Dear Readers, what do you think all these people are doing on a sweltering hot afternoon, with their long lenses and sun hats and general air of expectation? Well, they’re here to see a gull. Not just any gull, though: this is subspecies of the Cape Gull (also known as the Kelp Gull), and it normally lives in such far-flung places as The Gambia and South Africa. This is the first recorded sighting ever in the United Kingdom, and so it’s no wonder that people were so excited. After all, a trip to Grafham Water in Cambridgeshire is a lot cheaper than a flight to Cape Town.
The appearance of this splendid bird had been predicted for several years: it was thought that an individual might get carried away with a flock of yellow-legged gulls and carried north, especially after one was spotted at a zoo in Paris nicking the fish that was thrown to the penguins. But being a gull, it has probably been hiding in plain sight for a while: these seabirds are a niche speciality amongst birdwatchers. For the longest time the best place to see an unusual gull was at a landfill site, and as you can imagine if it’s a heap of smouldering rubbish or a lovely woodland scene, many naturalists would plump for the former. I can imagine that whoever identified it would be over the moon at spotting not just a rarity, but a unique bird, because the first of anything is always special.
Normally I feel very sad for these windblown wanderers, but there’s something about this bird that makes me think that s/he will be fine. If you have a look at the video, you’ll see the bird getting stuck into a rotting fish and generally looking at home. Maybe s/he’ll head back south later in the year.
You can see why a casual observer (i.e. me) would walk past this bird without giving it a second thought – Cape Gulls are midway between greater and lesser black-backed gulls in size. However, Cape Gulls have a white ‘trailing edge’ to their wings, dark eyes, and a really imposing bulbous-shaped bill. You wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of one of these chaps, and they seem extremely intelligent and opportunistic, as most gulls are: in Cape Town they’ve been seen picking up shellfish and then dropping them onto stones in order to break them open. Less appealingly, they seem to land on the backs of southern right whales and peck holes in them, and they are even reputed to peck the eyes out of fur seal pups. I realise that I’m not painting an altogether cheery picture, but you have to admire the adaptability. After all, humans only have to see a resource to want to plunder it, so it’s hard to be judge-y about a seabird.
As at this morning (Friday) the Cape Gull appears to have gone. But where, I wonder? There are rumours of hybrids between yellow-legged gulls and Cape gulls, so maybe s/he is hanging out with a little flock of gulls of another species, and thinking about settling down. Whatever the outcome of this particular bird, I suspect that we’ll see many more southern species in the UK as changing weather patterns move everything around. Whether this will be good, harmful or neutral remains to be seen.