Northumberland, Bird Club

Gulls Picture by Jane Coltman
Gulls Picture by Jane Coltman

Dr Viola Ross-Smith, from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) based in Thetford, Norfolk, made the long journey to Bamburgh and was warmly welcomed to the North Northumberland Bird Club for her talk on ‘Gulls’.

She gained her doctorate at Cardiff University with a study of lesser black-backed gulls, before working at the BTO as a seabird ecologist. She is currently science communications manager at the BTO and edits the BTO News.

Making no apology for her affection for gulls, or ‘seagulls’ as they are erroneously called, Dr Ross-Smith explained that gulls, which belong to the family laridae and to the genus larus, can be traced back to the late Cretaceous Period of the dinosaurs 70 million years ago.

Emotive, exaggerated and misinformed headlines and staged photos of incorrectly identified gulls in the press have resulted in public outcry and a suggested cull in some areas. A lesser black-backed gull, wingspan 150cm, was reported as being the size of an eagle, wingspan up to 2.34m.

Research on tagged birds around St Ives showed they spent little time in town, rather following ploughs or fishing boats. None of the tagged gulls actually visited the town, though a handful of individuals had learned to exploit the easy pickings of discarded fast food.

Concluding that there may only be a few troublesome individuals in a colony, a better course of action would be to target those, rather than indiscriminately cull harmless gulls.

The population of herring gulls has decreased dramatically since the Millennium and they are now Red listed as high conservation concern. They are protected and subject to licenced control only. The closely related lesser black-backed gulls, which can live up to 15 years, are similarly protected and Amber listed. They continue to decline, even in special protection areas.

With wind farms being established around Britain’s coasts, it is important to understand how gulls respond to environmental change.

Using solar-powered GPS tracking technology the behaviour and movement of gulls around the UK and Western Europe was studied. The GPS tags are light and easily attached to the nesting birds and ensure remote communication of their movements. This information builds on that already obtained from ringing.

Three sites were chosen for study – Orford Ness in Suffolk, South Walney in Cumbria and Skokholm Island in Wales, all near large wind farms. These sites originally had thriving lesser black-backed gull populations, but were showing a decrease in numbers due to possible predation and food availability.

Results showed that different birds have different foraging strategies. One female flew to the local tip and up and down a motorway corridor, while her mate preferred a marine diet and headed out to sea. One individual caused problems by deserting Orford Ness for the warmth of Sizewell Nuclear Power Station.

The study, over four breeding seasons, showed the height that gulls fly at night differs from that of daytime. At night they fly low over the sea and beneath the spinning blades of offshore turbines. It was concluded that seabirds and offshore turbines are fairly compatible, with the birds learning to negotiate the turbines, or avoiding the area. Generally, gulls use the wind farm area less after completion than prior to the construction.

Five tagged birds from Orford Ness also produced fascinating details of their outward and return flights on migration. Some flew direct to North Africa, some meandered by the Iberian coast, while some remained in the UK. All returned to their breeding grounds more directly as the urge to breed increased.

Dr Ross-Smith concluded that gulls are amazing creatures, about which much remains to be understood, but decisions regarding their management must only be based on science, not emotion.

With a skilful blend of hilarious press clippings, amusing images and scientific data, Dr Ross-Smith shed new and fascinating light on the lives of these controversial seabirds.

Our next meeting at the Bamburgh Pavilion is on Friday, June 9, at 7.30pm, when Phil Hanmer will talk about The Shiants and a Voyage to St Kilda.