Sat Apr 2023

Snatching Gulls*

There’s no denying it, gulls are intelligent and resourceful, as I pointed out in an earlier post. A Great Black-backed Gull is the villain of this piece. Spotting a chance to steal a fish, it does so with blinding speed and cunning. Its victim is a diving Common Merganser, which had just brought up its catch. The biggest of all gulls, the Great Black-backed is also the bully of its clan. You can identify it easily in flight by the large white triangle at the wing tips. (The Lesser Black-backed, by contrast, is almost half the size, with a small white spot at the wing tips.)

A friend has suggested that I should record these wild life sequences as videos. Honestly, I’m not interested. I feel there’s more action, drama, and beauty to be had in a good still image than in any video. What’s more, most of my sequences would make rather short videos. This one would last less than two minutes. The time stamp under each image shows, second-by-second, how quickly the action proceeded. That’s true even though I left out a few frames that I felt were repetitive.

The excitement shown here among the gulls seems to take place almost exclusively in shallow water near shore. Why, I’m not sure, but I have two theories. First, in shallow water, the diving mergansers may bring their prey, the little Bluegills, to the surface (where the the gulls can snatch them), while in deeper water, they may find it easier to swallow the small fish while still submerged.

Second — and I think this is more likely — they drive the small fish into shallow water to make them easier to catch. That helps their competitors, the gulls, too. Like all birds that hunt from the air, gulls have incredibly keen vision. I’ve often seen one spot a small fish from quite high up, plunge-dive and grab it. The turbidity of the water being what it is, however, they may not be able to see fish more than several inches below the surface. In the shallows, that problem does not exist. Of course, this is all merely conjecture.

These images were shot on February 8, 2012, at a shutter speed of 1/3200 second. That blazingly fast speed was necessary to freeze the motion of the gulls, a testament to how fast they were moving. Despite all the tumult, the little mergansers appeared unruffled at the end, and bearing no grudge. Perhaps we humans could learn a thing or two from them.