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Gulls, Terns and Skuas

Updated: Dec 30, 2023

Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla [IUCN: VU][BoCC5: Red]

Writers as early as Wilughby (1678) note the common occurrence of this species in Cornwall, but its historic status is uncertain. Clark (1906) refers to breeding colony of about 60-70 birds at Mullion Island, but Harvey (1924) refers to none being there. However, 60-70 pairs were known to present there in the late 1960s, with a further 15 pairs on nearby Gull Rock, though only about 25 of these bred successfully. About 100 pairs were recorded between Mullion and Predannack in the Seabird 2000 survey, though the current status of this colony is unknown (e.g. not mentioned as a breeding colony in the 2019 bird report). A few pairs also breed at Treworvas Head just outside the Lizard. Fledging success is mixed there. 2018 was a reasonable year for this species, but not a single bird fledged in 2019.

As a winter visitor and passage migrant is is common, but declining. Mostly seen at sea, particularly Oct-Feb, but seen in all months and also occasionally inland e.g. on Loe Pool.

Kittiwake, 15th Jul 2012. Tony Blunden

Historic (1982) confirmed breeding distribution of Kittiwake on the Lizard.

Sabine's Gull Xema sabini

The first documented sighting of this species on the Lizard was not until 1982, reflecting that regular sea-watching is a relatively recent phenomenon. Currently, almost annual past Lizard and Pass Point Jul-Oct, with an increase in records recently probably reflecting increased observer coverage. Unusually, a bird seen in spring, on 14th Apr 2009 (I Maclean) was seen again on the 16th. The highest count is of five past Bass Point in 1998.

All records are given (singles unless stated):

1982: 12th Oct (Bass Point).

1983: 3rd Sep (1) and 3th Sep (3) at Loe Bar.

1987: 18th Oct (Bass Point).

1989: 12th Sep (Loe Pool).

1998: 6th Sep (5 Bass Point).

2003: 14th Oct (Helston Boating Lake).

2004: 22nd Aug (Bass Point).

2005: 2nd Nov (Chynhall's Point).

2006: 3rd Sep (Kynance).

2009: 9th & 16th Apr (Lizard Point), 1st Aug (2 Bass Point).

2010: 31st Oct (Bass Point).

2014: 14th Sep (Lizard Point).

2015: 26th Jul (2), 14th Sep, 7th Nov & 9th Nov (all Lizard Point).

2016: 11th Sep (Bass Point), 16th Oct (Lizard Point).

2017: 27th Jul, 11th Sep (2), 17th Sep, 20th Sep, 30th Sep (all Lizard Point), 2nd Sep (Kynance).

2018: 19th Sep (Lizard Point).

2019: 4th & 8th Oct (2) (all Lizard Point).

2020: 21st & 24th Aug (Lizard Point).

2023: 23rd June (Cadgwith), 26th Jul (Lizard Pt), 24th Sep (Bumble Rock), 27th Sep (Porthoustock), 27th Oct (Helford Passage).

Seasonal trend (left) and five-year totals (right) of Sabine's Gull on the Lizard Peninsula.

Bonaparte's Gull Chroicocephalusphiladelphia

Rare, with just 4 records, possibly of just 3 birds. A 1st winter at Gunwalloe on 22nd Feb 1990 (A Pay), may have been the same as the 1st winter at Loe Pool on 15th Mar 1990 (B Cave). Also an adult on Helston Boating Lake 11th Feb 2005 and a 1st winter there on 5th Mar 2015 (T Blunden)

Bonaparte's Gull, Helston Boating Lake. Ilya Maclean

Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus [BoCC5: Amber]

There is circumstantial evidence that this species may once have bred on Bodmin Moor in the 19th century, and though for many years it was absent as a breeder from Cornwall, it now breeds at Collyford Reservoir. On the Lizard it is currently common passage migrant and fairly common winter visitor, with number peaking in Feb coinciding with migration to breeding grounds. In winter, and generally, it is more common on the north of the Lizard with only small numbers recorded in the south. Significantly scarcer during the breeding season when most birds are at breeding colonies on higher ground inland.

Black-headed Gull, 19th Jan 2016. Tony Blunden

Little Gull Hydrocoloeus minutus

The first documented sighting of this species is from 1956, probably reflecting observer coverage of the area rather than a systematic trend. It appears to be much more common in some years than in others, probably depending on winds, and owing to this variability, it is quite difficult to infer any systematic trend with any certainty. Nevertheless, numbers in the 1980s and early 1990s frequently reached double figures in some years, a phenomenon that has not been witnessed in the last decade. The highest count from the main Lizard area is of 30 on Loe Pool on 1st April 1990, though a staggering 91 were seen at Rosemullion on 28th Oct 2005.

