Basin Notes - June 1998


Walk around Montrose Basin, or indeed any coastline in Britain, and you are guaranteed to see white bodied birds with black and grey markings. "Seagulls", I hear you say. Not strictly true. Firstly, in the summer you may see terns as well as gulls and the two families can be confused. Secondly, some gulls don't inhabit the sea so the term "seagull" is also not accurate. Gulls and terns are, however, totally different in their behaviour.

Black-headed, Common, Herring and Greater black-backed gulls are normal fare all year round for the Basin. They can be easy to tell apart - once they are adults! Immature gulls go through a variety of plumage changes in the two years it takes them to acquire their full adult livery and are more difficult to identify accurately.

Gulls generally get a bad press. They are scavengers and, like the vultures and hyenas seen so often on TV programmes about Africa, are seen as "spongers" and thieves. A friend told me of an episode while on holiday in the West Country. He was eating a Cornish pasty while sitting on the sea-front and a herring gull landed on nearby railings and proceeded to stare at him, or at least at the half-finished pasty, until he was forced to hand over the remnants to the "mugger". This behaviour is quite normal for gulls who will harass other birds to make them drop or disgorge their catch. Greater black-backed gulls will even take the birds themselves if given the chance.

Terns are graceful summer visitors to the Basin and as much a sign of summer as swallows and martins. They fly to and from southern Africa on narrow pointed wings with all the speed and agility of a fighter aircraft and are expert fishermen. Sandwich, Common, Arctic and Little terns are all to be seen around Montrose but, unless you get a good close view of the head and beak markings, identifying them can be problematic. They are not difficult to hear, however, as they make their "squeaky hinge" calls over the town.

Gulls may not be everyone's favourite bird but they should not be ignored and will reward those who take on the challenge of identification. So next time you see a flock of "seagulls", look closely and try to see which of the gulls and terns are there.