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Part 22 - The Herring Gull and the Lesser Whitethroat

Herring gull – Larus argentatus

A character in a book by one of my favourite authors, Michael Frayn, finds himself increasingly unsure of everything as he gets older. His opinions decay gradually, 'like rotting teeth'. This makes good sense: age should teach us, if nothing else, how little we really know. I, however, seem to have gone the other way and now hold all sorts of strong views on topics about which I am almost entirely ignorant. One of these is pub names. I am absolutely against allowing pubs to change their names without, at the very least, a local enquiry and referendum! Real pub names tell so much. The absurd 'Slug and Lettuce' on the other hand indicates only complete poverty of imagination on the part of some brewery marketing nerd.

So it is with birds – in case you were wondering whether you had slipped into a parallel universe for a moment… Many birds have names that now appear inappropriate but 'correcting' them would lose more in historical background than would be gained in mundane accuracy. 'Sea' gulls (many of which don't see a lot of the sea these days) are a case in point. 'Black-headed' gulls can be seen, close up, to have dark brown heads; 'Mediterranean' gulls now breed in southern England, including a growing colony at Rye Harbour; and most 'herring' gulls probably never encounter any herring at all, the huge shoals that once existed having long ago disappeared from our shores, and may in fact never have had any special connection with this fish at all! But the names by which we know these birds show us, taking each example above in turn, how unobservant some people evidently were (or perhaps, being more charitable, how deficient was their optical equipment!); and that birds change their range. The 'herring' gull, misnomer or otherwise, at least reminds us that short-term gain can leads to long-term deficiencies!

Some herring gulls may now nest on the chalk cliffs by the Cuilfail Tunnel. They certainly nest in Newhaven. Some now nest inland rather than on sea cliffs, perhaps because of increasing disturbance. Breeding on buildings was first recorded in the 1920s but is now quite common in many coastal towns. This is the certainly the most frequently seen gull in Kingston and the one most likely to make a foray into your garden, especially if there are some juicy morsels to be had.

Herring gulls, like other gulls, take several years to reach breeding age and are extremely long-lived. There are records of such gulls living more than 35 years. The UK population soared for 30 years after 1940 but, after renewed persecution (this bird, unlike most species, has no legal protection) then almost halved between 1969 and 1987. It may well have increased again since. Herring gulls won’t win many popularity contests – their yelping cries alone account for that – but they can’t be ignored!

Lesser Whitethroat – Sylvia curruca

You could never overlook a herring gull under any circumstances but unless you know the song (that’s a rather flattering description of its rattling notes) of the lesser whitethroat, you are unlikely ever to notice its presence. Like its far more prominent cousin, the (common) whitethroat, this is a migrant warbler. However, whereas the common whitethroat moves directly south through the Iberian peninsular to west Africa, with some continuing much further south, ringing recoveries show that this one heads off south east at the end of the summer through Italy and the Balkans to end its journey in Ethiopia or beyond.

Lesser whitethroats are rather skulking birds. They also seem not to sing for very long. Two on the Kingston Downs this year – one just beyond the wood at the top of The Street - were grating away for only a couple of weeks in late April before falling quite silent. I might have thought that this suggested either that they had moved on - having failed to find a partner - or even fallen victim to a predator, had this pattern not been the same in previous years. They just don’t seem that keen to sing! Mind you, with a voice like that, this may not be false modesty. It’s hard to describe the call but imagine a truncated yellowhammer – a little bit of bread but without the long cheeeeese at the end – and remove all musicality from the call to be left with something resembling datdatdatdatdatdatdat – and you won’t be far out. They can turn up in any area with hedges and large bushes, including gardens with enough cover so listen out nest year: it’s probably already too late this time round!

They feed mostly on the larvae of moths, butterflies and beetles but some stock up on autumn berries before starting their long autumn journey

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