In defence of the humble seagull

The local press is full of shock horror stories about the modern devils of the high street: the seagull.Apparently some one in Berwick has taken to shooting them, and our local MP is warning against such vigilante action.  I have to agree with those who write about the disgusting mess the seagulls leave in our towns and cities. A brief walk around sunny Berwick a week or so ago, left that in no doubt. Would you want to sit here?Other councils are talking of handing out hefty fines (£80!!) for those who feed these high street pests.  There is no doubt that the seagull does have a sharp eye for rubbish!A recent walk around Berwick revealed another world high up above all the human busyness … a world of watchers and waiters … waiting to swoop presumably for that tasty morsel …However, we are lucky because we see another side of the gull story. And just at the moment I’m missing them.

One of the pleasures of the slower wintry days has been field-watching. These fields, looking south towards Scremerston and over the coast towards Holy Island, are very familiar to us now. Here, after heavy rain last November, you can see the old parish boundary marking the borders of the Municipal Borough of Berwick-upon-Tweed. It reappears in the form of the curved waterway running over the field between the two larger ponds.The ponds lingered – and came and went.  As did the gulls. Sometimes there’s just a solitary gull …More often there’s a host of gulls arriving …and working the field …There are visitors too on the far pond …They come and go …Now the fields have dried up and the winter crops are growing so these visitors have gone …Not entirely. A solitary gull has been known to come and eat at our table …Leaving in haste, when sighted! They are funny birds to watch close up because their descent and take-off can be so very clumsy.We don’t have to go far to see the gulls on the beach. Just how glorious can they be when sighted in feeding frenzy as on this cold winter’s day several years ago.An everyday walk down to the Tweed shows them speckled over the river …Sometimes you see a little more besides …They have a talent for striking the stylish pose – always good at finding a fine vantage point.And they can be hilariously funny too.  One summer we watched this young greedy gull pester its parent for food …The parent gave way, fed the baby bird (aren’t they the ugliest babies you have ever seen?!!) …And then tried to leg it as the youngster begged for more …We’ve also seen harsh reminders on the beach that life for the gull can be all too nasty, brutish and short …Part of our beach treasure collection at home is this seagull “crown” …We think it belonged to a seagull chick or fledgling that was unfortunate enough to meet a raptor very early in its life. The underside is soft downy feathers and fragile bone.The cats love playing with it … just check out this natural born killer … those claws!Perhaps the best time to enjoy gulls is when they plough the fields – more often in the autumn round us than the spring.Aaaah – the light on those wings as they scramble to follow the plough!If you’re of a certain age (as I most definitely am), you’ll recall Richard Bach’s book, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. In very very brief, it’s the story of one particular gull’s striving for perfection in flight.It’s about soaring, swooping gloriously above …Catching those perfect thermals …About exhilaration …About freedom …I love Jonathan Tulloch’s description of seagulls as “raggedy angels”. Writing of his stay in a Birmingham hotel in a recent edition of the Tablet, he says: “[…] all I could hear were seagulls. I opened the window and their kookaburra-like laughter filled the room. There they were, soaring over the skyline on slightly tattered wings like raggedy angels.” How very much more vivid is this evening view of Tweedmouth for the gull soaring in the sky above?  It hints at that raggedy angel’s view – worlds and aspirations and hopes of which we mere mortals can only dream. (Apologies both because I am being slapdash in using the common term Seagull for what I know are several different breeds of birds.  And secondly, because my iPhone5S is woefully inadequate to the challenge of photographing these fantastic birds.)

