Background Switcher (Hidden)

Heaving Surf, Battling Gulls

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Fun with waves and gulls.

I had some downtime in Virginia Beach. I didn't mind. I loved it. I worked at the computer, watching the sea from my fifth-floor window. A fish washed up, still alive and flipping its tail. I fixed the scope on it, knowing it wouldn’t be long before someone took it up on its unexpected sacrifice. In came three great black-backed gulls. One pecked the fish's eyes and brain out even as it flipped in the sand. Two lesser black-backed gulls landed and began trying to get a nip of flesh from their burly cousins' prize. I was fascinated by the size difference in the birds, seen perfectly, side-by-side.

Not hard to tell which one is the lesser black-backed, is it? 

This, like the black skimmer flights, never happens in Ohio. At least to me. I scrambled into coat, hat, and boots, grabbed my camera, and raced down five flights of stairs. Once on the beach, I walked casually, studiously looking off to the side as if the last thing on my mind was capturing some images of feeding gulls that we rarely see in Ohio. Slyly, I watched them out of the corner of my eye as I sidled closer, pretending to be interested in something on the sand. I dropped to my knees and slowly swiveled the camera at them. They kept feeding and squabbling.

Lesser black-backed, sanderling, great black-backed imm; great black-backed adult (in possession).

Mine. Mine mine mine mine mine. Great black-backed adult gives a long call, denoting his ownership of the hapless piscine.

I was thrilled by the backdrop of heaving gray surf and foaming waves. It was clear to me that the adult great black-backed, who had taken the fish from an immature of his species, was going to prevail. Everyone stood and watched, including a little sanderling who spooked around in between the huge gulls, risking his own life for a taste of fish.

From left: great black-backed gull (imm.); lesser black-backed gull; sanderling, great black-backed gull (ad.); ring-billed gull; great black-backed gull (ad.)  Gull gallery.

One of my favorite shots, clearly showing the size discrepancy between lesser and great black-backed gulls. Not to mention an awesome wave curl and the tiny, cheeky sanderling. The way the sanderling is walking to the side reminds me of an Italian street scene.

I’ve come to look at bird photography in some ways as being like painting, with a heavy dose of randomness injected. As I’m shooting, I’m aware that some of the images are going to be cool, but I may not know just what I’ve captured until I view them on the screen. It’s all happening so fast. And then I get to view them, and I see the immense curl of a dirty wave behind the birds, and with a little cropping it all takes on a monumental feeling, and I am happy. Below is my favorite shot from the session. Awesome action, amazing wave.

I was amused to see the smaller gull actually begging from the great black-backed. It would hunch its back feathers, drop its head and toss its bill upward, giving juvenile begging calls. As if Boss Gull would deign to share.

  Here, the adult great black-backed gull is attacking the juvenile of its own species. So chances that it’s going to offer a bite to the lesser black-backed are slim to none. I love this shot, too, wanky framing and all.

In the end, everyone just watched the great black-backed adult pick the fish apart and eventually swallow the remainder whole. Nobody got nuthin’. The lesser black-backed gull and the sanderling might have scored a tiny bite each. The surf makes a splutter of indignation above their heads.

The lesser black-backed departs for City Pier, or points beyond.

Fish gone, my photo salon with the gulls was over. The thing was to see the fish wash up, throw on the coat and shoes and gloves and race down five flights of stairs and across the wide beach to capture it.

It involves serendipity, but it's not luck--it's situational awareness.

It's paying attention to what is being cast before your feet, all the time.


Wonderful series of photographs. I love your comment about the Italian street scene -- nothing to see here, keep walking, keep walking.

Posted by Jessica Pellien February 19, 2013 at 6:06 AM

Love the photos, love the play-by-play. Kudos!

Great photos and a very good point about seizing the moment!

That last line is perfect! I'll be taking my camera to the beach at lunchtime today.

Love this post. Once we had a similar view of Greater and Lesser yellowlegs at Milford Pt., CT. Naturally, no camera.

Posted by Barb Manicatide February 19, 2013 at 12:00 PM

The only thing that improves your wonderful photos is your captions to go with them. : )

For an awesome winter beach closer to home, may I suggest Mentor Headlands SP, Mentor, Ohio? I had the great good fortune to grow up nearby when it was just "the beach," but now a good part has been allowed to go wild. It has lots of gulls, migrating ducks, and warblers in the spring and fall. It's beautiful too, and a huge expanse--you wouldn't believe it's not salt water!

Poor little sanderling...

[Back to Top]