Speaking of Nature

Laughing gulls a rare find

Keep an eye out for these birds ... and guard your food!

Summer is here and the mayhem of the Fourth of July is finally over. We are now entering what I call, “deep summer” and for me that almost requires a trip to the ocean. Many things may pop into your head when you hear the word “beach.” You may imagine the look of the sand, the smell of tanning lotion or the sound of the waves. For me, it also includes that seductive whiff of seafood and french fries from the local snack shack.

There is something about the combination of fish, clams, fries, and hot grease that renders even the most levelheaded adult virtually powerless. Add the subtle scent of melted butter and that same adult may slip into a catatonic state that I call “lobster coma.” The only treatment is a painfully hot meal served in a ridiculously small, unstable and uninsulated container. And if I don’t change the subject quickly I might not be able to finish this column before jumping in the car and heading for the Cape right now!

Anyway, once you have your little red-and-white paper container full of fish and chips, you will need to find a place to sit down and eat it. And as soon as you get settled, you will realize that you have an audience. Hundreds of eyes stare at you, the owner of each pair trying to work out a scheme to steal your delicious, mouth-watering, overpriced feast.

Most of these mischievous would-be pirates are gulls and, depending on where you are, you will probably recognize most of them. Ring-billed gulls, herring gulls and even black-backed gulls are all species that can be found inland, so they will probably not stand out as much as that one species that you rarely see.

The adults of this species are easy to identify because of their beautiful black heads. They also have an unmistakably distinctive call; so distinctive, in fact, that they were named “laughing gulls” because it sounds like slightly nutty human laughter. But it was neither the black head nor the laughing call that caught the attention of the taxonomists.

The laughing gull’s scientific name, “Larus acticilla” is a combination of the Latin words “Larus,” meaning “rapacious seabird,” “ater,” meaning “black,” and “cilla,” meaning tail. Apparently the fact that this species has black tips on its tail feathers only in its immature plumage was interesting to the bird nerds (a term I use with only the greatest affection), but it wasn’t interesting enough for a common name.

Now it is the rare person indeed that will actually get to see a laughing gull nest. These birds like to nest in large colonies that are not only out of the way, but also difficult to get to. As a result, the casual beachgoer will never see one. If you’re willing to use your imagination, however, I can try to describe one for you.

A nest may start out as a shallow, bowl-shaped depression that is scraped out in the sand, or it might be located in an area with thicker vegetation or even seaweed stranded up above the normal high tide line. However it starts, it ends up being a well-constructed nest of interwoven grasses that are built up to a height of several inches off the ground as protection against mild flooding.

Female laughing gulls lay a standard clutch of three eggs. The eggs are all the same basic shapes, but there is quite a bit of variability in the appearance of each egg. All are light in color with darker markings, but some may be heavily blotched, while others are lightly streaked.

There can also be tremendous variability on a female-by-female basis. Some gulls may lay pale eggs, others may lay very dark ones and still others may differ in that they lay eggs that are always the same. Since each female is forced to lay her eggs in a different place, and since the general colors of the surrounding ground will differ from place to place, it is important that the eggs be variable in color. In this way, some eggs may be better camouflaged when the female is not sitting on the nest.

As tiny chicks, laughing gulls are nothing more than fuzz balls with legs. Baby gulls are semi-precocial, which means that they are covered with thick down, their eyes are open and they can walk around a little bit. Imagine the avian equivalent of a toddler and you’ve got the basic idea.

After many weeks of eating and growing, the youngsters are ready to fly (the actual age of fledging is unknown), but they will look nothing like their parents. As with all of the world’s 43 species of gulls, the laughing gull has several different plumage patterns based on the age of the individual bird.

The youngest laughing gulls are quite nicely decked out in a plumage of mottled browns. They do, however, have the long, tapered, black wings and the distinctive eye-rings of the adults. This particular plumage is known as the bird’s “juvenile” plumage.

As winter approaches, the young gull will go through a molt into its “immature” plumage. The mottled browns will be replace with drab grays. At this age, the white eye-rings do not stand out too well, but the long, black wing feathers and the slender black bill are good field marks to look for.

It is not until the birds finally molt into their full breeding plumage that they shine in all of their glory. Their white eye rings stand out in stark contrast to their jet-black heads, their dark gray mantles set off their bright white necks, breasts and bellies, and their long black wing feathers finish the whole look.

And, as if that elegant package of colors were not enough, the adults adorn one final splash of color. When seen in the right light during the breeding season, the legs and beaks of the adults turn a deep, wine red. I’m here to tell you folks that an adult laughing gull in breeding plumage is one sexy beast!

Laughing gulls (like all gulls) are omnivorous scavengers that will swallow almost anything in the hopes that it is edible. In fact, it is this very trait that may have given the group its name. There is a Latin word, “gula,” which means, “throat.” A quick browse through my special secret bird book states that there is also an Old French word, “goule,” which is a variant of the Latin. This is the root for words like gulp, gullet, gullible, and possibly, gull.

Gulls patrol beaches looking for crabs, clams and dead fish; they will survey shallow coastal waters searching for schools of small fish that are close to the surface; and they will even follow fishing boats far out to sea in the hopes of collecting scraps. They are probably most notorious, however, for being clever and agile thieves.

So head for the ocean and relax by the sand, but beware. You are being scrutinized without your knowledge and you may be the victim of a heist if you turn your back on these brazen outlaws. On the other hand, if you plan ahead and bring a couple loaves of bread with you, there is a fantastic chance that you can have some wonderful fun feeding and teasing the gulls. See how close they will come, watch them interact, bask in the glory of nature ... and then get some seafood and jealously guard it for yourself.

Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing,
visit www.speakingofnature.com

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