Sunday, 29 July 2018

New Family: On Falling in Love with Steve Mac Gwylan

In recent days we have received a great blessing in our lives here at the hedgehermitage; the presence of a fosterling, a herring gull fledgling who we named Steve Mac Gwylan. We have been told that many people who find gull chicks nickname them ‘Steve’, as in ‘Steven Seagal’ but the reasons for naming our own Steve were far less prosaic, or so I pompously like to believe. ‘Steve’ was for our neighbour, in whose garden two beautiful speckled olive hatched herring gull eggs were found earlier this summer, and whose face lit up when Mr Radical Honey half jokingly suggested Steve as a name for our new ground-level resident. We didn’t have the heart to change his name after that. ‘Mac’ was for ‘mackerel’ (Steve’s first meal in our company), and ‘gwylan’, the Welsh word for ‘gull’. It was a name that suited him well.

Steve Mac Gwylan first appeared in our lives a few months ago when he hatched on our roof where his parents raise their chicks every year. Usually we see two chicks but this year, quite late I think perhaps due to the spring storms, s/he was the only one. Our neighbour found two egg shells in his garden over a couple of days, one being played with by a fox, and so it may be that our resident corvids took the other chick to feed their own. All part of the beautiful web of things. Steve first appeared in clear sight on the roof on the evening of 26th June, backlit by the setting sun. He was already quite large by then, not the usual molecule of fluff that we first catch a glimpse of. He looked like an angel standing there and quite heroic! We have watched him grow over the last weeks and it has been a pleasure, although he did quite like sitting right at the edge of the roof which was rather nervewracking…

And then, last Friday, Simon went out to start Miss Stefi Spring-Green, the hedgetemple van and found a slightly bewildered and disheveled feathered being next to our neighbour’s fence. 

The little gull almost immediately approached him but then went under the van, which necessitated him being coaxed out with some tinned mackerel so that we could drive away. I fear that the mackerel sealed our fate.  We know well not to touch baby birds, even if they are on the ground and seemingly vulnerable. It is all part of their growing and many will spend time on the ground being fed by their parents after leaving the nest. It is more by luck than judgement that they land somewhere safe from predators. This fledgling had certainly not done that but we are used to young gulls being on the ground here as they nest all over our estate and are zealously protected by the adults as they attempt their first flights. We expected to be divebombed by this chick’s parents and relatives but nothing came. We felt concerned but decided to leave him. He spent most of the afternoon wandering along the path between our houses and, when Simon returned with me from my afternoon out and opened our garden gate, the bold little gull just walked straight in! We felt responsible for him after that.

We happened to have recently bought some long, shallow storage boxes and so we filled one with water and the being by now known as Steve Mac Gwylan was soon drinking from it and sploshing around. He seemed well, although one of his wings was drooping slightly, and happily accepted a further offering of mackerel. We contacted a wildlife rescue centre and they advised keeping him in a shed, or other safe place, overnight and then seeing how he was the next day. When I told them that we don’t have a shed they suggested popping him in the bath so that he could “chill out”. And so it was. Along with our neighbours we spent the evening cooing over him, whilst he stayed close to his newly discovered pool of water, and when it got dark Simon picked him up in a towel and into the bath he went. We found a large, low pasta bowl and filled that with water for his night time comfort and also gave him some more mackerel. He didn’t really appreciate the bath to start with but, after the inevitable mess that gulls are bound to make transpired and Simon hosed him down, he was much happier. He loved the water and, once the shower was running, decided that he would eat something and settle down for the night. He was surprisingly quiet and didn’t wake us until 6.30 the next morning when he commenced screeching like a banshee! I found him to be a fine alarm clock!

When he woke us Simon got quickly dressed and took Steve Mac Gwylan out into the garden where he spent a happy day exploring, trying out new foods, finding shady places to relax, stretching, preening, and practicing flying (quite unsuccessfully!). He disliked the slug that he sampled early in the morning, which caused him to spend some minutes wiping his beak on the grass in disgust, but did enjoy a range of tiny beetles and other scurrying things. His ability to spot tiny movements was quite incredible and Simon reflected on what the gulls might be able to see even during flight. They must experience the minutiae of life in a way that we can’t even imagine. Our new fosterling also became increasingly brave and confident with us. He spent some time sitting under Simon’s legs and by my foot and seemed to enjoy being close to one or other of us. Some of Simon’s family visited during the afternoon but Steve Mac Gwylan was unphased, especially as by then he had discovered his own reflection in our garden mirror. His parents occasionally visited the roof but paid him little obvious attention. It did seem though that he was communicating with his mother (or perhaps father, of course) from the bathroom in the morning and now and again during the day. She would often fly over the garden, where she must have been able to see him, and he would gaze up at her which he never did with any other gulls. We felt that we had been entrusted with his care, that his parents knew us to be of good intent.

