Thursday 22 June 2023

LBB (Lesser Black-backed Gull) counts 2023 - Which is also known as – ‘Finding Rare Birds’

A guest blog from two volunteers; Mike and Ted Wallen who count Lesser Black-backed Gulls on Skomer every year: 


We are honoured once again be be asked to write a guest blog of our annual pilgrimage to Skomer to count the Lesser Black-backed Gulls.

The weather forecast looked good for the 5 days, and although the wind direction for our stay (mainly north) didn’t look brilliant for rare birds, you can never really tell, little did we know what lay ahead ………

At the end of the day, we were here to count gulls, not find rare birds …………


We were met by Leighton as we jumped off the Dale Queen with our not so light rucksacks, packed full of thousands of calories to get us through the long days ahead, and said hello to a few of the 2023 team at the top of the steps.

We walked with Leighton to the farm and talked through the gull counts ensuring our work wouldn’t impact on both the scarce breeding species and the other researchers already on the island.

After throwing our stuff out of the rucksacks and stocking up the ‘day bag’ with loads of food we were off counting…….well, after a quick check of North Valley Crossing bushes. Straight away 3 Redpoll went over, a few Swift and hirundines were pouring through West.  


We started on the North coast towards the Garland Stone, incredibly almost the first gull we looked at was a hybrid Herring X LBB.


Hybrid Herring Gull x LBB Gull by Mike

After a few counts here we reached the coast and looked over the stunning view of the north coast and the Garland Stone- my favourite place on the planet. A few more small counts, ate lunch at the farm and then headed off into the west fields.

We were out just beyond West pond when a significant number of gulls went berserk towards the Wick, rising up to mob something…. something that was heading our way ! Unsurprisingly Ted was the first one to see it, and exclaimed (quite loudly 😊) that it was ‘massive’. I got on it and after a second or two shouted  - Osprey !!

This is Ted’s favourite bird in the world, total shock took over as the bird flew towards us, the sun behind us and dazzling blue skies behind the bird. To describe the views as sensational is no understatement, we punched the air, fist bumped and hugged, well after we’d taken a few pics and the bird had passed us. A moment of magic, a memory for a life-time !!


Osprey by Ted

We moved on, but a day of beautiful birds wasn’t over yet, as Ted then found a full S/P Golden Plover, the sun was lower in the sky at this point, the plover looked fantastic in the late afternoon sun, in the most stunning scenery – Wow !


Golden Plover by Ted

Counting LBB’s

So just a brief idea of what we and the island staff do to count the gulls.

The whole island is one colony of LBB’s, it is then divided into sub-colonies which stay the same each year with minor fluctuations in size/ shape, then there are fixed points to view each sub-colony from. Ted and I go to those fixed points and count how many birds are actually on nests/ nesting, these are called the eye counts.


The next day saw us continuing with the counts but obviously ‘migrant bashing’ early morning and evening.

Good birds were still to be found in between the counts, firstly a lovely S/P Black-tailed Godwit near Gorse Hill and then we watched 3 Greylag Geese Fly-in, they are rare out here. At lunch at the farm a male House Sparrow was a surprise and also a really rare bird here.


Greylag Geese by Ted

The counts were going well with lots of fine weather, it was the 13th the next day, would it be unlucky for us.


Sat 13th May

Dawned clear, bright and sunny, another stunning day.

As usual we started looking for rarities at North Valley crossing, but it wasn’t a visual thing that got the adrenalin pumping, but one of the most beautiful songs in the bird world- a singing Nightingale – Boom !!

How incredible to be standing in the morning sun, amongst acres of bluebells, the smells, the sounds, and then being serenaded by this beauty.


Nightingale recording by Ted (volume up)


Other good birds arrived with a Yellow Wagtail flying into North pond (later moving to Moorey Mere) and 2 Reed Warblers.


Yellow Wagtail by Mike 

We were above High Cliff just before midday when Ted picked up a Skylark flying in from the East, another good bird, we finished a count and moved to South Plateau near the Mew Stone, having a look for the Skylark.

On looking to my left I saw a big flock of ‘black’ birds going away, I exclaimed to Ted and looked at them, seeing a flap,flap glide and their Gizz I uttered an expletive and said they were Cormorants and that I’d hoped they were something good. We both lifted our bins again and then both shouted – GLOSSY IBIS !!!!!!!! Pandamonium ensued. There were about 20, yes 20 of them. It was a mixture of looking at them, getting photos and trying to alert Leighton and the rest of the team, whilst your hands shook from the adrenaline, thank goodness we were sitting down !

We watched the flock fly along the south coast all the way to Skomer Head where they turned north and continued around the coast of this magical island. Only afterwards when we’d calmed down could we count them in our photos- there were 17 – absolutely incredible 😊


Glossy Ibis by Ted

Monday 15th May saw us camped out at Skomer head at 0615 for a very chilly seawatch. Well, we don’t have a whole lot of sea in Bucks, so we have to make the most of it. Despite our hands turning numb in the cold northerlies, it was actually really good for waders. In 2hrs we enjoyed flocks of 2 Turnstone, 13 Ringed Plover, 5 Dunlin, 5 Sanderling and 3 Whimbrel. We finished the gull counts by the afternoon and actually had an hour to just sit near the Mew Stone and look for migrants arriving on the South Coast, before a beautiful evenings sunset.


Sunset by Mike

Tuesday 16th May was our last morning before we had to leave this awesome place, the island decided to give us one more gift as Ted found a Lapwing flying around over North Valley, another new island bird for Ted.

5 Swift as we made our way East to North Haven and all too soon it was time to jump on the Dale Queen and head for the mainland.


Once again an incredible few days, with totally amazing people, brilliant birds and a few thousand gulls on what is to me, the most beautiful place on planet earth.

Mike + Ted Wallen