Great Black­backed Gull

Why this seabird gi­ant is re­ally a ‘bird of prey’

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents - Words: Ian Par­sons

Men­tion the phrase ‘bird of prey’ and it is highly likely that the thoughts of many bird­ers will turn to ma­jes­tic ea­gles, soar­ing buz­zards, dash­ing fal­cons and float­ing har­ri­ers. But should they also be think­ing of gi­ant gulls?

The Great Black-backed Gull is huge; it is the largest gull in the world, weigh­ing in at just un­der two kilo­grams and with a wing­span of around 160cm (a lit­tle more than five feet) it dwarfs most Bri­tish birds. It even makes Buz­zards look small.

It is also a top preda­tor. It might not have the lethal talons or hooked beak of a rap­tor, but make no mis­take, the Great Black-backed Gull is a bird of prey in the true sense of the words. Yes they scav­enge, yes they ex­hibit klep­topar­a­sitism (forc­ing other species to give up food), but they are also skilled preda­tors, reg­u­larly hunt­ing and killing their own prey. Whether they are pluck­ing fish out of the sea, snatch­ing Puffins out of the air or swip­ing a rat off a rub­bish tip, the Great Black-backed Gull is an awe­some hunter ca­pa­ble of tak­ing a huge range of prey items.

I love watch­ing these large birds. Their con­trast­ing black-and-white plumage gives them a strik­ing ap­pear­ance as they ride the air over the waves of the sea. On the shore, their size be­comes ap­par­ent among the other, smaller, gulls. Her­ring Gulls have a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing fear­less snatch­ers of crab sand­wiches and chips, but when they are next to a Great Black-back, they show the ut­most re­spect for their much larger rel­a­tives. You won’t find a Her­ring Gull help­ing it­self to a Great Black-back’s meal, Hu­mans are a far softer tar­get!

Gull iden­ti­fi­ca­tion can be a real night­mare for many bird­ers, but adult Great Black-backs can eas­ily be told apart from other species, by not only their big­ger size, but also their colour scheme of con­trast­ing black back and wings and pure white body. They are stocky birds, with thick necks and a large, heavy and fear­some look­ing bill. There is noth­ing slen­der or del­i­cate look­ing when it comes to these birds. Lesser Black-backed Gulls, which are more closely re­lated to Her­ring Gulls, can have vari­able plumage, but the ones that we get in Bri­tain gen­er­ally have slate grey backs and wings, rather than

the black of the Great Black-backs. They also have yel­low legs, while those of the Great Black-back are pink. Im­ma­ture birds though, as with gulls in gen­eral, can pose more of a prob­lem when it comes to iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. The size of the bird and the size of the bill are im­por­tant ID fea­tures, but the best way of iden­ti­fy­ing them is to get to know them through care­ful ob­ser­va­tion. Sit­ting out watch­ing gulls with bird guide in hand, is the best way of learn­ing your gulls.

Head to the coast

Great Black-backed Gulls can be found all around our coasts dur­ing the breed­ing sea­son, although the ma­jor­ity of them are found on our west­erly shores. Dur­ing the win­ter, the res­i­dent pop­u­la­tion is joined by birds from else­where, more than dou­bling the num­bers of these mag­nif­i­cent birds – this is the time of year when they can be found in­land, par­tic­u­larly in the eastern half of the country, where they can turn up on reser­voirs, rub­bish tips and even farm­land. If you have a win­ter gull roost near you, it is likely to have Great Black-backs in it.

The birds that join us for the win­ter mainly come from Scan­di­navia and Ice­land, where the species breeds in large num­bers. They are also found breed­ing on the North Amer­i­can At­lantic coast, from the Arc­tic Cir­cle down to New York and New Jersey, where they are a com­mon sight on the large rub­bish tips. Although the birds that breed in Bri­tain are mainly con­sid­ered to be seden­tary, some do travel sur­pris­ing dis­tances; ring­ing records re­veal one bird, that was ringed as a chick, turn­ing up alive and well just six months later in the mid­dle of the Arc­tic Ocean more than 1,600 miles away!

It is their preda­tory na­ture, com­bined with a large dash of pi­rat­i­cal be­hav­iour, that draws me to watch them time af­ter time. In flight, they are sim­ply ma­jes­tic. At first they can ap­pear to be sim­ply fly­ing along with­out a care in the world, but the slow de­lib­er­ate wing beats are ac­tu­ally en­abling the bird to take in all that is hap­pen­ing around it. They are watch­ing what other birds and an­i­mals are do­ing, wait­ing for an op­por­tu­nity.

Skilled hunter

That op­por­tu­nity can be purely preda­tory, swoop­ing on to an un­guarded chick, or chas­ing and tir­ing out a fly­ing duck, un­til it suc­cumbs to the con­stant at­tack of that fear­some bill.

It can be op­por­tunis­tic, notic­ing a pod of dol­phins and recog­nis­ing that their be­hav­iour will force fish up to the sur­face where they can be eas­ily snatched. Or it can be pure piracy, forc­ing another bird to give up its food.

I have watched, with an ironic smile on my face, as a Great Black-backed Gull har­ried and chased a Her­ring Gull un­til the smaller species re­gur­gi­tated the fish that it was car­ry­ing, mir­ror­ing the Her­ring Gull’s own of­ten used tech­nique of ob­tain­ing food from oth­ers. There are records of Great Black-backed Gulls even forc­ing Pere­grines into giv­ing

up their prey. It might seem in­con­gru­ous that this mag­nif­i­cent flyer and hunter would be forced to yield to a gull, but a Pere­grine slowed down and en­cum­bered by a heavy prey item in its talons as it flies across open wa­ter is an easy tar­get for a bird as big as Great Black-back.

The most in­trigu­ing record I have found of Great Black-backed Gulls steal­ing off other birds in­volves another rap­tor, the mighty Goshawk.

In 2013, a Nor­we­gian nat­u­ral­ist watched in amaze­ment as a Great Black-backed Gull moved in slowly to­wards a Goshawk that was on the ground next to its kill. Af­ter much pos­tur­ing, a fight broke out and de­spite the Goshawk launch­ing its deadly talons at the gull, the gull held its ground and took the kill. Have no doubt, the largest gull in the world is a se­ri­ous bird of prey!

Great Black-backed Gulls are mag­nif­i­cent birds and are well worth putting the time in to watch, whether you are sit­ting on the coast on a sum­mer’s even­ing watch­ing these large ‘birds of prey’ pa­trolling the sea and shore, or watch­ing them bat­tling the wind on a win­ter’s stormy day, Great Black-backs will al­ways pro­vide you with great bird­ing ex­pe­ri­ences.

Great Black-backed Gulls are coastal breed­ers

Her­ring Gulls have a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing fear­less snatch­ers of crab sand­wiches and chips, but when they are by a Great Black-back, they show the ut­most re­spect for their much larger rel­a­tives

As with most gulls, the sexes are sim­i­lar, though males tend to be larger

Great Black-backed Gulls will eat just about any­thing they can get their bills round!

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