Great Black-backed Gull

The Great Black-backed Gull is the largest gull in the world and, because of their size, has relatively few enemies, though may occasionally make a tasty snack for a White-tailed Eagle. It is a merciless tyrant that likes to throw its weight around, pinching food from other birds. They have even robbed dinner from a Peregrine Falcon! You usually see them singly or in pairs, often round fishing ports where they feed on scraps.

It is a very large, thick-set gull, with a powerful yellow bill with a red spot, a dark back (much darker back than the smaller, Lesser Black-backed Gull), a white angular head and thick neck. There is a small amount of white on the wing tips and their legs are pink. It is heavy and powerful looking in flight with its broad wings and can look quite hunched when perched. The young Great Black-backed Gull is a typical streaky grey-brown, like many young gulls, with a back bill, a chequered pattern on its back, a pale head and a pale tail. They only start to become adult black after three years and are only fully mature after five years. Their call is a gruff donkey-like "uk, uk, uk!".

The Great Black-backed Gull eats a wide variety of food by hunting, scavenging, or aggressively taking it from other birds. It dines on seabirds (especially young Puffins and Manx Shearwaters), bird’s eggs, fish, shellfish and even rabbits. Although fish is their primary food, they are equally at home on a good rubbish tip. Lacking razor-sharp talons and a curved, tearing beak, the Great Black-backed Gull relies on its size and physical strength, swallowing most foods whole. When food is too large to be swallowed, they will shake it until it falls apart. If it is covered in a hard shell, they will drop it onto rocks or hard ground to crack it open.

Great Black-backed Gulls nest on islands and cliff-tops or inland lakes and reservoirs. The nest is a mound of vegetation or seaweed. The 2-3 eggs hatch after 27 days and the youngsters are cared for by both parents. They can fly 7-8 weeks later when they become independent and menacing.

The Great Black-backed Gull came close to extinction because of persecution in the 18th century - for its feathers, which were used in hat making. In the 19th century, numbers began to recover, mainly as a result of waste seafood produced by the growing fishing industry. They are mainly resident in Britain, not going far from their breeding grounds, though birds from further north migrate here in winter with many arriving from Norway. There are 17,000 breeding pairs in Britain which swells to over 76,000 in winter. The oldest ringed Great Black-backed Gull lived for 23 years.

Their Latin name is 'larus marinus' where 'larus' means 'large seabird' and 'marinus' means 'marine' or 'of the sea'. Taken together, that makes it a big seagull. Fancy that.

Lesser Black-backed Gull

You find the Lesser Black-backed Gull on farmland, wetlands, and around the coast. It is a large, elegant gull, just a little smaller than the Herring Gull. Like many gulls, it can be a nightmare to identify, especially if you can't see its feet. It is omnivorous and often scavenges around rubbish tips and in urban areas. The entire world's population of Lesser Black-backed Gull is in Europe and a staggering one third of the UK's population lives on Walney Island in Cumbria. Until the 1980s, the Lesser Black-backed Gull was almost exclusively a summer visitor, overwintering in France and Portugal, but now an increasing number stay here through the winter in coastal areas.

The Lesser Black-backed Gull is closely related to the Herring Gull, though looks slimmer and more elegant. It is white with a dark slate grey back, yellow legs and a yellow bill with a red spot. Youngsters are streaked brown and take four years to develop into full adult plumage. In flight, it has rather long narrow wings, making it look long winged. Their call is a gruff "kaw" or a laughing "owp-owp-owp" which sounds similar to a Herring Gull but is more nasal and muffled.

Like the Herring Gull, they eat a wide variety of food, such as small mammals, eggs, fish, worms, seaweed, berries, morsels from rubbish tips and food pinched from other birds.

Most Lesser Black-backed Gulls nest near the coast on islands, dunes or moors. Breeding begins in April and they build the nest on the ground from seaweed or grasses, often near tall vegetation where the chicks can hide. The 3 eggs hatch after 24 days and the youngsters leave the nest a few days later but stay nearby. Both parents feed them and they can fly 30-40 days later.

