Eastward Ho!

It is 7pm (Monday 24th August) and I've just noticed a party of gulls heading east over the house. They are going to their roost somewhere in the broads, maybe Wroxham or Ranworth. The season is turning and this evening flight heralds, in a small way, the transition from summer into autumn. Although at present it seems only small numbers are involved, the daily movement will soon gather pace so that towards dusk during the shortening days ahead numbers will build. By the end of November large impressive flocks of mainly the larger species will fill the sky as they purposefully seek overnight sanctuary. I attempted to count the birds one evening a couple of years back but had to give up because I couldn't keep track of the numbers involved over quite a large front. It was also getting too cold (my dedication to science only stretches so far). However by the time I jacked it in I had recorded well over 1000 birds over my own back yard travelling in loose 'V formations. My view was restricted by the house on one side and trees on the other, so I imagine from a more strategic vantage point the numbers actually using this corridor of north Norwich as a flight path would be much more impressive. As a spectacle in its own right it makes a worthy show especially when witnessed against the backdrop of a rich red autumnal sunset. Maybe I'll try again in a few weeks time.

Gulls are a regular feature of the summer here in Sprowston nowadays, their caterwauling rendering the area reminiscent of an archetypal seaside town rather than a city suburb 20 miles inland. I like them. We have mainly lesser black-backs hereabouts with smaller numbers of herring. They breed on the roofs of industrial units along the ring road and we are able to witness their complete breeding cycle, although blessedly not from too close a distance. The birds begin to appear during April when their mating rituals, courting flights, raucous cries and looming presence on roof tops adds spice and vibrancy to the local bird scene. The adults really are handsome birds in their spruce breeding livery and still seem incongruous to me in such a built up environment. Their presence here is of course easily explained; a wealth of predator free nest sites together with an ample supply of food courtesy of any number of discarded fast food packages (thrown carelessly from passing cars), scraps they can pilfer from overfilled bins, supermarket throwaways and the odd road kill. They will take live birds as well. I was once shown an extraordinary series of images a chap had taken of birds on his neighbours rooftop. The first showed a lesser black-back and a blackbird sitting idly side by side, the second showed the gull turning his head and looking down at the blackbird as if noticing it for the first time, the third showed the blackbirds legs poking out from the gulls beak; the rest of the bird was sliding down its gullet, swallowed whole in the blinking of an eye. I don't suppose that's an isolated example and I suspect many birds meet an untimely end as a mid-morning snack for one of these brutes.
For a birder the gulls prove themselves quite useful as a means to pinpoint passing birds of prey. Not much gets by them and when they spot a potential danger they will mob it relentlessly, drawing attention to the spiralling raptor with their barking yelps. I've been able to watch many a high flying buzzard jinking to dodge the lunges of the gulls. In this way Ive been able to keep track of passage migrants and residents that I would never have suspected as floating above me without the keen attention of the gulls.

As summer progresses we witness the first flights of the brown mottled juvenile birds always accompanied by their parents who utter guttural notes of encouragement to their offspring. These family bands spend a few weeks marauding around the parish, forming mewing groups of maybe a dozen birds wheeling around in the soft warm breezes. And then like the swifts and pretty much at the same time, they move on, dispersing to child-free school playing fields or to pig farms on the city outskirts. Here in late summer the adults can loaf around and moult in peace, their parental duties dispensed with for another year.   

This colonisation of city environs is a relatively new phenomenon but now the birds can be found all over Norwich. A friend recently recounted how she has been watching a nesting pair in the very centre of the city from her workplace in one of the tower blocks around Surrey Street. Certainly they are to be encountered regularly in that area as well as around the cathedral. At the latter site however they play second fiddle to the territorial peregrines that waste no time in launching themselves with fervent gusto at any that pass too close to their nest site. I believe I am correct in saying that on occasion gulls have become prey items of the falcons illustrating that in nature no one species has it all their own way.

Strangely no mention of nesting pairs in the Norwich area was made in the 2013 Norfolk Bird & Mammal Report with only cursory mention of the odd pair in the previous three years. The 2012 edition does contain an article by Peter Allard relating to the large numbers nesting in the Gt Yarmouth area, but again no mention of Norwich or any other Norfolk town. There must be a couple of hundred pairs of lesser black-backs now breeding in the city with perhaps 30-40 herring gull pairs? It would be very interesting to undertake a city-wide census. Anyone interested in helping?

Hen Harrier Response

As a postscript to my previous post Harried Harriers, my local MP Chloe Smith did respond to me on the subject of what the government plans to do regarding the persecution of hen harriers (and birds of prey in general). I didnt expect, and didnt receive, any firm commitment, but at least she has promised to raise the issue with the Environment Secretary.

 Ms Smiths Response:

           Dear Mr Madden,

Thank you for contacting me about protection for birds of prey.

I understand the concerns you raise and agree with you that raptors including buzzards, kites and hen harriers are some of our most spectacular birds, especially in Norfolk. 

I am aware that the Scottish Government has introduced vicarious liability for certain offences against wildlife committed by a landowner's employee or agent. The Law Commission for England and Wales has considered this issue as part of a broader project on wildlife law, but its interim report raised concerns that this could unjustly extend the normal principles of liability to legitimate businesses and place unreasonable burdens on them.

Currently, therefore, there are no plans to introduce vicarious liability offences in England, but I am assured that Ministers are looking closely at how the new offences in Scotland work in practice and will consider this when shaping future wildlife crime policy. I have written to the Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP, Secretary of State for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to raise with her your views on this. 

Thank you again for taking the time to contact me.

With best wishes,

If you want to add weight to the issue it might be worth contacting your own MP ..as they say every little helps.  


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