On December 12th a colour-ringed black-headed gull, white 26L1, was spotted on Whiteknights Lake by dedicated campus birdwatcher Peter Gipson. Pleasingly, it proved to have been ringed as part of the Berkshire gull scheme run by Tim Ball’s Reading and Basingstoke ringing group. The scheme has been running at a number of Berkshire black-headed gull breeding colonies since 2007. So far, most birds have been ringed at Hosehill Lake, just to the southwest of Reading near Junction 12 of the M4, with smaller numbers at Lea Farm Gravel Pit to the east and Moor Green Lakes to the southeast (where the project initially began).
During a carefully timed visit to the colony (to avoid unduly disturbing the birds), each suitably developed chick has a white plastic ring placed on the left leg and a standard metal BTO ring on the right. The easy-to-read alpha-numeric combinations on the plastic ring allow the birds’ movements to be tracked without the need for recapture, and so far the project has seen Berkshire-born gulls reported from as far afield as France, Spain, Portugal and the southwest of Ireland. First year birds tend to be the biggest wanderers, but many also continue a pattern of wintering some distance away into adulthood, at sites such as Slimbridge in Gloucestershire or the estuaries of Devon and Cornwall. Several have proven remarkably site faithful, returning to the same wintering grounds year after year.
Gull 26L1 was ringed as a chick at Lea Farm Gravel Pit in July 2013, and was next seen just 36 days later at Dawlish Warren in Devon. The following spring it was back at Lea Farm, on May 6th, after which it was not reported again until October 16th, when it was once more back at Lea Farm. Just under two months later it was on Whiteknights Lake, where it may well be spending the winter.
Lea Farm is a short walk north from Dinton Pastures Country Park, and has an excellent members-only hide run by the Friends of Lavell’s Lake local conservation group. Although the hide is well used by local birdwatchers, surprisingly few records of ringed gulls come through, so an hour or two in spring having a go at reading ring numbers would be a good way to make your birding count. More records would help further our understanding of the proportion of birds that return to their natal colonies each year. Access to the hide through F.O.L.L membership only costs £7.50 a year, and your money will also be contributing to ongoing conservation work at Lea Farm and Lavell’s Lake.
In the meantime, it would be great if those of you who regularly watch birds on campus could keep an especially close eye on the black-headed gull flock for 26L1 or any other Berkshire bird that may be wintering or passing through Whiteknights Park. There are many other gull ringing schemes around Europe, so there’s even a chance of spotting something from much further afield. And don’t forget that all records will count towards our entry in the University Birdwatch Challenge, provided you have signed up as a team member and that they are entered on BirdTrack. Reading is currently leading in two categories (number of records and number of participants), but the competition is hot on our heels!
**STOP PRESS** Just prior to hitting the publish button, another record came through from local birdwatcher Roger Stansfield of a colour ringed black-headed gull present on campus this morning. 27L0 is another bird ringed at Lea Farm in 2013, but this is the first time it has been seen since.