Little Gull, Gillan Creek, 1st Feb 2007. Tony Blunden

Seasonal trend in documented sightings of Little Gull on the wider Lizard area (including Rosemullion, which accounts for the high October peak). Generally recorded as a migrant in spring and autumn, but does occur in winter after storms. Generally absent in the summer. Blue: pre-2020 records. Red: post-2020 records (including 2020).

Ross's Gull Rhodostethia rosea

Rare, with just two records. A 1st winter at Poldhu Cove on 8th-12th March 1998 (A Pay et al -see finders account) and probable adult (possibly a 2-winter) past Lizard Point on 2nd Jan 2016 (T Blunden), which frequented the area until 4th Jan and was also seen at Bass Point and near Cadgwith.

Ross's Gull, Poldhu. Andy Pay. Phone photo of original slide print

Ross's Gull, Church Cove, 3rd Jan 2016. Tony Blunden.

Laughing Gull Leucophaeus atricilla

Rare. An adult over Lizard Village 1st Nov 2007 (B Cave) and a 2nd summer flying past Lizard Point on 14th Jun 2018 (T Blunden). Also 2 adults reported from the beach between Porthleven and Loe Bar on 16th Dec 2007.

Franklin's Gull Leucophaeus pipixcan

Second winter seen Helston and Porthleven area 2nd-6th Feb and 2nd-22nd Mar 1987 (A Pay). Also one reported from Gillan Creek on 23rd Aug 2011.

Franklin's Gull, Helston Boating Lake. Andy Pay. Phone photo of original slide print

Mediterranean Gull Ichthyaetus melanocephalus [BoCC5: Amber]

Rare prior to 2008, but increasingly common with large flocks in Men-aver Beach and off Lizard Point in late summer, where 305 were seen on 18th Jul 2018. Also increasingly common during winter. The first record for the Lizard is of 2 at Loe Pool on 12th Jan 1974.

Adult Mediterranean Gull, Helston Boating Lake. Ilya Maclean

Juvenile Mediterranean Gull, Gunwalloe. Ilya Maclean

Common Gull Larus canus [BoCC5: Amber]

Historically, Common Gull numbers in Cornwall have fluctuated, but there is little evidence of a long-term trend. It was well-documented as a visitor in the 19th century. On the Lizard it is relatively scarce, though larger numbers do occur on Loe Pool in February.

Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis

Rare, but approaching annual since early 1990s. Most commonly seen at Helston Boating Lake, which has hosted long-staying birds (14 records, singles unless otherwise stated):

1982: 17th Jan-11th Apr.

1985: 13th-23rd Jan with 2 on the 23rd.

1986: 11th Feb-2nd Mar.

1988: 8th Feb.

1994: Nov and Dec (dates uncertain).

2000: 7th-9th Jan, 12th Dec-31st Dec 2001.

2003: 5th Jan-9th Jan 2004 with 2 on 16th Feb.

2004: 13th-23rd Feb and 11th Apr.

2008: 23rd Nov

2019: 14th Feb.

2020: 4th Jan.

Elsewhere seen at Loe Pool (7 records, probably duplicating some of the Helston records):

1990: 24th Feb.

1998: 2 on 13th Dec.

2001: 14th Jul-18th Sep.

2004: 13th Dec.

2005: 19th Dec.

2020: 25th Jan.

2021: 1st Feb.

Other records are:

1984: 3rd Mar (Porthleven).

1988: 12th Mar (Porthleven).

2012: 12th Oct (Gillan Creek).

2015: 21st Mar (Porthleven).

2016: 1st & 13th Apr (past Lizard Point).

Ring-billed Gull 23rd Nov 2008. Tony Blunden

Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus [BoCC5: Amber]

Historically this species was quite rare, even as a winter visitor. Bullmore (1966) reports only one in the winter of 1865-66 and three the year prior to that. It is evidently far more common than that currently and on the Lizard is best described as scarce breeding resident and common winter visitor, with numbers in excess of 100 at any one site not unheard of. The Seabird 2000 survey recorded 8 pairs between Cadgwith and the Helford River, 10 pairs

between Kynance and Cadgwith, 49 pairs between Mullion and Predannack and two pairs elsewhere on the West Lizard. There number of breeding pairs since then is uncertain, but in general breeding has increased in Cornwall.