Outside of the breeding season, Lesser Black-backed Gulls range widely, often roosting on reservoirs and big lakes like Rutland Water. About 110,000 breed in Britain, rising to 130,000 in winter as darker backed Scandinavian gulls arrive, though many of the ones that breed here disperse down to Spain. The oldest known Lesser Black-backed Gull lived to 34. After declines in the 19th century, because of persecution, numbers increased, but this has now halted. The Lesser Black-backed Gull is on the Amber List because Britain is home to 40% of the European population and more than half of these are found at fewer than ten sites, making them vulnerable to any local environmental changes.

Their Latin name is 'larus fuscus' from 'larus' for a gull or other large seabird, and 'fuscus' meaning black or brown, reflecting their darker grey back.

Common Gull

Despite its name, the Common Gull is another ‘common’ that is not all that common. It is difficult to find in most inland areas, being more abundant in its breeding areas on the coast and on wetlands. In winter, like other gulls, they are beginning to migrate inland to be found on housing estates, sports fields and landfill sites.

The Common Gull is smaller though has a similar appearance to the larger Herring Gull, but lacks the red spot on its bill and looks more gentle despite its dark eyes. The upper wings are grey, with a large white spot on the black wing tip, which is how to identify them in flight. There is no white on the wing's leading edge, but there is a wide white trailing edge. The head and underparts are white, and their legs are yellow green. The call is higher pitched than other gulls, a mewing "keel-you". One of its names is the ‘mew gull’.

The Common Gull eats almost anything, feeding on aquatic insects, worms, small mammals, carrion, eggs, small fish, crabs and, like other gulls, is partial to a bit of landfill, especially in winter.

It breeds on coastal marshes, sand dunes, rocky ledges, shingle beaches, and sometimes on buildings. Most nest on the coast among colonies of other gulls or terns, though a few small groups nest on northern moorland. There is a large movement of Common Gulls in March as they go to their northern breeding grounds. The nest is built on the ground by both birds from vegetation or seaweed, and 2-5 eggs are laid in May, which hatch after 23 days. The young gulls leave the nest within 5 days and stay in the vicinity, being fed by mum and dad, until they can fly 25 days later when they become bolshy teenagers, soon wanting their independence.

There are 50,000 breeding pairs in Britain, though the number swells to 700,000 in winter as more arrive here from summer nesting grounds in Scandinavia. The number of Common Gulls in Britain has recently declined. This is thought to be due to the draining of marshes.

Their Latin name is 'larus canus' where 'larus' means 'gull'. There is a bit of dispute whether 'canus' refers to 'dog', as its brief call can sound like a small dog, or 'grey' because of its colour. Absentminded scientists have named it and then can't remember why.

Common Gull video courtesy of Avibirds

Red-breasted Merganser

The Red-breasted Merganser is part of the sawbill family, so called because of their long, serrated bills, used for catching fish, which doesn't make them popular with fishermen. It is the fastest duck ever recorded, attaining a top airspeed of 100mph while being pursued by an aeroplane! It is most commonly spotted around the coast in winter, often forming flocks of several hundred, though it can also be found in shallow bays, inlets or estuaries.

Red-breasted Mergansers are long bodied diving ducks. They sit low in the water and have a very distinctive, elegant profile. The male has a green head with a 'just out of bed' spiky crest, a grey and white body, a spotted chestnut breast, and a white collar. The female has a reddish head merging with her brown-grey neck. Both have long, thin, red bills with serrated edges, orange legs, red eyes and white underparts. The key to separating them from Goosanders is that the neck and breast colours 'merge' rather than having an obvious line between. In flight, they have a prominent white lower wing panel and fly at an angle with their head higher than their feet. Mergansers are usually silent, only making a harsh "kar-r-r" call when displaying or nesting.

