Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Winter Gulls and Scarce Visitors

Adult Herring Gull by Fran O'Connell
On February 4th, local birder Arlo Jacques discovered an adult little gull at the Tramore Boating Lake. This was the eleventh different species of gull to be recorded on this small lake in 2014.
So what is the status of gulls this winter in Waterford ?

Let us first deal with the most commonly found species in winter in the county. Herring, greater black-backed, lesser black-backed, common and black-headed are all numerous and widespread during wintertime. When food resources, mainly fish, are readily available numbers of each species can be very large. Greater black-backed gulls are the largest gull occurring in our waters, followed by herring gulls and the slightly smaller lesser black-backed gull. Common gull is smaller again and black-headed gull is the smallest of this group.

Adult Winter Common Gull by Bernie Sheridan
Correctly identifying gulls can be a challenge at any time. Adult gulls have a summer and a winter plumage, but are easily sorted. However large gulls take up to four years to fully mature, and ageing gulls takes experience. Herring, greater black-backed and lesser black-backed are four year gulls. This is where matters get complex. These gulls have different plumages as juveniles, first winters, first summers, second winters, second summers, third winters, third summers, fourth winters, fourth summer/adults. Now combine this with various different races of herring gull and the results can be bewildering.

Adult Great Black-Backed Gull by Fran O'Connell

Common and black-headed-gulls take a mere two years to reach maturity.  Both have distinctive plumages as juveniles, first winters, first summers and second winters before reaching adulthood.

Adult Winter Black-Headed Gull by Fran O'Connell

Now that we have that lot sorted out we can attempt to find some of the rarer species which overwinter in Waterford. Throughout the coastal areas of Ireland there has been an unprecedented influx of ‘northern’ gulls this winter. The two species involved are glaucous gulls and Iceland gulls. Both are four year gulls but are distinguished from our regular gulls by the complete lack of black colouration on their bodies and wings. Glaucous gull is large, approaching greater black-backed in size and noticeably bigger than herring gull. Iceland is usually smaller than herring gull and looks more elongated. Both species have been observed in Waterford this winter at Ardmore, Whiting Bay, Ferrypoint, Helvick, Dungarvan, Tramore, Dunmore East and Cheekpoint. Again the individuals range from first winters through to adults.
Adult Winter Lesser Black-Backed Gull by Fran O'Conell

Amongst the Iceland gulls were a number of kumliens gulls, a distinct subspecies. These can be differentiated from Iceland gulls by varying amounts of darker colouration on the tips of their flight feathers. The first occurrences of kumliens gull in Waterford were noted at Helvick Head during January this year.   

Adult Glaucous Gull by John Power
Mediterranean gulls were once a rare visitor to Ireland. In recent years they have become established as a breeding species in this country. Mediterranean gulls are regularly seen at Whiting Bay, Ardmore, Dungarvan Harbour and Tramore.

Yellow-legged gulls are very similar to herring gulls in appearance but are now treated as a separate species. Adults are best distinguished from the herring gull by their slightly darker backs and yellow legs. Kinsalbeg and Dungarvan are good for this species although in very small numbers.

Adult Iceland Gull by John Power
Kittiwake (named for its call) is a pelagic species rarely coming to land other than to breed. The breeding colony at Dunmore East is justifiably famous for its easy accessibility to human observers. In winter kittiwakes come close inshore during winter storms. Little gulls are our smallest and daintiest gull usually encountered in Waterford during or immediately after storms. Helvick Head, Ballynagaul and Tramore are notable for this species.

Adult Winter Kumlien's Gull by Richard Zamora
Ring-billed gull is a North American species which is annual in Ireland albeit in small numbers. An adult ring-billed gull has turned up every winter for a number of years at the Tramore Boating Lake. It is often very easy to observe allowing an approach down to a couple of meters in the car park.

Kittiwake by Andrew Malcolm

In addition to the above, five other species of gull, as follows, have been recorded in Waterford. Caspian gull, as its name suggests, is an Eastern European/Central Asian species. Ivory gull is an Arctic specialist usually found scavenging on dead whales, seals and dolphins. Bonaparte’s gull is a North American species named after the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. American herring gull is the North American equivalent of our herring gull but now recognised as a separate species. Sabine’s gull is an August – October passage migrant named after Edward Sabine, a scientist aboard John Ross’s 1818 expedition to search for the North West Passage.

Adult Winter Ring-billed Gull by Bernie Sheridan
Interestingly two other species of gull have been named after personalities associated with the search for the North West passage - Ross’s gull after the aforementioned John Ross and Franklin’s gull after John Franklin. To date neither of these two species has been recorded in Waterford.

In total, excluding sub-species, 17 full species of gull have been recorded, to date, in county Waterford.

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