Monday, September 5, 2011

The gulls are back in town

Opportunists to the nth degree, gulls can be so much fun to photograph. Despite this, they are often overlooked by photographers for the rarer or more colorful forms of birds. Gulls are common, they are seen often and in great numbers anywhere near ocean waters. Not the most attractive birds with there dullish gray and white feathers, they are frequently difficult to distinguish in terms of species and maturity.

Gulls have adapted well to human populated environments. Yes, they may frequent areas of trash and they can be bothersome on the beach. But watch an episode of "The Deadliest Catch" and notice the birds surrounding the boat that plows through 20-30 ft waves in freezing rain. How did those birds get in the middle of the Bering Sea under such horrible conditions? Apparently it is opportunity, and if you can't appreciate their willingness to swoop in and steal a leftover cheese curl next to you while you relax on the beach, at least appreciate that they are survivors as a result of that behavior.

Gulls are kleptoparasites, they steal from others. I first recognized this behavior while paddling in the gulf and noticing the gulls hanging around the brown pelicans that were diving and fishing. As soon as a pelican's pouch was full of fish, the gull swooped in attempting to capture the tiny fish that somehow would escape the pelicans pouch. I have watch gulls flying around a large raft of cormorants swimming in the shallow waters of Biscayne Bay. While the cormorants seemingly did nothing but drift, the gulls busily dove amongst them searching for food. I have sat in my canoe on the mudflat of Florida Bay near Flamingo where dozens of snowy egrets were foraging all around. Gulls were in great number and as soon as an egret captured something edible, one or two gulls would come after the bird; a chase would ensue in air and many times, the larger gull would get the goods.

Because of their common presence and social behaviors, gulls offer very interesting photographic opportunities. And sometimes, they present color (like the laughing gull in breeding plumage). Observe their social activities and what is often considered annoying becomes an interesting display of behavior that can only be captured frozen in time. Their interactions with each other always include facial expressions that are fierce and sharp with redness. The wing span displays a delicate design of grayscale from 0 to 255. Fear demonstrated in the face of one bird is palpable when another bird attacks its space, challenging its defense.

How can one not like these birds? I do and I was so happy to see hundreds of them in the shallow grasses of Biscayne Bay the other morning. This is the time of year that the laughing gulls migrate through, maybe to the Caribbean or South America. Or maybe some stay in the area. Whatever is happening, they are in great number and this all begins in August. On this morning, I was on the water by 7 am to watch the sunrise (or at least the clouds that covered the sunrise) over the water. Low tide was around 9 am and the grasses near the mouth of the creek where I spend many hours in the summer were becoming more and more revealed as the outgoing continued.

A few egrets, herons and ibises were foraging around as usual. But something much less usual was happening. The laughing gulls were flying in and landing in the grasses. Not long before 9 am, there must have been 300 gulls standing in the grassy water. For the most part, they were just standing and resting. But frequently, few would get into a tussle. Gulls continued to fly in and out. They appeared to not be doing anything but resting. Occasionally, one would swoop down at the grass and pick something up. But mostly, they were just standing, all facing east toward the wind.

Over time, more ibises began to forage around the gulls. Sometimes, a gull would harass the ibis with fresh caught food in its beak. And yet another display of kleptoparasitism was captured. The ibis, being quite territorial, seemed to always win against the attack of the smaller sized gull. Here are a couple shots of that interaction, captured as I was honing in on the ibis that just captured the lizard fish.

Among the gulls were juveniles, noted by the brownish color. I also noticed that some of the adults had red at the tip of their beaks; perhaps leftover from the summer breeding plumage. After some time, the tide shifted and the water levels began to rise. The birds were gone by 10 am.

That was on Saturday. I was back at the same place on Sunday, expecting to see the same thing, except the low tide was 1 hr later. Not one gull landed on the flats as the water levels sunk before 10 am. Not one. There were plenty of them flying over head, but not once did they stop. What was different about this day? What drives these birds to do what they do? It just goes to show you, you can visit the same place day in and day out but nothing is exactly repeated. So many variables, many of which we do not understand. That's what brings me back, again and again. Just like the fisherman that chases the bonefish day in and day out on this bay, I will attempt to learn it; and enjoy every moment of it even if I never figure it out.

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