Historic (1982) breeding distribution of Great Black-backed Gull on the Lizard. Large squares indicate confirmed breeding and medium-sized squares probable breeding.

Glaucous Gull Larus hyperboreus [BoCC5: Amber]

In the 19th century this species was probably rarer, being described as an occasional solitary winter visitor with more in only a handful of years. Numbers appear to have steadily increased, but one suspects this is more the result of increased observer coverage, particularly given its association with active fishing harbours, which have diminished in number in the last few decades.

Glaucous Gull, Coverack, 2nd Jan 2021. Joe Jones.

Iceland Gull Larus glaucoides [BoCC5: Amber]

Much rarer historically: between 1900 and 1968 there were only 7 records in Cornwall, though in the 19th century there were a few years with influxes, notably in 1895 when they were documented as being "not infrequent between Truro and Penzance". The first specific mention of a bird on the Lizard Peninsula, however, wasn't until 1974. Since then it has become a scarce winter and spring visitor with birds occasionally staying as late as May.

Race kumlieni recorded has been recorded on a few occasions: at Lizard Point on 26th Feb 2012, at Coverack on 24th Jan 2015, with a different bird there on 18th-22nd Feb 2015, at Church Cove on 23rd Jan 2018 and at Loe Pool on 13th Feb 2019 and possibly at Porthoustock on 12th Feb 2023.

Iceland Gull 9th Feb 2017. Tony Blunden

Herring Gull Larus argentatus [BoCC5: Red]

The Herring Gull has been labelled as a common breeder in all of Cornwall's historic ornithological writings and as such specific information is hard to come by. However, it is known that the number of birds breeding on the coast has declined slightly, while as an urban nesting species it has generally increased. The seabird 2000 survey recorded nesting pairs as follows:

Baulk Head to Mullion: 5

Cadgwith to Helford River: 66

Coverack: 5

Kynance to Cadgwith: 39

Mullion: 15

Mullion to Predannack: 64

Kenneggy Downs to Porthleven: 93

Porthoustock Quarry: 7

West Lizard: 49

Breeding numbers are supplemented by winter visitors and during winter it is a very common species, when race argentatus also occasionally occurs.

Herring Gulls past Lizard Point. Ilya Maclean

Historic (1982) confirmed breeding distribution of Herring Gull on the Lizard.

(American Herring Gull Larus smithsonianus)

A possible was seen at Coverack on 23rd Dec 2018.

Caspian Gull Larus cachinnans [BoCC5: Amber]

Rare with just eight records. Singles at Coverack on 23rd Dec 2016 and 21st Feb 2021, Church Cove on 31st Dec 2017 and Lizard Point on 6th Nov 2021 and 1st Jan 2022. 'Good candidates' were also seen at Lizard Point on 18th Aug 2018 and Coverack on 1st Jan 2022, the latter with a Polish ring. In 2023, singles were recorded at Coverack on 18th Feb, Loe Bar on 23rd Feb and Lizard Pt on 5th Mar.

Yellow-legged Gull Larus michahellis [BoCC5: Amber]

Formerly rare, but an increasingly common visitor from late summer to March. Pre-2000 records (singles unless otherwise stated) include:

1988: 9th Mar (Poldhu).

1990: 17th May (Porthleven).

1996: 24th Oct (Loe Pool).

1997: 12th Oct (Loe Pool), 5th Nov (2 Loe Pool).

1998: 28th Dec (Loe Pool)

1999: 2nd Oct (Loe Pool)

From 2000 onward, it has become quite common. The highest counts are of 6 at Lizard Point on 18th Jul 2018 and 19th Jul 2020. A bird at Lizard Point on 13th Jan 2017 was a good candidate for ssp atlantis.

Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus [BoCC5: Amber]

Though historically, the Cornish breeding population has remained quite stable, as a breeder on the Lizard, the species appears to have declined. Holroyd Mills (1903) notes a few breeding pairs at Mullion Island, and Clark (1903) notes it has historically nesting commonly there. Harbey (1924) mentions that 5 or 6 pairs also nested at Gunwalloe. However, during theSeabird 2000 survey no pairs were recorded on the Lizard. It is currently common as both a passage migrant and winter visitor, though the phenomenon of wintering birds is relatively recent. In 1970, non were recorded wintering on the Lizard (though 3 were seen at Rosemullion). By 1980, 180 were recorded at Loe Pool in November and March, but none in the middle of winter. In recent years winter counts in excess of 100 at several locations are not unusual.

Historic (1982) confirmed breeding distribution of Lesser Black-backed Gull on the Lizard.

