On 13 September we decided to visit one of southern England’s more pleasant coastal towns. The day was sunny and hot; in fact, it was said to have been the hottest September day for over a century! Littlehampton was crowded but tranquil – no shouting, no loud music, no litter. As we approached the sea our lungs filled with fresh air with its characteristic marine tang and we found the beach, a mixture of sand and shingle, dotted with groups of people taking advantage of the autumn sunshine to give them what could have been the last top-up of their summer tans. A few ventured into the sea and even Christine and I wetted our lower legs, but only briefly – this water was clearly not the tropical Indian Ocean!
As we walked along the harbour side the air filled with bird calls, not the continuous wall-to-wall sounds of Bird Island’s Sooty Terns, but the periodic loud “kyow kyow kyow” calling of Herring Gulls. Some young brown birds were still with their attendant parents while others formed small groups of playful youngsters. Bird Island’s Sooty Terns have to work hard for their food, sometimes flying thousands of kilometres to replenish their empty stomachs. Littlehampton’s Herring Gulls, on the other hand, appear to simply wait for their food to be brought to them, either on returning fishing boats or in the form of discarded, or deliberately offered, fish, sometimes accompanied by chips. One observation concerned us. An adult Herring Gull and its speckled brown youngster were inspecting the steering wheel, controls and navigation equipment of one of the boats moored alongside the harbour wall – are these birds learning to take over the local fishing industry?!
One of Bird Island’s most conspicuous land birds is the Common Myna, a noisy black and white bird with bright yellow bill, eye-patch and legs. During our day out in Littlehampton we did not meet these, but their close relative, the Common Starling, was the most numerous of the town’s land birds. Like the Herring Gulls, the Starlings seem to have opted for the easy life with small parties, mainly of young birds still sporting some of their brown unspeckled feathers, congregating wherever people were eating. The town’s Starlings also seemed to have a delectation for easy fish and chips.
A point of note is that both the Common Myna and the Common Starling are regarded at two of the world’s most serious invasive species, but they are both fascinating birds whether in their native lands or where they have been introduced. In western Europe, however, the Common Starling population has declined so seriously that this species is now of conservation concern; a remarkable turn of tidings since in the mid-20th century it was regarded as a serious pest of agriculture, in city centres and in the vicinity of airports.
Bird Island and Littlehampton are miles apart, in terms of distance and also climatically and in habitat structure, but it was strangely comforting to find both places to be dominated by birds of closely related families and we felt quite at home among these European cousins. Nevertheless, we were left with the impression that the latter are the lazy relatives as far as food is concerned!