Sunday, 22 June 2014

Hastings Battleaxe: living with Seagulls

Many Hastingas don't like seagulls. Battleaxe is quite fond of them, even though our life now has a constant background accompaniment of screaming, squawking, screeching and chattering.
On the Hastings Stade

Gulls on the net huts
     We spent our first ever night in Hastings in 2008, in the lovely Swan House in the Old Town. It was, and clearly still is, a fabulous, atmospheric place to stay. However, a gang of gulls were partying right outside our window.
     Fortunately, the racket did not put us off. On the contrary, our stay led us to fall in love with Hastings, and we soon rented our first little house, in Plynlimmon Road on the West Hill. Gulls were nesting on the chimney, and the 'peep peep' of the babies and the squawks and rattles of the parents echoed down the chimney into our bedroom.
     We soon learned that hosting a seagull family meant drama. First, one baby fell off the roof and a fox got it. Next, Philosopher made the mistake of trying to return another fallen baby to the roof. As he climbed the ladder, clutching the squeaking chick in a towel, the mother dived down and attacked him, raking his bare head with her claws.
     A few days later we saw one of the locals on a similar mission, climbing his ladder with the baby in a carrier bag over his arm, while holding an open umbrella above his head to fend off the irate parents. Respect.
Our gull family on the chimney in Plynlimmon Road
     Presumably, so many gulls live in Hastings because of the fishing activity, but also because of the rows of Victorian villas with their high chimneys which make good nesting spots.
     Up here at the top of Clive Vale, a colony of gulls regard the roofs of our little group of 70s houses as prime nesting and people-watching territory. There is a flat roof above our bedroom, and the gulls love to bathe in the little pool of rain water that accumulates up there.
     Herring gulls can live up to 50 years, but I read that urban gulls who live off discarded junk food live for only about half that time. Shows what it does to our human innards. I suspect 'our' gulls hang out near KFC and the chippie in Ore Village. No healthy fish diet for them.
     We have one dominant 'resident' gull who is very interested in the food we put out for other wild birds. Clearly, he can't hang off the nut feeders or the fat squares, but we have invested in a cage which keeps him away from the food we put down for ground feeding birds. He can usually stretch his neck in and retrieve one or two scraps, but spends much time walking round and round the cage in the vain hope that some of the food will move itself within range. He also likes the bird bath, both to drink from and to bathe in - this immediately empties all the water out.
Walking hopefully round the cage

Too big for the bird bath
     Gulls mate for life, and return to the same nesting sites year after year. In the spring one partner arrives first, and then waits and watches anxiously for their mate.When the other arrives, there is a cacophony of shrieking and chattering as they catch up on the year's news.
     This year, we have three babies on the roof of the house next door, assiduously tended by their  hard-working parents.
      Herring gull eggs take four weeks to incubate, during which time the parents have to be constantly on watch for magpies and crows who try to steal the eggs. The harsh, raucous chattering of our local magpies, met by the outraged screams of the parent gulls, woke us day after day at about 5am until the chicks hatched. Now, the babies will be dependent on their parents for at least twelve weeks, and possibly for as long as six months.
      We saw an amazing sight last week. Late in the evening, when everyone was indoors watching the football, a fox appeared, wandering idly up the road. Immediately, the parent gulls, together with a couple of their friends, swooped down like fighter planes to dive bomb the predator. The fox cowered and cringed on his belly in the face of repeated savage attacks. Eventually he gave up and slunk away into the bushes.
Looking a bit bedraggled after a rain shower...

Begging for food
    Our babies are now getting adventurous, and spend much time paddling up and down the planes of the roof. The biggest danger to them is falling off - fox, badger or even Digby the cat would be happy to make a meal of one of them.
    Assuming they all survive, we will soon see them making their halting first flights between the roofs of the houses, and then they will head off down to the Old Town to join the flocks of brown-speckled adolescents hanging round the chip shops and the amusement arcades.
Exploring the roof
Adolescent gull still begging from its parent down on the Stade
     Like most of the locals, Philosopher and Battleaxe have largely ceased to hear the noise of the gulls. I can even sleep through them calling and chattering on the flat dormer roof right outside our bedroom window. However, I do think I'll always find them interesting.....