Larus ridibundus – 23rd October 2010

There were several ornithological highlights to be enjoyed in the Histon fields this weekend. It looks as though autumn is here properly as the weather has turned more chilly, so for the last week or two I’ve been hoping to see some of our winter visitors arriving from the north and the east. It was an exciting day today because the first flock of the year of several hundred fieldfare (Turdus pilaris) duly appeared, flying low and fast from east to west. Alas, they didn’t stop, but it was great to see them arriving safely in numbers. I’m anxious to get some photographs of fieldfare so now I have my new 300mm zoom lens I’m hoping this winter will provide some opportunities to capture them on pixels. If I manage to get some good shots I’ll post them here as and when.

For the record, I’m an amateur wildlife photographer and I use all my own pictures to illustrate my posts. I use a Nikon D40x and a combination of lenses: Nikkor 18-55mm kit lens that came with my camera which I use for flowers, insects and landscapes, Nikkor 55-200mm zoom which I used as my default general purpose lens until a month ago when I acquired a Nikkor 70-300mm zoom lens which gives me that extra bit of reach. I don’t often sit in hides or wait for wildlife to come to me, I walk around and photograph anything I encounter which I think is interesting and photogenic. Which covers just about everything!

Back to ornithology, other good sightings this weekend have included corn bunting (Emberiza calandra) which is a real favourite of mine as they have a wonderfully distinctive call and they often sit proud  on top of hedges and let me take photographs from a distance of less than around 20 feet, and they’ll sit tight as long as I don’t make any sharp movements – even the dog running past doesn’t faze them.


Corn bunting

Other regulars this week have included yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella), reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus), long tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus), goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis), and skylark (Alauda arvensis). The latter are great to watch at the moment, on a sunny day they whizz around low and high chasing each other at incredibly high speed in groups of up to 5 or 6. Lone larks sing the characteristic skylark song up high, and plenty more can be seen on the ground feeding in ploughed fields, and disappearing into the scrub of unploughed fields where they don’t seem to stay for long before joining in another game of aerial tag. 


Skylark

However, I’m digressing from my main theme of this weekend which is ‘Larus ridibundus’, or the black headed gull. Both yesterday and today (23rd and 24th October 2010) there have been a flock of 35-50 black headed gulls on the ground in two different, but adjacent, ploughed fields. I think it’s easy to dismiss gulls as not being very interesting but a closer inspection of a flock of gulls is a real treat. They are consummate aeronauts with beautiful plumage and are highly gregarious in winter. Consequently I’ve spent a sizeable chunk of this weekend enjoying watching them and trying to photograph them:


Adult black headed gull with brown face (this one was taken last summer at Seahouses in Northumberland – not Histon)

Adult black head in winter plumage – note the dark spot behind the eye and the red beak and legs (this and the rest of the gull pictures in this post were taken in Histon)


Note the white tail and forewing and the black tips of the first five primaries

Black headed gulls are fairly small as gulls go, around 35cm long and 100-110cm wingspan. They build nests on the ground on coastal and inland reedbeds and marshes, lay one clutch of 2-3 eggs per year and live on average for around 10-15 years. It is not an endangered species with approximately 1.5million pairs in Europe. (For a full set of facts and figures check out the BTO BirdFacts website (http://www.bto.org/birdfacts/), this site is excellent for comprehensive metrics datasets on all common UK birds). Black headed gulls are rather inaccurately named as they don’t have a black head at all. It is dark brown and only covers the front part of the face and is only present in summer when it serves as a form of aggression between rival males. They stand face to face to maximise the visible area of the dark mask to each other, but within a breeding pair aggression is minimised by displays involving turning the head to show the white nape to the partner. The dark hood recedes in winter to a small dark spot just behind the eye. Adults have a deep red bill and legs and pale grey back with a white tail and white outer edge of upper and lower wings formed by 4-5 primaries with black tips.  


Juvenile diving in on an insect or worm. It has the dark tip to the tail, pale brown mottled upper wings and pale buff legs characteristic of an immature individual

Juveniles have mottled brown plumage with a dark tail tip and orangey-buff legs. They feed on worms, insects, seeds, waste and carrion, and can be seen on inland water, grassland and farmland aswell as on the coast during the winter. 

I think they’re amazing to watch so next time you see a flock of gulls have a good look and appreciate the beauty of these creatures – you wont be disappointed!

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