To be within a gull colony is to experience a true cacophony of noise. In this instance it is my presence within this colony of nesting lesser black-backed gulls, some 3,400 pairs strong, that is the reason for the noise. Perceived as a predator I am the target of screeching adults, who additionally splatter me with excrement and dive at my head. The hat and overalls that I am wearing are a necessity and both will be consigned to the boil cycle of a washing machine. Working as part of a small team, I am here to catch and ring a sample of the chicks.
It is an early season this year and many of the chicks are almost capable of flight. The few pairs on eggs or young chicks are probably replacements for earlier failures. The vegetation within the colony has also benefited from the warm spring, being much thicker than usual. This has made it more difficult to find and catch the chicks, which have been using a network of runways through the stalks of nettle, wild turnip and thistle to slip out of reach.
Each of the 150 or so chicks to be ringed is handled with care, both for the bird’s welfare and our own. The chicks will strike at face and flesh, and will invariably throw up the contents of their most recent meal in attempt to drive you away. While some throw up fish, others return marine worms, scavenged waste (including, in one case, burger and chips) and young rats. Since there are no rats on the island, these will have been taken on the mainland. All in all, ringing these birds in order to derive a measure of annual survival is an unpleasant, though necessary, task.
In addition to the metal ring fitted to the bird, each is also given a numbered plastic ring, known as a darvic, allowing the bird to be identified without the need to recapture it again. Records of individuals from this colony have been received from Portugal and even North Africa, underlining that many of our lesser black-backed gulls make significant movements. It doesn’t take long to complete our task and as we leave so the cacophony begins to die down.