(Gull-billed Tern Gelochelidon nilotica)

Possible past Lizard Point on 6th Aug 2020

Caspian Tern Hydroprogne caspia

One past Lizard Point on 3rd Aug 2022 (T Blunden, D Beadle). There is also a report of one past Lizard Point on c. 16th Jul 2020.

Sandwich Tern Thalasseus sandvicensis [BoCC5: Amber]

In Cornwall as a whole, and probably on the Lizard, numbers have mirrored the national trend: steadily growing from the early 1990s to a peak in 2007 and declining steeply since then. However, the first documented occurrence wasn't until 1950, though almost certainly it did occur before that as historic authors refer to this species as being quite common. It is best described as a fairly regular migrant. There are also occasional winter records: e.g. 1 in Coverack Bay on 15th Dec 2013. The phenomenon of wintering in Cornwall is relatively recent.

Sandwich Tern, Lizard Point, 12th April 2015. Tony Blunden

Little Tern Sternula albifrons [BoCC5: Amber]

Scarce summer visitor and migrant, with most records from Loe Pool (all records given, singles unless stated):

1975: 27th Apr (Porthleven).

1976: 11th Sep (2 Loe Bar).

1979: 1st Jun (Loe Pool).

1982: 12th Oct (2 past Bass Point).

1990: up to 4 30th Apr-1st May (Loe Pool), one 29th Sep (Loe Pool and Helford)

2008: 29th Sep (5 offshore between Gunwalloe Fishing Cove and Loe Pool).

2020: 15th Apr (past Cadgwith), 7th-8th Aug (Loe Pool).

2023: 7th Oct & 8th Nov (two past Lizard Pt).

Roseate Tern Sterna dougallii [BoCC5: Red]

Rare summer visitor and migrant. Most commonly seen flying past Lizard Point (7 records) :

2010: 4th Jul.

2014: 2nd May (T Blunden).

2016: 13th Jun (T Blunden).

2017: 8th Jun (I Maclean), 13th Jul (T Blunden).

2018: 28th Jun (I Maclean), 18th Sep (J Foster).

2021: 10th Jul (I Maclean).

Elsewhere (singles unless stated):

1974: 2 on 8th May and 1 on 12th May past Bass Point (B Cave).

1976: 28th Sep past Church Cove.

1990: 23rd Aug (Loe Pool).

2015: 25th Aug past Bass Point (B Cave).

2020: 2 at Coverack on 26th Jul 2020 (J Foster et al).

Roseate Terns, Coverack. Joe Jones

Common Tern Sterna hirundo [BoCC5: Amber]

Terns as a genus have been known to Cornish fishermen for centuries and many old records probably relate to this species (though see below). Clark (1906) notes it as scarce breeder in Cornwall, but is currently a migrant only and numbers appear to have declined. Nevertheless on the Lizard it remains fairly common from April to early October, with most seen on seawatches.

Common Tern, Lizard Point, 27th Aug 2013. Tony Blunden.

Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea [BoCC5: Amber]

Historically, in Cornwall, Arctic Terns were common than Common Terns, but by the early 20th century this situation had reversed. However, since 2000 numbers have generally increased. One pair may have bred in 1924. The situation on the Lizard mirrors that in Cornwall (though it has never bred). It is currently a fairly common migrant from Apr to early Oct, though scarcer than Common Tern

White-winged Black Tern Chlidonias leucopterus

One reported from Loe Pool on 8th Aug 1997.

Black Tern Chlidonias niger [BoCC5: Extinct]

Scarce. Most records from Loe Pool where singles or low numbers are seen most frequently in late Aug to early Oct and sometimes in May. Elsewhere (singles unless otherwise stated):

1960: 14th Aug and 1st Oct (Hayle Kimbro).

1973: 3 on 13th Oct (Helford).

1980: 28th Sep (Church Cove).

1982: 19th Sep (past Bass Point), 1st Oct (19 past Bass Point).

1986: 16th Sep (Hayle Kimbro).

1989: 29th Apr (Porthleven)

2011: 18th Sep (Loe Pool)

2018: 15th & 18th Aug (Lizard Point).

2019: 18th Jun (Lizard Point).

2021: 21st Aug (Lizard Point).

2023: 18th Aug (4 past Cadgwith), 5 past Bass Point

The most unusual record of a Black Tern is one in near-full breeding plumage grounded in a carpark in Helston on 6th Jan 1996. The highest count is of 25 at Loe Pool on 23rd Aug 2000.