When feeding, they swim low in the water, regularly dipping their head below the surface before diving to chase fish. They sometimes hunt cooperatively in a line to drive fish into shallow water so they are easier to catch and their serrated bill helps them grip the slippery fish. Mergansers eat young salmon, trout, perch, herring, cod, eels, and also crabs and shrimps. They need to eat 15--20 fish per day. This has brought them into conflict with anglers, with birds being illegally killed to protect fish stocks, despite no evidence that Mergansers have an impact on fish numbers.

Merganser courtship starts in winter with bowing, stretching, and curtsying displays. Despite pairing up in winter, the Red-breasted Merganser breeds quite late in the year, laying their large clutch of 8-10 eggs in May or June. The nest is a depression in the ground amongst vegetation near water and lined with down. Like many ducks, the male deserts the female while she sits on the eggs. The eggs hatch after 31 days and the youngsters can feed themselves almost immediately. The youngsters will often come together with other broods to form large ‘creches’ that are looked after by a single female called an 'auntie'. Mum often leaves her young once they are in an auntie's care. The youngsters become fully independent 60 days later when they can fly. The parents do their moult between July and September and are flightless for 1 month, the males moulting first.

Red-Breasted Mergansers are mainly resident in Britain with a few others coming here in the winter from farther north. About 3,000 pairs breed here and up to 9,000 can overwinter. As numbers are falling, they have recently been added to the Red list.

Their Latin name is 'mergus serrator' from 'mergere' which means 'to dive', hence a diving duck, and 'serrator' is a 'sawyer' from the Latin 'serra' to 'saw'. The English name Merganser is also derived from 'mergus'.


The Scaup is a diving duck that can often form large 'rafts' on the open sea that can number in the thousands. Sometimes they are called the Greater Scaup to distinguish it from the Lesser Scaup found in America. They are mainly found in winter on northern coastal waters and are rarely seen on land.

Scaups are smaller than a Mallard and have a rounded looking head. The male’s is black, and he has a black breast and tail, white sides, and a grey back - looking a bit like a Tufted Duck with a grey back. His bill is grey-blue with a tiny black tip. The female’s head is brown with a large pale patch at the base of her dark bill and her body is grey-brown. In flight, there is a broad white wing bar running the length of the wing. Scaups hardly make a sound except for a dove-like call during courtship. The female Tufted Duck in moult can often look like a female Scaup with a similar white ring round the base of its bill, though this is much smaller than an actual Scaup's.

They feed on a variety of food, including shellfish, cockles and mussels, which they pick off the seabed. Owing to the Scaup's webbed feet and weight, it can dive up to 6 metres (20 ft) and stay submerged for up to a minute, allowing it to reach food sources that are unobtainable to other diving ducks. Curiously, it mostly feeds at night.

The Scaups we see in Britain breed in Iceland and the northern coasts of the Scandinavian peninsula. They begin breeding at the age of two, but start building nests in their first year, for a bit of practice. Their courtship is complex and results in the formation of monogamous pairs. They nest close to each other in large colonies, usually on the ground, in grass or rushes, near water. The nest is a shallow depression made by the female and lined with her own down into which she lays her 6-9 olive-buff coloured eggs that hatch after 26 days. The male, like many ducks, abandons the female and leaves her to do all the incubation and chick rearing on her own. Soon after hatching, the down-covered youngsters can follow their mum in her search for food and can feed themselves. They remain with mum until they can fly 40 days later but often stay together for longer. Scaups do their moult between September and November when they are flightless for 4 weeks.

Scaups rarely nest in Britain, with less than 5 pairs ever recorded. They move south in August, with 7,000 getting here by October and staying until March. With such small numbers, sadly, the Scaup is Red Listed and also Specially Protected as the majority are concentrated in relatively few places here during winter, making them vulnerable to pollution like oil spills.

Their Latin name is 'aythya marila' where 'aythya' comes from the Ancient Greek 'aithuia' which refers to a seabird mentioned by Aristotle and 'marila' is from the Greek word for 'charcoal embers' - a reference to its grey back.


