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Birds of Southwold

Going to the seaside always provides good bird-spotting opportunities, and earlier this month I am pleased to report that Southwold was no exception.

Gulls tend to come first when talking about seaside birds, mainly (I suspect) due to the fact that they are both ubiquitous and noisy – if anything’s going to wake you up at six in the morning on a seaside holiday, you can bet it’s going to be the gulls.

To me, they can be confusing sometimes. In Britain, the common gull isn’t really that common, while the black-headed gull does not actually have a black head (it’s brown, but only in the summer). Throw in the problems of identifying the juveniles, which all look the same for the most part, and the birdwatcher who sees a lot of gulls can be in for an interesting time. On more than one occasion I have sat in a crowded hide and heard someone ask if a gull expert is present so that some identifications can be made.

The most abundant gulls at Southwold were the two I expected to be the most abundant – those of the black-headed and herring varieties.

The herring gull is, I suspect, what most peoples’ idea of a gull is; a big, powerful-looking beast with grey wings a red tip on its beak. Its ‘kyow’ call is truly one of the sounds of the seaside (they’re the alarm clock ones). These are the ones who will try to take your chips if you should happen to want to eat them while walking along the prom.

The black-headed gulls had, for the most part, already reverted to their winter plumages. They’re among the smallest of British gulls, and are the ones you’re most likely to find inland. They’ll eat practically anything, and as they tend to go around in groups their harsh-sounding ‘kree-aaa’ call is fairly ubiquitous, albeit not as piercing as the call of the afore-mentioned herring gull.

I did get to see one other gull on the beach when I went for a walk shortly before dusk. It was a tidy-looking thing, the size of a black-headed gull but its yellow beak and lack of any dark markings on its head told me this was something different; after consulting my field guide I concluded that it was a common gull.

Elsewhere, I saw a family of swans – partly obscured by reeds it must be said – and a solitary pied wagtail trying not to get blown away by the wind. House martins flew overheard down at the harbour, where crows and magpies could be seen fighting with the gulls over scraps.

But the best sighting of them all occurred just after we arrived in Southwold. We parked the car behind the hotel, and there in the roof of the carpark was a family of swallows – five babies waiting patiently for their parents to arrive with insects that they’d caught. My field guide tells me that a brood of swallows eats around 6,000 insects a day, and these little ones were getting fed by mum and dad every few minutes! The arrival of one of their parents was the cue for much noise as they all tried to get parental attention and the feed that went with it. They must have been almost ready to fly.

The following morning, I went down to look at them again and found just one there, looking rather forlorn it must be said. After breakfast, I went back and found that he’d been rejoined by his brothers and sisters, who’d moved a few rafters down. Later on, they’d all gone out flying.

It is hard to think that, within a month, these little birds will be flying all the way to Africa for the winter.

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