Tim Dee Five Gulls
Tim Dee’s new book Landfill, confronts our waste-making species through the extraordinary and fascinating life of gulls, and the people who watch them.
Ahead of his event at our Bristol store on the 15th November, Tim Dee tells us about five different types of gull:
I’ve been a birdwatcher for fifty years. When I learnt my gulls aged eight or so – I have earnest descriptions from my time as a precocious ornithological zealot of those birds I used to see at Beddington Lane Sewage Farm in south London in the 1970s – there were three large gulls to look out for in Britain. I mastered the art of separating the adults easily enough. Herring gulls had pale grey wings and backs, lesser black-backed gulls were darker grey and great black-backed gulls were giants. Their young were harder to tell apart. Four or five years of changing plumage with moults of various browns and greys made them all rather muddy to look at and then like a series of winter skies. I mostly left them unnamed, but there were only three species and none of them were rare so that wasn’t too much of a crime. Or so I thought.
As a young tyro birder I policed the incorrect use of the word seagull. There’s no such thing, I would say. But in fact for most of their evolutionary history the gulls of the British Isles have been marine birds. Only in the last 100 years have they come ashore in substantial numbers and changed their lifestyle to the extent that they are now as much urban birds as sea birds, living amongst us and off our waste. Great early observers of the birdlife of Britain who lived away from the sea hardly knew gulls. Gilbert White in Selborne struggled to identify them. John Clare, the wonderful bird poet of Northamptonshire, didn’t know any gulls apart from one or two storm tossed wrecks that fetched up on the flooded fens near his home. Black-headed gulls were the first gulls to come up the Thames in search of shelter and sustenance. When they arrived in the harsh winters of the 1890s they were regarded by many as unwanted beggars from elsewhere, as gypsies not refugees, and so began the negative association of the bird family, which continues to this day, with scavenging aliens, greedy hooligans, the thieves of our chips.
Great black-backed gull
Gulls have followed in our slipstream in the last one hundred years. They fed on discarded fish-guts on quaysides at first. They moved inland to follow tractors and ploughs that turned soil more deeply than horse-drawn farming had and threw up all sorts of invertebrate nourishment. They capitalised on the side-effect of the Clean Air Acts of the 1950s that prevented the burning of human rubbish and created the tips, dumps, and landfills of the last sixty years where food waste accumulated from our society’s increasingly throw-away activities. At Pitsea dump on the shore of the Thames in Essex I have ringed great black-backed gulls that we netted as the birds were squabbling in a tug of war over a discarded naan bread. The largest of the British gulls and the most savage in its dietary preferences has come to share our leftovers. The onetime pelagic bird is now our neighbour as never before. Its beak is still strong however and I never managed to ring one without it leaving my hands bloodied and it parting with a bit of my flesh to add to its dinner.
Around twenty years ago I was surprised when I realised that some of my gang of birders had taken up with gull. I didn’t understand at first why a new sub-group of gullers or larophiles had emerged. In part this happened I now think because there were simply more gulls close to towns and cities where most of us live than there had been before. In part the gulls available to be seen had got more interesting. They hadn’t changed themselves but a series of taxonomic investigations in the last thirty years has led to a number of revisions to the list of gulls. There are now up to a dozen species that might be seen anywhere in Britain. Previously birds were regarded as subspecies but many have now been accorded full species status. That makes them more interesting to a birder. Other species have moved in on to the scene as well. I had to write up a carefully worded description of the first Mediterranean gull that I saw at Oxwich in the Gower to have my record accepted. Now this bird, which is like a tough-guy version of a black-headed gull, is a British breeding species and frequent across much of southern England. Like the family as a whole, the Mediterranean gull has bucked the trend of grievous decline that is afflicting most British birdlife. Most bird news is bad; gulls are, at least for now, telling a different story.
For a few years in my twenties I put away my binoculars and almost gave up birdwatching. In part this was because I was working for a bird conservation organisation and the plight of the world’s avifauna – bad news from everywhere – staunched my interest in what was still at large around and about me. But the lure of some species never dims. An adult Ross’s gull – a remarkably pink bird that should have been breeding in the arctic far north – arrived in Norfolk in May 1984, and my then boss, the bird conservationist Nigel Collar was similarly surprised by his resurgent appetite; he drove us to collect the prize at Titchwell where it sat like a melting raspberry ripple ice-cream on a muddy island. It was lost but I was back and gulls have got me ever since.
Illustrations by Greg Poole as featured in the book.
Landfill by Tim Dee is available now for £16.00
Hear Tim talk at our Bristol store on the 15th November. More information here.