The Ruff, even more than the Dunlin, is a confusing wader of many colours and plumages. It is mainly a summer visitor to marshes and wetlands, though a few now stay here. Long ago, Ruffs were trapped for food in large numbers. On one occasion, 2,400 were served at Archbishop Neville's enthronement banquet in 1465. The heavy toll on breeding birds, together with loss of habitat through drainage, meant Ruffs almost became extinct in England by the 1880s. Thankfully, they are now slowly recovering.

It is a medium-sized wader with a long neck and legs, a small head and a relatively short bill. There is often a white ring at the base of the bill. The distinctive feature in all their varieties is a heavily scalloped, brown back. The male ruff in breeding plumage has an exotic black or white 'ruff' and white underparts with large black spots. When not in breeding plumage it is has a blotchy buff breast and white belly. Their legs can be anything from orange to dark green. The female is similar but smaller and the juvenile is like the female but has a cleaner buff breast. In autumn and spring, they can be any mix of the two! In flight, Ruffs show a narrow white wing bar and oval patches on either side of the tail. They look long winged with their loose, lazy flapping. They are generally silent but can make a low "tu-wit" when disturbed.

Ruffs forage on wet grassland and soft mud, mainly searching by sight for edible items. They feed on insects, larvae and small shellfish that they pick from the surface (which is why they don't need particularly long bills). They will also eat plant material when on migration and hungry in the winter.

Male Ruffs return to their breeding ground in mid-March and assemble a display area called a 'lek'. The females, called 'reeves', arrive a few weeks later as the males start their 'lekking' by prancing about in their fancy breeding plumage and sometimes having mock battles with other males. The ones with darker ruffs are the most fancied and the female mates with the most successful 'lekking' male. Males with white ruffs are known as 'satellites' and are not usually dominant enough to mate, but will sneak in and couple with a female when the dark ruffed males aren't looking. All the prancing about in the same spot is what made them so easy to catch and eat.

The nest is a shallow scrape on the ground into which 4 eggs are laid that hatch after 20 days. The youngsters leave the nest soon after hatching. Mum does all the child rearing as dad doesn't want to get his fancy feathers dirty and is too busy doing his moult. She feeds the chicks for the first few days, after which they can feed themselves and can fly 25 days later. Dad leaves to go back to Africa in late June and mum and the kids follow on in July.

The Ruff is specially protected as they were nearly extinct and have slowly been recovering since the 1960s, mainly through the management of bird reserves. Fewer than ten pairs nest here each year. They are mainly here in the summer, though about 800 now remain over winter.

Their Latin name is 'calidris pugnax' where 'calidris' comes from the Ancient Greek 'kalidris' for a grey-coloured waterside bird and 'pugnax' refers to the aggressive behaviour of the bird in its 'lek' from the Latin 'pugnax' for 'combat'. The English name 'Ruff' was first recorded in 1634, and is from the exaggerated frilly collar fashionable with the Elizabethans called ‘a ruff’.


The Greenshank is a tall, elegant wader, usually seen singly or in small groups on the edges of lakes, rivers, reservoirs, estuaries and coastal marshes. Greenshank means 'green legs' where 'shank' is an old word for leg (as in the phrase 'going on shank's pony' for walking). It is a summer visitor usually found on moors and bogs in Scotland, but during migration you can often see them on lakes, reservoirs and coastal wetlands.

They have an upright stance with a green-grey back, a white breast, white underparts that become spotted in summer and, of course, green legs. Their bill is long, dark, and slightly upturned, which can help to distinguish it from other waders. They have plain grey wings and a white 'V' on their back and rump, which is visible when they do their rapid, twisty flying. Their flight call is a ringing, triple note "tew-tew-tew", similar in sound to a Redshank but with each note being identical.

The Greenshank feeds in shallow waters by probing wet mud, using a prod-walk-prod action, or sweeping its bill from side to side. It eats crustaceans, insects, worms and small fish.

