Those of you who have followed my ramblings will know that I am afflicted with a love of gulls. I can’t really explain it. In fact, I don’t even try to explain it but just accept it for what it is.
I remember some years ago travelling through Ecuador in South America. We saw over 500 species of birds from toucans to hummingbirds but only saw one species of gull…Andean Gull in the high mountain lakes under the impressive Cotopaxi volcano. Could I live in a country that offers me just one species of gull in two weeks? No, you can keep those warm climates and exotic species…give me a freezing cold winters day at an Irish fishing port surrounded by scavenging gulls any day!
In January 2016, I was even tempted to twitch to Cork for Ireland’s first Glaucous-winged Gull…a bird of the Pacific Ocean. It was too special a bird to miss. This amazing record was surpassed the following week by the Western Palearctic’s first Vega Gull in Wexford (a species you’d more expect to see in Japan than in Ireland). In fact, I saw them in Japan last Christmas where I also indulged myself in the beauty of Slaty-backed and Black-tailed Gulls (species I hope to see one day in Ireland). Having said all that, I have to confess to having a special thing for ‘white-wingers’.
I saw my first on 18th November 1979. It was a cold, grey and windy day and I was birding around Skerries. There was a throng of gulls scavenging fish offal around the trawlers and it was a blur of birds. Then, from out of nowhere, a monster appeared…a white-winged brute of a gull. Even the Great Black-backed Gulls gave way. It landed on the pier and I took in the unique beauty of my first Glaucous Gull. It was a young bird…pale coffee colour with pale, white tips. It had a certain look that only Glaucous Gulls have…it’s the sort of look that says ‘if you come too close, I’ll eat you too!’. That big pink-based bill, short-winged shape and chunky body contradicted the dark eye that should have offered an innocent expression. Glaucous Gulls never look innocent.
Indeed, some can be so big that I once mistook a sleeping Glaucous Gull for a sleeping Mute Swan. That particular bird dwarfed even the largest Great Blacked–backed. It was the kind of gull that, if you saw it walking down a street towards you, you’d cross the road to avoid it.
Over the winter of 1979/80, I saw several more Glaucous Gulls and each seemed as big and brutish as the next. Then, on St Patrick’s weekend in 1980, I travelled birding to Donegal for the first time. I was with the late Ronan Hurley as well as Kieran Grace and Micheal O’Briain. The four of us, along with scopes, cameras and bags were all packed into Ronan’s little red Fiat 127. It was a great birding adventure.
We rolled into Killybegs fishing port just as the trawlers had landed their catch and I experienced the glory of ‘real’ gulling. Thousands of gulls were fighting over scraps and among them were six enormous Glaucous Gulls. They were in full battle for food when, as if emerging from a fog of gulls, arrived a beautiful white-winged creature. It landed in front of us. It was long-winged and, despite the overall whiteness of the bird, a closer look revealed subtle fringes of coffee crescents on the mantle. The bill was quite dark and the head shape rounded. I looked into the eyes of this gull and there, staring back were gentle dark eyes…this was the Andrex puppy of large gulls. I was beholding my first Iceland Gull.
Despite their name, Iceland Gulls actually breed in Greenland and the fact that these birds travel such distances across the Atlantic Ocean adds to their magical qualities. This Killybegs bird behaved with manners. It didn’t weigh into the scramble for scraps. It was well brought up. It had some self-respect. It waited its turn and grabbed enough food to keep it happy. It then soared off on long white wings and I was left standing in awe. It was a true beauty and I fell in love with Iceland Gulls from that moment on. While Glaucous Gulls are special, the one true white-winger is Iceland Gull.
So, roll on the years. I have seen hundreds of Iceland Gulls in Ireland since that first bird in Killybegs. Yesterday was St. Patricks day and I celebrated the day by sharing the wonder of Ireland’s wintering birds with Tony, a visiting birder. We saw many wonderful birds throughout the day but the highlight for me was then we swung into the small harbour of Bray, in Wicklow. There, among the loafing gulls, was a white-winged beauty...Tony’s first Iceland Gull. We got out of the car to get a better look and, remarkably, the Iceland Gull left the flock and landed no more than 10m from us. We could not have asked for better.
It was exactly 37 years to the day since I had seen my first Iceland Gull and here I was watching this bird with all the enthusiasm and excitement as if I was seeing one for the first time. And that is the way with every Iceland Gull I see. I can’t help it. All I have to do is to look into those dark gentle eyes and I’m hooked.