We thought that Steve Mac Gwylan was doing well and would soon fly so decided to keep him safe whilst he gathered up his wings. Simon spent much time observing him; how he would tuck both wings over his back to rest on his tail but that, as he relaxed, his left wing would slip off. Simon felt that his tail feathers were perhaps not fully grown yet and that his wing muscles weren’t entirely developed. Certainly Steve had a fluffier head than the usual fledglings we see and there had been reports of too-young gulls abandoning their roof nests early because of the heat. On Saturday night when it was time for Steve to return to the bath he didn’t need to be picked up. He hopped into the house and, with some slight encouragement, took himself up the stairs! What a remarkable little bird! Gulls really are such intelligent creatures.

This time Steve Mac Gwylan woke us at 5am and, as Simon made him comfortable for a few more hours sleep, he noticed that his left wing seemed more difficult to move that it had been. When Steve was taken into the garden a few hours later it did seem that the wing had drooped further and that he was struggling with it. He sat on our garden path peeping mournfully with his parent above calling down to him. Simon, Steve, and Mother Mac Gwylan spent some time in consideration of what should be done and so we called the wildlife rescue centre again. They advised us to take Steve to their vets in Maidstone, about 35 miles away. The risk of taking him to a local vet was that, had his wing been broken, the majority would have insisted that he be killed. These vets would treat him and then he would be collected by the wildlife centre who would either care for him until he could be released or, if he was too disabled to live in the wild, take him to a local sanctuary where he could live out a happy life on the ground. We were told that many people would have refused to take him so far because they have better things to do! I must say that, although we knew that it was the right thing, we took him there with heavy hearts. Mother Mac Gwylan was sitting on our roof as we left preening her feathers. I felt that she knew that we were providing her chick with help that he needed but that she wasn’t able to give.

The vets were lovely and, whilst there, we also met Lorraine from the wildlife centre who appeared with a large animal carrier containing four other herring gull fledglings who had come for a checkup. She is looking after twenty four at the moment, as well as various other animals! She told us that it is hard to judge when gull fledglings are ready to fly and so, every few days, they take their charges to some open grass not too far from the beach and let them spend some time there. Some will find it in them to fly away but the others are gathered back in and taken back again a few days later. There was a time that the young gulls were released on the beach, which seems to make perfect sense, but on one occasion two fledglings wandered into the sea, became waterlogged and promptly began to sink, which meant that members of the wildlife rescue had to wade in to save them! Much better then to test out their readiness for release some distance from the water. It seems that for young gulls life begins with much trial and error, as it does for us all. Later in the afternoon we contacted the vets to see how Steve Mac Gwylan was. We were told that he had been x-rayed and that there were no breaks in his wings. Such a relief! The vet felt that he had sprained his wing, or pulled a muscle, when he ‘flew’ down from the roof and that he just needed some time to recover. He had been bandaged for a few days to stop him using his wing too much and was expected to be much better in a few days. After that he would go to the wildlife centre for rehabilitation and release. A happy not-quite-the-ending.

I must admit that the hedgehermitage feels very empty with Steve Mac Gwylan in it. He was only here for a few days but he had such a presence and gulls are such wonderful birds. It is heartening though that Simon’s instincts about Steve’s injuries were proven right and he has resolved to trust his intuition more firmly in future; a lesson that Life often reminds him of, and we are happy to know that Steve will be well and lead a hopefully long, happy, and successful life. We do though harbour secret thoughts that, one day, s/he might make his way back here and come to say hello. Stranger things have happened and he would be made most welcome. In the meantime, we feel that we have been offered a great blessing; the privilege of being trusted with a young life by wildly protective parents, the opportunity to more closely observe a being who we knew so little of in reality, and the gift of feeling more deeply woven in to the life that surrounds us here, particularly of the gulls. We have always loved them but now they are family. Our other family members here include nettle and ragwort, which I hope to write more about soon. Gull, nettle, ragwort; all unacceptable to many, often despised, thought unworthy of being given space in any ‘civilised’ garden, in danger of imminent eradication. Kindred spirits.