Searching for Sanderlings

Yesterday we walked from Beadnell to Low Newton (some 3 miles as the crow flies).  Beadnell mapThis is a beautiful walk any time of the year.  Yesterday the conditions were just perfect –  no wind, temperature about 5 degrees, tide probably at its lowest.  So we had the huge expanse of Beadnell Bay to ourselves for our walk to the pub at Low Newton. It’s one of the beaches that Northumberland justifiably is so proud of.  Huge expanses of sand and sea and sky.
Best foot forward and looking south to our destination with a glimpse of Dunstanburgh Castle beyond……..best foot forward to DunstanburghLooking back to Beadnell and its limekilns ……..Looking back to BeadnellOthers had been there before us, but we felt it was ours ……Stephen following tracksDifferent sand patterns all along the beach.  These are at the Beadnell end – is the black sand coal (coal fields run along the edge of Northumberland’s coastline) or broken mussel shells?black sand patternsFurther along small pebbles and shells make a pointy pattern – it’s as though the beach is wearing a crown …..crown of sandAnd a wavy pattern in the sands as you look along the beach to the dunes …wavy patterns in sandIn some spots there was evidence of a recent parliament of fowls…evidence of parliament of fowlsNot really a shelly beach (my favourites) but just enough Banded venus shells to keep me happy.shells and sandTime for a coffee break.  The retirement thermos comes out (these have to be counted back in carefully since we left one behind on one expedition.  A Hanrahan – as one might say – “I counted them all out and I counted them all back.”  You may have to search recent Falkland Island history to pick up the allusion!)  thermos flask of coffeeAt the end of the bay, we climbed up the dunes for the walk around Football Hole (such a great name!). Looking inland you can just see the snowy Cheviots in the distance, and a reviled wind farm interrupting the view. (There is much ill feeling in Northumberland about wind farms – barely surprising since many have been sited in iconic situations).windfarms in distanceWe clambered up a bony protrusion of Whin Sill.  (Whin Sill is the local name for the ignaeous rock dolerite that is so important a feature of the Northumbrian landscape.  The Castles of Bamburgh and Lindisfarne are built on Whin Sill protrusions, and the Romans incorporated it into some of the most dramatic parts of Hadrian’s wall).sheep watching warilyFrom the top we could now see Dunstanburgh Castle more clearly.sheep and Bamburgh CastleBut more importantly, we could also see our destination!  This is the tiny village of Low Newton.  The old fishermen’s cottages are clustered round a green straight up from the beach.arriving at Low NewtonAnd here is the Ship Inn!  It’s a very popular haunt nowadays – understandably as they have good food and the beer is very fine (they have their own brewery).  As for location – well, it’s to die for, centrally located right on the Northumbrian seashore between Dunstanburgh Castle and Beadnell Bay. Ship InnInside, there’s a fire, and food – and drink!  Perhaps best of all, we’ve timed it just right and the pub is almost empty – we can get seats right next to the fire!  That’s a rarity – it’s a very busy pub.Pub - pint and fireStephen enjoying the Ship Inn Brewery’s 4.2 % Squid Ink.  Apparently it’s “A classic stout with hints of espresso coffee, dark chocolate, figs and dates.”Stephen with pintBut the sanderlings, I hear you say – what about the sanderlings?!!!

Well – we did see sanderlings!  Oh – yes – we did see sanderlings! Sanderling sightingNow I want to explain why these little birds are so very special to us.  We knew nothing of them until we came to live in Northumberland.  When we first saw them on Spittal beach, we were enchanted with their racing and running in and out of the waves.

Derwent May, writing in the Times of January 2011 tells us more about them.  “On long sandy beaches right now you may see small, white wading birds chasing the withdrawing waves.  They pick up tiny creatures that are floating in the water, then run back very fast to avoid the next incoming breaker that threatens to crash over them.  To and fro they sprint, their legs like clockwork.  These sanderlings, little birds of the sand, have a special adaptation for their way of life: they have no hind toe that drags in the sand, so that they can run more quickly.” They are the only bird that has this adaptation.

(Disappointingly, WordPress won’t let me upload my little video which demonstrates this quirky seashore action without ungrading to Premium for £70 – so I’ll just add in some pics from previous Beadnell visits.)sanderlings on beadnell beach 2Derwent continues: “They nest in Siberia, very near the North Pole, and some fly as far as South Africa in the autumn.  But a few get no farther than Britain and Ireland, spending the winter here.  They like the sandy beaches … in northeast England …”

Sensible little birds – so do we!  We often see them over winter on our local Spittal beaches, but this year I haven’t seen any yet.   You have to catch them at the right time on the tide – food is most plentiful when the tide is very low.

(Here they are at the mouth of the Tweed with the Berwick lifeboat station in the background, photographed in January 2013).Sanderlings at the mouth of the Tweed Mark Cocker describes them more succinctly in his magisterial Birds Britannica: “Sanderlings are the Keystone cops of the British seaside…The manner in which they first scurry away from an incoming surge, then instantly reverse to follow it back out, also has something of the quality of those speeded-up cop chases popular in the silent-movie era…Yet the comic note belies their heroic migration…There is evidence to suggest …a round trip of 17,700 miles.”

Wow! little sanderlings – that is truly amazing!sanderlings on beadnell beach 1As we retraced our steps back to the Beadnell car park, we saw many more fascinating birds – turnstones, dunlins, curlews, gulls, oystercatchers – even a rare and beautiful great white heron having a fine time, feasting on local delicacies in the Brunton Burn.

But nothing made our day quite as much as the Keystone Cops of the British seaside: the sanderlings!

However, we did come home with treasure…treasures from the beach