Excitement as storms bring in a very rare gull

Iceland gull.

Iceland gull.

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The recent storms have brought into Sussex one of the rarest gulls ever to have been seen here – a Kumlien’s gull.

It was flying around near Littlehampton seafront in company with more common gull species. I tried to see it for myself but failed so have to rely on what others have witnessed.

Kumlien’s gull is a sub species of the Iceland gull which has been seen from time to time on our shores.

There is some debate in past years about whether the two could be separated as sub species, or were they too alike with small variation, what is known as conspecific.

The Iceland gull is seen sparingly but regularly in Sussex, always on the shore line at places like Telscombe cliffs, Splash Point, Ovingdean and Newhaven Harbour. They are like herring gulls except that they have pure white wings and much paler grey backs.

The herring gull is everywhere, even in the centre of Chichester where it nests on rooftops and annoys the peregrines. The Iceland gull is the same size but that pure plumage easily separates it from the crowd.

So how do you tell Kumlien’s from Iceland gulls? With great difficulty. Kumlien’s has pale grey primary wing flight feathers, the Iceland has white. To most seafront walkers all gulls are seagulls and that’s an end to it.

That’s like saying all foreigners are foreigners, never mind whether they are from Thailand or Timbuctoo. In fact twelve species jostle the seafront for space in Sussex, and it is fun to see if you can separate them.

Commonest are our bog-standard black-headed gulls which often number thousands behind a tractor ploughing fields inland.

There are always hundreds of common gulls with them and you can easily tell those two apart with a simple bird book.

But in the past year a newish species into the county has taken to the fields with these two – the Mediterranean gull.

This was unknown here before 1950. Now you can see flocks of them down at Pagham Harbour entrance. This winter they are in the fields way inland at South Harting.

We have also had here laughing gulls, little gulls, Caspian gulls and ring-billed gulls. Admittedly some of those are so rare you will never see them, like the laughing gull which is a vagrant from North America.

Its call is annotated in the books as “ha ha ha ha ha hah hah hah” so it sounds quite happy. All these gliders and ocean wanderers are perfect in shape like the most modern gliders in which we can fly and they are all worth a bit of our interest.

If they were not so common people would look at them more often and feel a little joy in their mastery of a very difficult environment.

You might even spot that Kumlien’s gull as you stir your coffee on Littlehampton seafront.