

It was a bit of a rollercoaster ride of emotions at times, but also a wonderful privilege to be able to see those chicks so close, and observe the lives of the rooftop chicks from such a unique position.  Now every time I see a ‘brown juv’ (what I call Herring or Lesser Black-Backed Gull in their first juvenile plumage, which is brown all over) I think of how not long ago those big brutes were small and fluffy, with huge beaks and feet for their size.

Adult gulls looking out into the sunset!