Lime Hollow Nature Center
Covered Bridge at the Lime Hollow Visitor Center

From My Sit Spot

by Pete Angie

GullThe level of bird song in the air has increased like the length of days—slowly yet noticeably, bringing excitement and pleasure to me and mine.  The mornings are especially rich with it, and at my sit spot I close my eyes to hear multiple species calling and singing at once.  What an awakening from the icy winter!  High above these birds and above the tree branches a pair of gulls glide, one high kleew call alerting me.  I see gulls so often I usually dismiss them as “wildlife” sightings—like pigeons downtown.  But when seen against the sky like this, their angled wings and steady flight speak of a grace not often credited to them.

In many ways gulls remind me of crows and racoons: successful opportunists that have adapted remarkably well to human encroachment, thriving on what we throw away or neglect.  At summer picnics and outdoor eateries by the water folks had better watch out that lunch doesn't get snatched from an unattended table by a quick beak.  Gulls can eye us like packs of hungry dogs, and fight viciously for the cast french fry.  Where I grew up, in Oswego on Lake Ontario, they'd stand  on a breakwater at table height, only feet away, watching every bite.  Those winging above lent a raucous cacophony of vocalizations to the Hitchcockian scene.  Yet as I would guard my paper tray of clams, one of those birds above would invariably drop from where it had been floating almost in place on the breeze and splash into the waves, to emerge holding a tiny, wriggling silver fish in its yellow beak.  That always served to remind me that gulls have been fending for themselves long, long before the advent of the fish fry or dumpster.

Life for a gull in upstate New York begins far away from any of these human things, on remote islands or stretches of shore in lakes Ontario, Erie and Oneida, and in the St. Lawrence and Niagara rivers, where breeding colonies coalesce each spring.  At the colonies mated pairs return to their territory of the year before—thirty to fifty yards in diameter— while new pairs stake out their own.  Establishing and defending this bit of ground can cause males to posture and commence grass-pulling with one another, a tough guy display that looks like weeding and tug-o-war with plants.   Home base secured, pairs set about making a ground nest of grasses, sticks or seaweed.  The nests were easy picking for egg hunters who, in the late 1800's nearly wiped these hatcheries out.  The birds gained protection through the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, however, and now must only protect their eggs from other gulls who would destroy them by pecking.  So one member of the pair always stands guard, and both mom and dad take turns with feeding.  This parental generosity only extends until the chicks are about five weeks old, when the adults start thinking it's time to fly.  They stop feeding the chicks and may become aggressive to the now grown birds.

The young birds are brown at birth, allowing them to blend in and evade predators.  Over the course of three winters their plumage will shift to mottled brown and white, then the adult white and gray or white and black of its particular species.  Of the seventeen species of gull in the Eastern US, three of them are the most common in New York: the herring, ring-billed, and great black-backed gulls.  Some of the gulls will stick around all year, perhaps enjoying the fruits of highly-piled landfills.  Others will form pairs in spring to embark to the breeding sites.  Established couples reunite, and new couplings are made at the breeding ground as groups of males call up to females flying above them.

What strikes me about gulls—their ability to adapt to a changing landscape, their skill at snatching a fish out of confused chop, their graceful flight, and their expressiveness and interactions with one another—can be easily observed because they are so comfortable around people, at our ice cream stands, on local lakes and rivers.  As always, I'm grateful for any species found in the wild—even in the urban wilderness—and for any creature that graces my sit spot.

References:

Andrle, R and Carroll J. 1988. Atlas of Breeding Birds in New York State. Ithaca, NY. Cornell University Press.

Peterson, R. T. 2002. Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th Ed. New York. Houghton Mifflin Company. 

Stokes, D. 1979. Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior v. I.  Boston. Little, Brown and Company.