Potato Island is heating up again. The courtship displays of the Herring and Great Black backed Gulls are getting noisier, as the couples reclaim their spots from past years. They are monogamous and even though the two species sometimes destroy and even eat the eggs and young of the other this usually results from illegal border crossing. They mark out their territory in nesting size segments and apparently everyone knows what the lines are. If they are violated the perpetrator is fair game and so is his family. I always wondered how they kept the peace so crowded together.
This year I saw a hybrid couple, a Herring Gull with soft grey back and the Great Black Backed with its enormous size, the largest gull in the world, courting—a Romeo and Juliet kind of romance. They bathed in the pond with the others as part of the social club, which gathers every afternoon between 3 and 4 pm for noisy wing flapping and head ducking. I have seen hybrid gulls but never saw a couple that produces them before. They were quite handsome and flew off together in formation low over the water sort of like fighter jets in aeriel display, dipping their wings in synchronicity.
I love these birds and think they have gotten a bad rep from people. They are beautiful to watch. They fly with such efficiency. And of course when “Bart” adopted me last summer I fell in love. I have been looking for him now that it is spring but I haven’t seen many young ones. They wouldn’t be around during breeding season anyway but I wonder where the first year birds go and if they even survived the rough winter we had. Bart’s plumage would be darkening on top and his bill will be less all black, as it was when he was just a few months old.
He was quite a character. And so trainable. Black backs are usually more skittish than Herring gulls but not Bart. He was big and handsome even when he first came down on our lawn.
He readily ate what I put out for him: leftover fish or apples or hamburger or bread. He didn’t like grapes but loved peaches.
He was eating out of my hand before long and catching food in his mouth like a dog when I threw it. Soon I expected him to sit when I gave the command! He let me stroke the soft feathers on his back and made gurgly baby sounds when he saw me in the morning and evening when he came for his meals. Once when I sat on the deck to read he waddled up, tucked his legs under him and rested by my chair until I rose. Often during the day I would see him down on Moon Beach eating mollusks and even seaweed that washed ashore. He also found little baitfish in the pond water draining through the sluice to the ocean. So I knew he was resourceful and could get on by himself when we left in late October. Perhaps I will see him after the breeding season is over and the adults on Potato Island are less territorial. I hope so. He had a big personality to go with his big size.
There are over 50 breeding pairs on the island this year, two thirds are Herring Gulls and the rest Black backed who seem to occupy the higher elevation nest sites. There must be a hierarchy. I wonder what happens when a couple dies, or even a mate, who gets their spot? I saw a Herring Gull, newly dead floating in the water across the pond. There was a great commotion among a bunch of Herring Gulls when they spotted it. They wheeled around and dived down close to it, screaming and circling for over fifteen minutes. Then only two were left. I think that one of them must have been the dead gull’s mate for it stayed and circled closer and closer for another ten minutes, the nearest thing I have seen to grieving for a gull. Finally all was silent and they were gone leaving the pristine dead bird to float among the cattails.