Black Tern, Loe Pool, 18th Sep 2011. Tony Blunden

Seasonal trends (left) and 5-year totals (right) of initial sightings of Black Tern on the Lizard Peninsula.

Great Skua Stercorarius skua [BoCC5: Amber]

First documented in Cornwall by Ray and Willoughby in 1662, and historically noted as 'not uncommon' off the south coast of Cornwall though there are no documented records specifically for the Lizard. It is currently regular offshore and has been recorded in all months. It is almost as common in winter as in Autumn.

Great Skua, 7th Jul 2018. Tony Blunden

Pomarine Skua Stercorarius pomarinus

Regular spring and autumn migrant, and historically appears to have been quite common, having been noted by Clark (1906) as present in the outer Helford every year since 1900. The first record is of one shot off the Manacles on 15th Jun 1883.

The discovery a significant spring passage along the south coast of Cornwall is a quite recent phenomenon, owing mostly to pioneering seawatching efforts of Lizard birders in the 1970s. Numbers tend to peak in late Autumn, but as with Great Skua, but in contrast to Artic Skua, this species can be seen at anytime of year, including in winter.

Winter records include singles past Bass Point on 8th Feb 1980, 3rd Feb 1994 (B Cave), and possibly the same single recorded past Lizard Point on 20th Jan and 1st, 2nd and 8th Feb 2019 (I Maclean), with another feeding off Lizard Point on 21st Feb 2021 (T Blunden). Also 3 in Falmouth Bay viewed from Porthhoustock on 21st Feb 2021 (P Gay), offshore near Porthleven on 13th-14th Feb 2021 (I Maclean) and past Lizard Point on 1st Dec 2022.

Seasonal trend in documented Pomarine Skua sightings on the Lizard. Though numbers peak during spring and autumn migration, the species can be seen at any time of year. Blue: pre-2020 records. Red: post-2020 records (including 2020). The species appears to becoming more common, with particularly high counts in late-Aug 2023.

Arctic Skua Stercorarius parasiticus [BoCC5: Red]

Historically rare in Cornwall and documented as being so at least until 1948, but currently a regular passage migrant particularly in Autumn and the first record for the Lizard isn't until 1958. Despite increased observer coverage, one can infer that it increased in the mid-to-late 20th century as a high count of 125 were seen flying past Bass Point on 25th Aug 1986. It has subsequently decreased, but remains a relatively common autumn and scarce spring migrant. Spring records are something of a recent phenomenon. Unusually two Arctic Skuas flew inland over Windmill Farm on 25th Apr 2021. 2022 was an unusual year for this species, as many of the records were from very late in the Autumn. The last was one flying past Lizard Point on 1st Dec!

Arctic Skua, 15th July 2012. Tony Blunden

Long-tailed Skua Stercorarius longicaudus

There are surprisingly few documented records historically, perhaps due to this being a full description species, though in recent years proving to be a scarce passage migrant. The first record was of an adult shot at an unspecified location on the Lizard on 4th Jun 1887, but thereafter, extraordinarily, wasn't seen until 2007 (though it was recorded on a few occasions from Rosemullion in the 1980s and 1990s). Likely this does reflect a change in status, though observer familiarity with species, as well coverage, as undoubtedly increased.

All Lizard records are given and all are singles:

1877: 4th Jun (short Lizard area).

2007: 13th Jul (Bass Point).

2010: 5th Nov (Bass Point).

2013: 31st Jul (Black Head)

2014: 25th Aug (Bass Point), 8th Nov (Lizard Point).

2015: 6th Aug (Lizard Point).

2016: 29th Dec (Lizard Point).

2017: 15th May, 3rd and 21st Jul, 4th Aug, 8th & 10th Sep & 13th Oct (all Lizard Point)

2018: 6th May & 30th Jul (Lizard Point), 30th May, 2nd Jun & 13th Oct (Coverack).

2019: 9th & 10th Aug, 6th, 12th & 30th Sep, 2nd, 8th, 13th & 18th Oct (all Lizard Point).

2020: 20th & 21st Aug (Lizard Point).

2022: 21st Aug, 4th Sep, 5th Sep, 7th Sep, 5th Oct (2) (all Lizard Point), 5th Sep (2 Porthoustock)

2023: 13th Aug, 14th Aug, 15th Sep, 20th Sep, 27th Sep, 30th Oct and 18th Nov (all Lizard Pt).

Seasonal trends (left) and 5-year totals (right) of sightings of Long-tailed Skua on the Lizard Peninsula (including Rosemullion). Prior to 2017 the species was less than annual.

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