No such thing as a seagull, and other punchable phrases

“There’s no such thing as a seagull.”

Sad to say, but I remember telling people this all the time when I was about 10 or 11 – having learnt from my teacher that there were herring gulls, black-headed gulls, little gulls, common gulls – but no ‘seagulls’. I thought I was pretty clever, putting people right at every opportunity. I suspect the lucky recipients of my knowledgeableness probably thought I was a precocious little brat.

So anyway, I’ve stopped telling people that now (I still get the urge, but have to bite my lip). And now I have children of my own, who I don’t want to turn into annoying bird nerds, I actually use the word ‘seagull’ quite a lot, as we watch them flying over the garden or out in the fields.

Of course, the ‘sea’ bit of their colloquial name does seem pretty redundant these days. In Beddingham, Glynde and Firle you can see gulls of several sorts in any season, and many live most (all?) of their lives quite happily inland.

Gulls in Firle, Beddingham and Glynde

There are some subtle changes to the ones we see though. In the summer, the big Herring Gulls predominate – with lots along the coast and breeding in our nearby towns, Herring Gulls are ubiquitous most of the year. But amongst them is the occasional smart black-winged version, the Lesser Black-backed gull, which has also colonised urban rooftops in recent years.

In later summer, when the first stubble fields appear, we get the first returning Common Gulls – which are actually not so common. They look a little like small Herring Gulls, with ‘cuter’ faces and noticeably pied tips to their wings when they fly. They tend to spread out across the fields, and often consort with Black-headed Gulls, the small sharp-winged gulls that we see so many of in the winter (incidentally, whoever named the black-headed gull was hardly fit to name anything: their summer head-colour – just a splodge of which remains in winter – is brown).

We also see a few Great Black-backed Gulls these days – the world’s biggest gull, which looks superficially like a Lesser Black-backed but has a Heron-sized wingspan. They can often be seen lumbering over Glynde in small groups during the winter.

And as if these five regular species weren’t enough, we see others occasionally too. A couple of springs ago a rare Glaucous Gull spent a while in Firle – and it’s always worth checking gatherings of Black-headed Gulls for the odd Mediterranean Gull (blood-red beak and all-white wings), which are particularly attractive.

Firle’s scraggy Herring Gull

When birds are common, and often seen in big gatherings, it’s easy to lose sight of them as individuals. But sometimes one stands out from the crowd and reminds you that each is unique.

Such is the case with a singular Herring Gull that resides in Firle. Most of its species spend their days out on the fields, and fly elsewhere to roost at night on water. But this one – identifiable by his scraggy rear-end (uneven tail feathers) – eschews the routine of his or her fellows.

I often come across it on its own on the cricket pitch early in the mornings, with no other gulls in sight. Twice I’ve seen it perched on a chimney stack near The Ram (it’s only when you see one doing so that you realise what an unusual sight it is in the village).

I’ve no idea where it spends the night, but I’m pretty sure it’s not huddled up with its fellow gulls at Arlington Reservoir. Yet it seems a perfectly capable flyer, and it’s obviously managing to feed itself – so why it’s decided to spend so much of its time in Firle, alone, is something of a puzzle.

Seems even seagulls can be mysterious after all.

(originally appeared in Firle, Glynde and Beddingham Parish Magazine)

***Update*** September 2012

So our tail-less Herring Gull is still here from time to time, now often with a partner. I last saw it in July, circling over assembled villagers at a wedding beside the cricket pitch. Briefly tempted to anthropomorphise this as ‘showing up for a village do’, but it was probably there for the curry. That’s more than three years it’s been hanging around Firle, on and off.

Meanwhile, a definite Med Gull did finally turn up, in the Park in March, and an unexpected Kittiwake flew though one blustery day in August.

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6 thoughts on “No such thing as a seagull, and other punchable phrases

  1. An entertaining analysis there, Charlie (I particularly like the ‘heron-sized’ description of Great BBs, which are real bruisers).
    I have to take issue with your comment about there being no ‘Seagulls’, however – there’s a few at Withdean (or are they in Falmer now?)…..just as there are Eagles in south London.

  2. Thanks Steve, though that observation is what is known in our household as a ‘dad joke’. Seagulls not quite at Falmer, though stadium looks a bit bigger every time I look from the train. Incidently someone had three adult Med Gulls on playing fields nearby at Stanmer today… still haven’t managed to bag one of those from the train yet.

    Jon, you’re absolutely right. Would we stand for ‘Brassica Blue’ or ‘Purple Sprouting Broccoli Hairstreak’? I think not. Zero tolerance to cursed ‘Cabbage White’.

  3. Pingback: The tail of The Ram Herring Gull – no end in sight « Firle birds

  4. I do that with cones. They’re not ALL pine cones. In fact most of the ones around here are fir cones. But as for seagulls… since they are gulls who live by the sea, (the ones around here live almost exclusively by the sea) I’ll keep calling them seagulls as a technically accurate descriptive nickname.

    • No, it’s not accurate. At all. I see gulls in Denver and there is definitely no “sea” around. Huge pet peeve. It’s a real bird, not a fictional character named Johnathan.

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