World’s Smallest Gull Recorded Breeding in Scotland for the First Time

Fingers are crossed at RSPB’s Loch of Strathbeg reserve in Aberdeenshire for a pioneering pair of breeding little gulls Hydrocoloeus minutus. Theirs is the first recorded breeding attempt by little gulls in Scotland, and only the sixth ever breeding attempt by the species in Britain.

This attempt is a fantastic example of the coming together of good habitat management, the implementation of cutting-edge technology and the dedication of staff and volunteers in the name of conservation.

Loch of Strathbeg is probably best known as a nationally important wintering ground for wildfowl. Tens of thousands of pink-footed geese, and hundreds of whooper swans, descend on the site each year in autumn and depart again in the spring. But this large and varied reserve is also a vitally important site for breeding wetland and farmland birds, including tree sparrows and lapwings. A renowned migration hot spot, the reserve boasts an impressive list of rarities and vagrants; back in 2011 it became a focus for twitchers across the country when Britain’s fourth ever sandhill crane visited the site.

Pink-footed Geese at Loch of Strathbeg

Little gulls are the world’s smallest species of gull. Dainty and diminutive, more like a tern than some of the larger gulls, these exquisite birds are somewhat like a black-headed gull in miniature. Little gulls visit Loch of Strathbeg every year, usually on passage to their breeding grounds in Scandinavia and eastern Europe. For the last few years, however, site staff and visitors have noticed birds hanging around longer and longer into the breeding season.

This year, one pair has taken advantage of the tern nesting island, which has recently been reprofiled and is lined with a predator-deterring fence. After staff noticed what looked like a nesting attempt, they flew the site’s drone over the island and confirmed the presence of an egg.

For Richard Humpidge, sites manager at Loch of Strathbeg and RSPB’s North East Aberdeenshire Reserves, the gulls are a vindication of the hard work that staff and volunteers have put in to the site. He said: “We’re really excited to have these smashing little birds nesting on the reserve. A few years back, we did a lot of work on our tern nesting island, reshaping it and adding 10 tons of shingle and shelters, as well as installing a fence around the edge of the pool to prevent access [by] ground predators.

“It’s been a great success: four years ago there were just 10 pairs of Common Terns and they failed to raise any chicks. The next year there were 60 pairs, and this year we have 130 pairs and their eggs are just starting to hatch. It’s great that the Little Gulls are using the same area and we hope that it will also give them the protection they need to raise chicks when their eggs hatch shortly.”

The pair at Loch of Strathbeg. Photo: RSPB Scotland, Ian Francis

Staff have now mounted a 24-hour watch using cameras to deter potential human disturbance.

Although Loch of Strathbeg is still closed for renovations, visitors can get great views of the nesting island through the viewing screen next to the car park.

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Andy Painting

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