Girton Birdwatch - April 2012
I realised the other day that Spring was starting to creep up on us when I noticed the new colour that had appeared without apparent warning on a common Girton bird that is easy to overlook despite its noisy presence. I'm not talking about the chaffinches, or members of the tit family, or greenfinches, or starlings - all starting to look splendid as they acquire their breeding plumage - but a bird which is always with us, but not perhaps over scrutinised: the black-headed gull. I must admit that my identification skills when it comes to some of the less common gulls that visit these shores (although 'shores' is an increasing misnomer as most gulls are now found well inland) leaves a lot to be desired. I am happy with the herring gull, the great black-backed and lesser black backed, the common gull (not that common, except in winter when it follows the plough, the 'common' referring more to its absence of distinguishing features than to any abundance anywhere or anytime) and the kittiwake (often thought of as the prettiest of Britain's common gulls but this may be due to their non-scavenging habits, a practice partly responsible for the ambivalent feelings some other gulls arouse, as to purely aesthetic criteria - although the dark eye and rounded white head do give it a certain attractive softness). The kittiwake is the gull which truly deserves the prefix 'sea', as unlike many of the others which have taken advantage of the plentiful food supplies provided by profligate humans, flocking to rubbish dumps, markets and sewage outfalls, the kittiwake spends most of the year at sea following the movement of fish and ships, seldom returning to land except to breed on the high cliffs which it favours. You might have seen them on television programmes nesting on the artificial cliffs provided by the Tyne Bridge and the huge grain warehouse once known as the Baltic Flour Mills, since transformed into the BALTIC, the largest contemporary art gallery in the UK outside London. Unfortunately for the kittiwakes their presence and nests and dung on the BALTIC were not appreciated by the authorities and they were swept away, although an alternative nest platform was provided further downstream. Similarly, the gentrification of Newcastle and the proliferation of wine bars and restaurants on a once derelict quayside meant that the rowdy kittiwakes and, perhaps more germanely, the showers of their droppings were not appreciated by the new inhabitants and visitors to the city, so the council has attempted to discourage the nesting gulls by netting the Tyne Bridge. Understandable I suppose, although Cocker and Mabey were moved to observe: 'Sadly the civic worthies neglected to appreciate that the kittiwakes are part of the cultural mix, a wildlife wonder with which no other city can compete'.
I am much less familiar, as I suspect will be many readers, with the mediterranean gull (one of which was at Milton Country Park recently), sabine's gull, glaucous gull, ross's gull, ivory gull, iceland gull, ring-billed gull, little gull, laughing gull, caspian gull and yellow-legged gull (like a herring gull but with yellow legs (!) and recently recognised as a separate species) which regularly visit the UK, many of which have occurred in Cambridgeshire. However, we all probably know the black-headed gull, another classic misnomer as its summer hood is chocolate brown, although it could be confused with the mediterranean gull which does have a black head, the colour of which extends further down its neck, while it sports a prominent, broken, white eye-ring and white wing tips, unlike the black-headed which has black wing tips. The black-headed gull is the most common of the smaller gulls and the most numerous to be found inland, probably because of the variety of its feeding methods, and of its food. It has red feet and a red bill and when in its winter plumage only tiny smudges of dark remain on its head which is what surprised me at the end of February, as seemingly over night, these tatty-headed gulls metamorphosed into chocolate-headed beauties, in a welcome reminder of approaching spring.
A red kite was spotted sailing over the church in February and I was lucky enough to watch a large flock of yellow hammers in the Culls garden in Thornton Way. There were about eight while I was there but upwards of 16 have been visiting and feeding on the linseed put down for them. You are lucky if you see one or two nowadays - canary-like at this time of year - as they have suffered drastic population falls recently, although no one seems to be entirely sure why. They frequent field and wood margins so changes in farming practices could be partly responsible, but as they are also associated with gorse bushes and heathland this can't be the whole story, despite heathland also being under threat. Cambridge resident and comedian Rory McGrath, in his book Bearded Tit (very droll) which I was prepared to dislike but found quite moving and charming, devotes a chapter to the yellowhammer. He describes its song as "'a series of fast and high repeated notes followed by two longer notes at the end, rising and falling The traditional country rendition of this is 'a little bit of bread and no cheese'. I have repeated 'a little bit of bread and no cheese' to myself a hundred times and have yet to make it sound like the tinkling song of the yellowhammer. I would love to meet, and have severe words with, the slightly deaf man who decided that the yellowhammer was singing 'a little bit of bread and no cheese'". I can't help but agree with him!
There have been redpolls reported from Histon and as I write reports are coming in of a ring-necked parakeet which has been seen around the area, particularly at Eachard Road, Pembroke College and, closest to us, Storey's Way.