Nature Notes: A Gull’s Life

I keep track of each bit of nature as it crops up — crows, blue jays, butterflies, and the like
An adult herring gull fed a fish to an immature great black-backed gull. There are a number of species of gulls on the South Fork, each with slightly different markings and habits. Terry Sullivan

One of my long-term hobbies is counting the vehicles that pass east and west in front of my house two or three times a day, but almost always at noon and 6 in the evening. The latter count is now in the dark, but the noon count is fully lighted and I can separate the vehicles into various categories: sedans, S.U.V.s, pickups, buses, government vehicles, and trucks of various kinds. It’s something I’ve been doing off and on since 1980. 

While I’m counting and writing down each time for eight minutes, I also keep track of each bit of nature as it crops up — crows, blue jays, butterflies, and the like. Since my front window faces not only busy Noyac Road, but also Noyac Bay, so many of my natural observations are those of gulls, mostly herring gulls and great black-backed gulls, but also occasionally ringbills. Whether it’s calm or windy, they flap or glide by, making circles, diving but seldom landing, and seemingly enjoying their rides.

Then, too, at least once a day I hear gulls flying over the house toward Noyac Bay uttering those gull notes that to most of us are as familiar as the caws of crows. I have this untested theory that they are signaling to other gulls that the tide is right for scavenging along the water’s edge.

When I walk along Long Beach during the daytime there are always 5 or 10 gulls sitting on the edge of the beach, mostly parallel to the wrack line, one eye watching the water, the other watching the parking lot where I am. Occasionally one will get up off the ground and alight at another spot, then assume the same parallel-to-shore pose.

In the summer, the gulls are fed by several beachgoers in the same way ducks are fed at Otter Pond or at the East Hampton Village Nature Trail. When exposed mollusks are in season, the Long Beach herring gulls pick them up and drop them on the pavement, then swoop down and devour the soft contents. Only the herring gulls, a most ubiquitous gull species, do this. The great black-backed gulls prefer crabs and fish to mollusks, but whenever they find a mussel, scallop, or clam, they open it by battering it with their bills.

Gulls have been protected from the guns of hunters for ages. They are almost sacred beings in the eyes of some. In the winter, the ring-billed gulls are found along the waters’ edges along with the other two species and occasionally a lesser black-backed gull, almost always by itself, or a glaucous gull makes up part of the gull groupings.

Each gull species abides others with the same lassitude. They are equally graceful at commingling or standing or flying by themselves. Whenever I go to a shopping center such as the Bridgehampton Commons there are a few gulls flying or standing around. When I go to the North Sea landfill or any other local dump, there are always a few hangers-on, even though there are almost no edible scraps around to feed on in these modern days. You are as apt to see a fish crow at the dump as you are a gull.

Gulls that no longer have access to an old style dump probably have a more nutritional diet. They are mostly dependent on seafood, and little else. Herring gulls and great black-backed gulls hang around all year the way common crows do. When seafood supplies are sparse, you often find them sitting in fields. They are not averse to feeding on insects if available.

At Montauk Point, where several rare-to-the United States gulls show up each winter, if you look out to sea during the late afternoon, you are liable to see a trawler or a squidder on its way back to port accompanied by a long line of gulls. On the other hand, fishing boats leaving the harbor on their way to the fishing grounds are rarely followed by gulls.

You wonder why other local gull species don’t drop clams and mussels on hard surfaces the way herring gulls do? Is it pride? Is it the fact that young herring gulls are taught to do it, while it is not part of the culture of ring-billed gulls or black-backed gulls?

Crows, starlings, and gulls are here all year round. They are great survivors. Only rarely do I find a road-killed gull or crow (and never a starling). They both will feed on road-killed squirrels and rabbits, but are careful when doing so to observe the traffic in both directions.

One often hears the expression “leading a dog’s life,” but never “leading a gull’s life.” Apparently a gull’s life is a pretty good one, and not a very difficult one. Should the reader choose to be reincarnated, why not come back as a gull? I might just be gulled into it.

Larry Penny can be reached via email at