Greenshank nesting begins in late April. The male makes several scrapes on the open, wild moorland ground, proclaiming his territory with a song flight by flying to a great height before 'tumbling' down to the ground. Miss ‘picky’ female then chooses one she likes and lays 4 eggs which hatch after 24 days. The youngsters can feed themselves, while both parents care for them, and can fly 25 days later. Mum often leaves first in June, ahead of dad and the rest of the family who set off in August. Some Northern European birds will overwinter on the south coast of Britain, though the majority go to Africa.

About 1,000 Greenshanks breed in Scotland, though their moorland breeding areas are threatened by forestry tree planting schemes, grouse shooting and other leisure activities. They are consequently Amber listed. The oldest known Greenshank was 11 years old.

Their Latin name is 'tringa nebularia' where 'tringa' is from the Ancient Greek 'trungas' for a thrush-sized, white-rumped, tail-bobbing wading bird mentioned by Aristotle and 'nebularia' is from the Latin 'nebula' for 'mist'. A misty, white-rumped wading bird. I suppose the white 'V' on its rear and its grey colour sort of fits. In Norwegian, the Greenshank is called 'Skoddefoll' from its habit of loving damp marshy places.


The Sanderling is a small beach sandpiper that mainly passes through in spring and autumn, though some non-breeding birds can stay here all summer. Most often seen in small groups, it is extremely active and restless, sprinting along sandy shorelines like a mad clockwork toy.

The Sanderling looks plump on skinny black legs and is larger than a Dunlin. In summer, it has a reddish-brown mottled back, head and breast, and white underparts. In winter and the rest of the year, it has a pale grey back and clean white underparts. Its head is mostly white and there is often a black mark on the front of the wings. It has a short, straight black bill, about the same length as its head, and black legs with no hind toe. It is an easy wader to identify, as it is one of the whitest in winter. When flying, the dark wings have a broad white wing bar and there are white sides to its rump. Their call is a short, quiet "plik, plik".

Sanderlings feed on invertebrates like sand-hoppers, crabs, shrimps, and shellfish, catching their food by running amazingly fast along the beach in a 'wave chase', snatching food as it is washed ashore or by probing pools in the sand left by the retreating tide. On their breeding grounds they will eat insects and plants.

The Sanderling only breeds in the Arctic, returning to their breeding grounds in May or June. The female, as opposed to the male, makes the nest scrape and lays 4 eggs. She often makes a second and lays 4 more eggs for the male to incubate, so she can keep an eye on him. The eggs hatch after 24 days and the young can fly 17 days later, soon becoming independent. Sanderlings will often have two broods. The adults leave the breeding grounds in mid-August with the young following soon after. The distance they travel varies, but some have been known to make 32,000km round-trips to South Africa for their winter holidays.

Peak numbers of Sanderling occur in May or August, when there are about 40,000, and up to 16,000 will overwinter here. The ones we see come from Greenland and Siberia. Although the population trend of Sanderling is unknown, it is not believed to be decreasing sufficiently rapidly to be of concern, though climate change might be a problem for them in the future. The oldest ringed Sanderling lived to be 17.

Their Latin name is 'calidris alba' from the Greek 'kalidris' for a grey-coloured waterside bird and 'alba' for 'white'. The English name derives from Old English ’sand-yroling’ meaning 'sand-ploughman'. Both are excellent descriptions. Sandpipers of the genus 'calidris' are often called “peeps” because of their calls.

Purple Sandpiper

The purple bit of Purple Sandpiper is a little misleading, as you can only see the purple colour when very close up, on some of its back feathers. Plain Grey Sandpiper would have been much closer. They are a winter visitor, mainly seen along the north-eastern coasts, liking rocky shorelines by the sea often mixed in with their Turnstone mates. They are unusual for a wader in that you can get quite close to them before they run away.

The Purple Sandpiper is a medium-sized dumpy looking bird, larger, stockier and darker than a Dunlin, looking scaly grey with just a hint of purple. It has a dark head with white streaks, a white eye ring, a heavily streaked breast and sides, and a pale belly. Their bill is dark and down curved with a yellow base, and their short legs are also yellow. In flight, they look dark as they fly low over the sea. Their dark tail has white sides and there is a very faint wing bar. Although generally silent, they sometimes make a Swallow like twittering "wee-wit" call on take-off.

