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Like Rodney Dangerfield, gulls don’t get the respect they deserve. We look at them, yet we rarely see them. We often regard them as lowly scavengers, and all too common ones at that.

I’m as guilty as the next person, but I’ve recently taken a fresh look. Like all scavengers, they are important to the ecosystem. They are intelligent, inquisitive, and resourceful, and can be elaborately social in behavior. Their daring acrobatics in the air, and graceful soaring are a joy to watch. To my ears, there’s no sound in nature more beautiful than the plaintive call of the gull.

Gull’s are not easy to identify. There are many species, and much variation within each. It takes time and patience to learn who’s who. I’ve made a little progress with the ones we see on the pond. I can usually identify the larger species, the Herring Gull, the Lesser Black-backed and the Great Black-backed. The smaller gulls are more difficult to learn, for the clues are fewer and less obvious.

This year, the larger gulls are present on the pond in much greater numbers than I can remember, especially the Great Black-backed. I’m used to seeing one or two of the latter; there must be eight or ten now. This biggest of all gulls can be aggressive, and will often attack another gull or duck to steal away its catch, or like a raptor, even take live prey, such as another bird or a rodent. Fortunately, we don’t see that very often on our pond. We don’t expect it of gulls as we do of hawks and eagles, so it can be upsetting when we do see it.

Gulls are opportunists. In the gull gallery at top, we see them darting in and snatching various scraps of food, or small fish, brought to the surface by the diving mergansers.
Right: 8:54 am, Mallards head to breakfast in a nearby, shallow cove.

Gulls may nosedive or bellyflop to snatch such scraps out of the water. The latter method allows them to fly off more quickly, but it can make an undignified “plop” when they hit the water. They are inventive when it comes to grabbing food, and can meet any challenge that presents itself.

On the morning these photos were taken, the Mallards came around to our little cove for breakfast as usual. Dabbling ducks, they scoop up edibles from the water with their broad bills, but they also upend to reach decayed plants on the bottom. Here the water is shallow, and they can feed easily.

The morning held a small surprise. A small flock of Common Mergansers was visiting. They had been here about a week, arriving a few weeks earlier than usual, no doubt responding to the warm weather and the absence of ice. They, too, showed up, and were feeding farther out. They are diving ducks, and hunt primarily for small fish, using their serrated bills to grip a slippery catch. They hunt constantly, even while swimming along, diving quickly and then emerging seconds later some ten or twenty feet further on. My bird book says they may stay as long as the pond doesn’t freeze over. In fact, I’ve always known them to leave long before that. Perhaps they grow restless, or the fishing becomes spotty.

Left: 9:45 am, Common Mergansers dive for small fish farther out. A female merganser, with a brown crest, is just visible at the far right.

Between the home team of Mallards, and the visiting mergansers, with their promise of bringing up fish, there was plenty of activity to attract the gulls. They circled overhead excitedly, waiting for a chance to dive, willing to expend a lot of energy, apparently, for a tiny scrap of food. There was some pushing and shoving, too, as one might expect. No doubt, at this time of year when food is scarce, the gulls get a mite hungry at times.

All the images were captured on the morning of February 4, 2012. Because I lack the expensive telephoto lenses needed for proper shooting at these distances, I had to content myself with cropping the photos, thus making the birds appear larger, and achieving the effect of a longer lens. So, the photos are not as sharp and detailed as I’d like, but they do catch the action and tell a story.

Although I’ve spent some time watching the gulls here on the pond, and reading about them, I don’t think of myself an expert. So, please regard any identifications I’ve made here as tentative.

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Related: Hopeful Gulls, and Snatching Gulls*.


2 Responses to Gulls’ Lament*

  1. Terry Sullivan says:

    Nice action photo of your Herring Gulls. Is the gull nearest the water departing the pond or landing?

  2. Robin Mirollo says:

    Very impressive shots, Ron, especially of the gull with its wing tips appearing to balance on the water’s surface in an aerial headstand and of the one about to alight on the water, looking like a descendent from the heavens. Thanks for getting your readers to pause and admire the power and grace the gulls possess both in flight and, well, while scavenging.

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