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The Winter Gulls

Sunday, February 23, 2014

In a tough winter, the cool big gulls from the Far North come down to our ever-so-slightly warmer climes to find open water and food. King of them all is the hulking glaucous gull, shown here absolutely dwarfing herring and ring-billed gulls. They can be larger than the great black-backed, and they have a distinctive look, with a big puffy head and, by proportion, a small-looking dark eye. 

They also have the grace to be nearly all white, even down to the primary flight feathers. So it's not tough to pick a glaucous gull, like this immature bird, out of a flock of sleeping herring and ring-billed gulls. Herring gulls have the red bill spot, while ring-bills have a black ring around the bill tip. The chocolatey gulls in this shot are young herrings. By this time of winter, young ring-bills, like the bird on the left edge of the photo, look much like adults, with a lot of gray mantle feathers showing. That's because a ring-bill is a two-year gull, while the herring takes four years to attain adult plumage. 

Every once in awhile, the glaucous gull would spread its wings and hop a few feet, then settle down again. Wow.

A few dozen birds over, an immature Iceland gull rested. It's dead center, with the black bill tip and the white primaries. Icelands are smaller than glaucous gulls, but their plumage is similar.

All around, rafts of diving ducks floated. Two beautiful drake white-winged scoters joined the greater scaup and common goldeneyes. I love the white eye crescent (actually feathers behind the eye, whose iris is also white). At a distance, it looks like they're winking at you.

A female common merganser arrows by. The clean white patch beneath her chin and the spotless breast, contrasting with a clear-cut sienna head, differentiates her from a red-breasted merganser. There were easily 1,000 common mergs in a single raft out there. Whoo.

I lucked into four long-tailed ducks in the two days I birded Dunkirk Harbor. This is as close as I could get. Two have hauled out onto the ice at the rear right of the photo. You can see their dark round cheek spots. I absolutely love combing through flocks of waterfowl, looking for the new and different.

I mentioned the abundance of death in my first post. When you get this many birds crowded into one spot, some of them are going to die. Disease and starvation take their toll. Some haul out and freeze right to the ice. It must be an awful way to go. When the temperatures hover around zero F for weeks at a time, somebody's going to die. 

I have heard recently that great black-backed gulls around Cape Cod have been observed this winter, holding diving ducks underwater until they drown, then eating them. This is probably slightly outside the normal GBBG foraging behavior, especially at the frequency with which it's being seen. But cultural trends travel like wildfire in birds. As a bird rehabilitator, I know that if you want to get a bird to do something, put its cage next to that of a bird who knows how to do it. Birds learn largely by copying what their neighbors are doing. This is why, in late summer, I'll see young scarlet tanagers, common yellowthroats and orioles (insectivores for the most part) coming in to investigate seed feeders, wondering if there's anything there for them. Everybody else seems to be finding food there. Let's give it a try.

With the number of birds freezing to the ice or dying from starvation here, I doubt this young great black-backed (black tail) or glaucous gull (mocha-white overall) had to drown the red-breasted merganser to get a meal. A herring gull picks at a dead shad in the next booth at the Macabre Cafe.

The glaucous gull dipped its merganser breast filet repeatedly in harbor water, then flew off with its prize.

Despite the death of the merganser, it made me feel good to see everybody eating on such a frigid day. I dug into a jar of almonds and thought about how nice it was to be in a heated metal capsule, swaddled in goosedown, eating almonds instead of frozen merganser. I remain in the thrall of birds, who have no such place to retreat, and routinely survive conditions that would kill me in a matter of minutes.


As a cook, it amazes me that the glaucous gull knows to brine it's duck breast first for maximum moisture and tenderness....

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