This summer we were able to confirm that the smallest species of gull in the world, the little gull, is nesting with an egg at RSPB Scotland Loch of Strathbeg. It's the first confirmed breeding attempt for little gulls in Scotland ever. Kath Hamper, who works on our north east coastal reserves team and is based at Strathbeg, brings us this blog about them.

Early each summer for the last few years, we’ve been cautiously watching a few little gulls (Hydrocoloeus minutus for the scientifically inclined) in front of the visitor centre at RSPB Scotland Loch of Strathbeg. These handsome small gulls are reasonably regular summer visitors to the reserve, but they haven’t tended to stay around.

A bit like a black-headed gull in miniature, but with more defined features, they have an inky black head, very dark under-wings with a white trailing edge, a dark reddish-black bill and bright red feet, and the adults are ‘flushed’ pink on the breast in the breeding season. They’re mature at three years.

They are migratory, spending summer in northern Europe, Asia, and in some part of southern Canada and they winter in western Europe, the Mediterranean and north-east USA. Hornsea Mere, in East Yorkshire, is a winter hot-spot for them in the UK. Some non-breeding birds have taken to spending summer in western Europe, and these are what we have traditionally seen here.

In 2014, we had adult, immature and first-summer birds loafing around the Starnafin pools, and we noted some mating activity; I noted in the Annual Bird Report - somewhat hopefully, I admit – “one to watch for if the pattern continues!” Nothing came of it.

In 2015, a mix of adult and immature birds returned; they were seen mating and carrying nest material onto the island. We held our breath, but they were hard-pressed by the resident black-headed gulls and common terns with which they shared the nesting site, and failed to continue their efforts. Again, nothing came of it.

This year, two adult birds and one second-year individual (plus another first-summer bird still too young to take much of an interest) took up station in their normal preferred spot, and we – once again – held our breath. The cold weather earlier in the spring seemed to have put off most of the black-headed gulls, although the common terns had arrived in force and set up their usual noisy territories.

The little gulls prospected around the island, settling here and there until they changed their minds and always raising our hopes, before eventually settling down precisely where we can’t actually see them from the new office window. They indulged in some mating behaviour, the female seemingly trying out both the adult male and the second-year. We kept a close eye on them, but didn’t seriously expect much more than last year.

We were wrong!

A comment from a regular birdwatcher led to a cautious flight over the island with our remote-controlled drone, the results of which led to as much excitement as I think I’ve ever seen from our Site Manager when I arrived at work that afternoon. He frantically beckoned me into the office and showed me the video he’d taken. (I’m not saying he was giggling like a schoolboy, but he was...!)

We had an egg!

And that one small olive-brown egg led to a whirlwind of activity and a lot of extra work for our staff and volunteers here at Strathbeg. We’ve stocked up on tea, coffee and biscuits to keep everyone going and we’re now on 24-hour guard duty, keeping watch over the nest. We don’t know how many eggs there are, but we’re keeping our fingers firmly crossed.

Why are we so very, very excited?

According to Mark Holling, Secretary of the Rare Breeding Birds Panel (RBBP) - and he should know - this is only the sixth confirmed case of breeding in Britain with the most recent record from Norfolk in 2007 and the first confirmed record for Scotland. Which makes this rarer than cranes, or red-necked phalaropes, or even stone curlews...and that is a Big Deal!

It’s a fantastic thing to be happening – and it’s right here on our reserve!

So we wait, and we watch – oh, how closely we watch – and we hope. They should be hatching soon....

If you want to learn more about Loch of Strathbeg and the work that goes on there you can check out our reserve blog by clicking here.