Country diary: thousands of gulls begin a mute commute at dawn

Sandy, Bedfordshire: Silent and disciplined, the birds track the River Ivel, but where are they going and why?

Black-headed gulls (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) in flight in Norfolk




Black-headed gulls (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) in flight in Norfolk.
Photograph: FLPA/Alamy

Around dawn, an exodus south began, ant-trails of cars nosing bumper to bumper down the capillaries of town and country towards the great artery of the A1. I walked in the face of glaring headlights, and played at humanising the beams as eyes, the grilles as noses, and number plates as mouths: Thomas the Tank Engine without the smiles.

Once away from the traffic and down by the river, I turned back in time to catch the start of the second wave, a mute commute that has passed overhead every day since well before Christmas. A familiar outline was directly in front of me, at the leading edge of this living front. Shaped like a numeral 3 face down, it is the first squiggle depicting a wild creature that children master and is instantly recognisable, even to their adults. A bird.

Thousands of gulls pour through here every morning and, though they are free in the air, they are pinned to the ground, tracking along a narrow funnel over the River Ivel and the nodules of pits and lakes alongside. It is their motorway, though I don’t really know where they are all going or why.

No two journeys are ever alike and sometimes it seems as if each bird travels according to its individual character. Solo herring gulls fly high, out of the crowd, kneading the sky with even wingbeats, self-absorbed in their personal-stereo world. Street-gang flocks of black-headed gulls cluster, overlap, clash and break loose. On some days, many birds make like geese, in strung-out disciplined V-trails. And not a sound ever reaches my ears.

The squadron leader at the centre of this flock held a disciplined formation, a bandwidth of four or five birds, a tail of evenly spaced dots stretching back far over the horizon. Every bird lapping over my shoulder was all angular grace and points, sharp wings chopping through the air, generating buoyant lifts and drops.

After 10 minutes of passage, the rising sun started acting as an uplighter. It captured smoky underwings with charred edges and lit the luminous breast of each gull, as brilliant and as white as any swan or snowdrop.

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