Sat Apr 2023

Gulls’ Lament*

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.