Friday was a cold day in beachtown, leaving the water and wind-stirred stretches of sand for hardier specimens. A long part of the afternoon was washed in clear sunlight common to colder months along the east coast and I took advantage of it to wander off on a walk. It was one of those times when the sand was clean and hard-packed, easy for walking and free of anything to turn you from a straight line. At first were a couple of gulls standing a good distance apart, an everyday sight of normally social birds having some solitary time away from the colony.
And then there was a huge gathering of them, all facing north at the water’s edge. For reasons beyond me, they suddenly took off in a fluttering cloud, made one low circular swoop out over the water and returned to settle again in the same spot. A moment after touching down every bird was once more stationary in a northward gaze. Gulls are very aware of attention, and when one of us large flightless creatures stops to watch them, they become nervous and edge farther away. Several times in my picture-taking, bird or birds felt threatened by my ‘stare’ and scuttled away.
Where numbers of gulls have gathered for their cryptic rituals at surf’s edge, there is always a scattering of left-behind tokens of their temporary stay, and if luck is on your side, a shed feather untrammeled and still dry makes a delicate and naturally beautiful picture. Too often the harsh setting makes quick work of these dropped plumes, quickly turning them into crusted, splintered leavings denuded of their beauty.
A few more yards down the beach and I came upon a near-perfect set of gull footprints, looking in their webbed shape like two tiny kites waiting for lift-off. Not quite sure how these isolated and static prints are left in the sand, but they appear with no beginning or end, a stamped image telling that one bird stood here looking north.
Whatever we may imagine about the presence of seagulls on a beach, one fact is certain: they are forever and always on the lookout for the next tasty bite of food. And obviously they do pretty well in their established habitat or we wouldn’t see them for long. Eating means eventual defecation, and if you pay any attention to it, seagull excrement is not the unsightly and malodorous discharge common to many land animals. More often than not it is a pure white splash on the sand, with now and then a dark speckle. The best thing about is that it’s gone in the next wash of surf.
Gulls are typically a coastal or inland species, rarely venturing far out to sea. In size they are generally medium to large birds, typically grey or white, often with black markings on the head or wings. They have thick, longish bills and webbed feet. The larger gulls take four years to attain full adult plumage, but two years is typical for smaller birds. Most are ground nesting carnivores, which will eat live food—crabs and small fish—or scavenge opportunistically. Like snakes, gulls have unhinging jaws which allow them to consume large prey. As strange as it sounds, gulls have been observed preying on live whales, landing on the whale as it surfaces to peck out pieces of flesh. Some gulls rely on what scientists call kleptoparasitism, a form of feeding where one animal takes prey from another.
The larger species in particular are resourceful and highly-intelligent birds, demonstrating complex methods of communication and a highly-developed social structure, with typically a harsh wailing or squawking call. They nest in large, densely packed noisy colonies, lay two to three speckled eggs in nests composed of vegetation and the young are born with dark mottled down, are mobile upon hatching and able to feed themselves almost immediately.