Monday, 2 December 2013

Obscure bird of the week: Relict Gull

Some birds have it tough...until 1971, relict gull (Ichthyaetus relictus) had it rougher than almost any other taxa of gull. 'Why?' I hear you ask...well our boy Mr. Relict Gull was considered as just an eastern race of Mediterranean gull Larus melanocephalus.
Now, I know what you're thinking. Surely it is a compliment to be associated with one of the prettiest gulls in the world, but whilst Jonny Med Gull is sunbathing on the white beaches of the eastern Mediterranean during the summer and then spending the entire winter being drooled over by Olsen page-flicking Gullers on every other patch of water in north west Europe, Mr. Relict Gull is stuck on sparsely distributed wetlands on the arid landscapes of Mongolian steppe during the summer and is battling with land reclamation on a couple of their only winter refuges: the Bohai Bay in eastern China and marshes of South Korea which causes this enchanting species to be on the vulnerable list.
It's not over yet! Even the name is harsh. You hear 'relict' and you think of old, battered and primitive, but this could of course add 'value' to the bird as it's not been seen for generations. The name however refers to how it is 'the forgotten gull', which is horrible! A vagrant bird needs to come to Britain and it certainly will not be forgotten! Mr. Garner came closest with his crazy putative Med gull x common gull hybrid this year.

1st winter relict gull (Photo: Urban Wildland US)

They come across as an inquisitive looking species, that are a surprisingly varied in appearance throughout their life. Juvenile and first winter birds are like a cross between a Mediterranean gull and a tiny Caspian gull or something similar with that dark eye and black bill. The bill structure is peculiarly stubby and makes the bird really stand out from those other Pinocchio impersonators of the Lardiae family

2nd winter relict gull (Photo: Mike Parker)

As will common gulls and Mediterranean gulls, 2nd winter plumage is the norm. They look suprisingly similar to common gulls at this age, particularly the two toned bill and lightly streaked head. Those dark centres to the tertials with broad white edges, to a guller like myself are just beautiful! It's quite a shame that, although appearence is quite similar to a common gull, their population status can't be shared a little. There are only a 10,000 mature adults

Adult winter relict gull (Photo: Tony Townsend)

Now when you get to adult winter plumage, you can forgive those 'naive' discoverers of the 20th century who labelled this as an eastern form of Med gull as you can't deny the similarities. If I found this on a Norfolk beach, I certainly would think I was on something if I tried to even attempt to turn it into anything other than a 2nd winter Med gull.  Relict gull isn't generally on the radar of British birders, is it?

  Adult summer relict gull (Photo: John Hornbuckle)

Summer adults are lovely things! Like a Franklin's/laughing gull hybrid or sorts. Those big white eye lids give it an almost cartoon-like appearance. A proper lovely bird!
But enough from the musings of a self-confessed gullaholic...lets get down to business. Why, oh why have I been rambling about a bird you've never heard of from a place you've never been or likely to go. I bring up this species because of Bohai Bay. The entire breeding population of the species winters at just three known sites in China and South Korea. This bay is under threat of land reclamation which, if it follows the trend land reclamation on the Saemangeum mud flats in South Korea, it could be extremely detrimental to the many thousands of red knot that pass through here and to the entire wintering population of relict gulls. 
Not only are the Saemangeum mud flats are a very very important site for relict gull, but also migrating spoon-billed sandpipers. Land reclamation contributed in the 95+% decline in a very short period of time. With small population numbers of relict gulls and the risk of so few  wintering sites, the threat to this species is theoretically very high indeed providing it gets worse and global warming causes droughts on both the wintering and breeding habitats.

So there we have it...traditionally lumped with its A-list celebrity cousin, unfairly named and vulnerable to change on both breeding and wintering grounds. The sad tale of Mr. Relict Gull.

-Zac Hinchcliffe
When Zac's not counting birds on patch, he's usually ringing birds on his regular Bangor site or is depressed that he does't have the money or time to twitch the latest big thing. Zac is 21 and currently studying a Research Masters at Bangor University and investigating Welsh Twite; adding a touch of science to his birding.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this. I live along the Thames Estuary and find gulls the most difficult to ID.