Purple Sandpipers feed on small fish and invertebrates, which they pick up from the water’s edge as they are washed ashore or found amongst newly exposed seaweed on flat rocks that project into the sea. They are masters at dodging the waves by jumping.

They are a 'hard as nails' sandpiper, nesting in the Arctic and Subarctic regions of Europe such as the Scandinavian uplands and Greenland. Nesting starts in June and the male makes several scrapes on open ground. The female chooses one and lays 4 eggs which hatch after 21 days. Dad does most of the incubation with mum often leaving before the eggs even hatch! Like most girls, she doesn’t like the cold. The young can feed themselves, which is just as well, while dad cares for them for the 4 weeks until they can fly. Purple Sandpipers moult completely between July and September, while near their breeding grounds, going to their dark winter colours before arriving here. Birds in the High Arctic migrate furthest while birds in Northern Europe rarely move far, many staying put after breeding.

About 13,000 Purple Sandpipers overwinter in Britain, arriving in September and staying until as late as May. Only three pairs have ever nested in Scotland, with the breeding areas kept strictly secret to protect the birds from egg thieves and disturbance. The oldest Purple Sandpiper lived for 13 years.

Their Latin name is 'calidris maritima' where 'calidris' is from the Ancient Greek 'kalidris' for a grey-coloured waterside bird, and 'maritima' is from Latin for 'of the sea' (from which we get the word 'maritime'). Purple Sandpipers are closely related to the Sanderling (’calidris alba’) and the Dunlin (’calidris alpina’).

Common Sandpiper

The Common Sandpiper, sadly, is not that common. You are more likely to see a Green Sandpiper than a Common Sandpiper. They are summer visitors and like fast-flowing rivers and upland streams with stony edges, though they can also be seen at marshes and lakes during their migration in July and August. You usually see them in ones or twos as they don't like crowds.

The Common Sandpiper is similar in size to a Green Sandpiper, but is smaller and shorter-legged with contrasting plain brown upperparts, white underparts, and a distinctive white crescent shoulder patch. It has a medium length brown bill, brown smudges on the side of its breast with a neat division between the breast and pure white underparts, and a pale eye stripe and eye ring. It does a funny, bobbing walk, known as 'teetering', on its short yellow-grey legs. When flying, the wings look 'stiff' and flicker below the level of the body, looking bowed, and you can see a white wing bar and white sides to the tail. Their call is a sharp, three-note, "willy-wicket".

Common Sandpipers feed by eyesight on insects which they pick from the surface rather than probing into the sand or mud. Their food includes flies, beetles, earwigs and grasshoppers.

The males arrive first in March, and they begin breeding in April once the females show up. If she comes back to the same site as the male from the previous year, they will usually pair up again. If they don’t, it is because she was ridiculously late or because she spotted a better territory, having found last year's site a bit rubbish. Between them, they make several scrapes, then the female selects one and lines it before laying her 4 eggs. Both parents incubate the eggs, with dad doing the night-shift, until the eggs hatch 21 days later. Both mum and dad look after the young. When threatened, the young may cling to their parent's body to be lifted away to safety (a bit like being rescued by a helicopter)! The youngsters can manage weak flight themselves after 15 days and full flight after 25 days.

There are 15,000 breeding pairs in Britain with most being in Scotland as pollution of English rivers has reduced the food they need. Their low numbers make them Amber listed. Most Common Sandpipers migrate to Africa for the winter, though about 100 stay here. The oldest ringed Common Sandpiper lived to be 12 years old.

Their Latin name is 'actitis hypoleucos' where 'actitis' is from Ancient Greek 'aktites' meaning 'coast-dweller' and 'hypoleucos' is a combination of the Ancient Greek 'hupo' meaning 'beneath' and 'leukos' meaning 'white'. A coast-dweller with white underneath. Close enough.