As for the herring gulls, most of their chicks have now fledged and so, although they will still be around, our time for being in close community with them is drawing to a close for this year. It has been a challenging year for them, not only because of the spring storms, but also because the army barracks, on whose chimney pots they have raised their chicks for more than a hundred years, have been demolished over the summer. I have been deeply concerned and distressed at the buildings being lost whilst the gulls were nesting but was at a loss to know what to do. It was only today that I discovered there are laws to stop this happening; that any building, tree, or hedgerow with nesting birds (or even birds scouting for nests) is protected between mid March and the end of August. The development company have committed a crime but, of course, the gulls are gone and it would be very hard to prove that now. And yet so much tree felling, building work, and hedgerow obliteration seems to occur between those dates. I have resolved to be more proactive in future and to know what to do before it happens. If you would like to know more you can find information on the Government website here and also here I have no doubt that the developers would have an answer as to why it was acceptable that they disturbed these nests but it feels important to at least ask the question, and also to inform the local police wildlife crime officer, which was the advice I was given today by the wildlife rescue centre. Last week, my neighbour and I attended an information evening about the new estate that is being built all around us. A man there, who said that he was a tree surgeon, was angrily castigating the developers for felling many healthy 80 year old trees which need not have been lost. He said that crows had been nesting in those trees for decades, all gone. I am not quite sure of the date when they were felled but certainly the year had turned to spring. Nothing has been done on the site since. The crows could have raised at least one more family there. 

Herring gulls are often considered a nuisance to humans and, like crows, attract much adverse publicity. That they have come into closer and closer relationship with us might be seen as a teaching, revealing to us our own folly; the amount of food that we throw away and which ends up in landfill sites and often attracting and sustaining large communities of gulls, and our wider behaviour which has led to dwindling fish populations in the sea and so driving seabirds inland. It is to the herring gulls’ credit that they are so adaptable, just as our species is. In so many ways they are our mirror. For all of that the herring gull population has decreased by 50% over the last 25 years and they have now been placed on the RSPB’s ‘Red List’ of threatened bird species. I dearly wish that I had questioned the demolition of our nearby army barracks before it happened. I hope not to be so tardy in the future. I thank Steve Mac Gwylan and all that he taught me for helping me find the strength to even consider trying. Often in this world where so much is being lost, and we often feel overwhelmed and unable to act, our instinct is to cut ourselves off, to turn away, and yet so many of us live in such distress at what we cannot unsee. Better perhaps to more deeply weave ourselves in, and in that weaving find the power in community that helps us to stand with the non-human people, whoever they may be. It may be their, and our, only chance of surviving what comes. 

Fly well, brave Steve Mac Gwylan. We will miss you.

Lots of lovely herring gull info can be found here

and 'gull friendly' wildlife centres here


  1. i'm so happy that gull steve found his way to you and your care!

    i like what you said about the gulls adapting to humans' wasteful behaviours and mirroring humans in a teaching way...more and more i think that is simply true: that the world holds lessons for us, if only we will pay attention.

    1. Thank you so much. We feel very blessed that we were able to spend time with him. We still feel terribly sad without him here. He made such an impression on us!

      And yes, it has often come to me that the animals we see as a 'nuisance' are only holding up a mirror to our own behaviour, which we could take as a teaching rather than putting the blame on them, just as we put the blame on human 'others' who hold up a mirror. It seems that we don't enjoy our own reflection, but that is for us to contemplate and heal if we have the courage. Paying attention is everything x

  2. What a highly informative and beautiful piece. Thank you for letting us know all about young Steve. We have mush to learn from the natural world...You would think we would have learned by now.

    1. Thank you so much, Davena. I think that many of us have learned, or never forgot, but we are surrounded by so much corporate power that has every reason not to care. It is up to us to make it as best we can I think. I am glad that Steve Mac Gwylan has reminded me of that x


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