Mediterranean Gull – Titchfield Haven, Hampshire

The reserve at Titchfield Haven had been closed during lockdown but members were now allowed to book a visit. Dad reserved us two places and we headed down on Monday morning. Dad socially distanced in the back of my car. There were hand sanitising facilities at the main gate and the sign on the Meon Shore hide reminded us that no more than four people were allowed in each hide. We were the 2nd and 3rd people to enter.

I set up in front of the larger window with its moveable bench. It provides a much more practical sketching position compared to the normal fixed bench seats which force me into an uncomfortable position once my telescope is clamped to the shelf.

The first thing I noticed wasn’t a visual thing, it was the cocophony of noice coming from the colony of Black-headed Gulls and Common Terns. The familiar ‘kree-ar’ call of the black-headeds filled ther air. There was constant activity, screeching, bickering, displaying and arguing and it lasts all summer. Birds were constantly comuting between the freshwater scrapes and the beach at Hill Head as feeding areas were exposed on the falling tide.

Around 50 Avocets were dashing around bristling with aggression, chasing off any threat to their young. It always seems to me that they slightly over do it, often over estimating the threat, better safe than sorry they’re probably thinking. It must be exhausting undertaking this level of parenting from dawn to dusk all summer.

When I go birding I’ve usually got a sketching subject in mind and today I had hoped that it might be a Green Sandpiper. Unfortunately the water levels were too high especially on the south scrape and there were few areas for short-legged waders to feed. 120 Black-tailed Godwit were roosting in the shallows opposite the Pumfrett hide and in amongst them was a single Knot, Greenshank and an early returning adult Dunlin. A Little Ringed Plover had been reported but he had disappeared by the time we got to the hide. 

Scanning through the gulls revealed a significant number of well-dressed Mediterranean Gulls mainly on the far causeway separate from the Black-headed Gulls on their islands. They’ve become much more familiar over the years but I still get a buzz when I pick one out from the Black-headed Gulls. My first encounter with these attractive gulls was an adult winter bird on the Hayle estuary in September 1987. A real moment of excitement on my way down through Cornwall for my first ever week on Scilly.

There were around 30 Mediteranean Gulls and most were adults with perfect black hoods with a smaller number showing some patchiness. There were a few 2nd summer birds who looked very similar but their dark tipped primaries revealed their younger age. One or two 1st summer birds accompanied them and a larger number of juveniles were looking equally smart.

Occasionally large numbers of the gulls and terns would take to the air in reaction to an aerial threat, probably a  Lesser Black-backed Gull alhough I didn’t see the intruder. The commotion died down and the birds returned to their patch of ground. A single but noisy Sandwich Tern flew across the main scrape hovering over the densly populated islands looking for a place to land. The Black-headed Gulls stood up tall to protest and the tern moved on to try its luck elsewhere.

There are around 500 breeding pairs of Black-headed Gulls on the islands, they usually fledge less than one juvenile per pair. With a similar productivity there were perhaps 20 pairs of Common Tern but only five juvenile Common Terns and a handful of very young chicks.

As we were having our sandwiches a male Emperor dragonfly patrolled in front of the hide. Azure Damselflies moved slowly between perches, a Large Conehead reeled from the dense undergrowth nearby and my first Gatekeepers of the year flitted along the hedgerows.  

Many of the Black-headed Gulls were interacting with their nearest neighbour, their exagerated and strange movements being mirrored almost in unison. They would rise up almost breast to breast before moving parallel and then lunging forward with wings slightly spread and head held low and each time they would copy each other almost like it was rehearsed. I’m not sure if this was antagonistic behaviour between rival males or an established pair greeting each other to strengthen bonds.

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