Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Laughing Gulls

More than any other bird, the Laughing Gull surely stands as the icon of southern New Jersey. Wherever you go, they are there; loafing on the beach, feeding offshore, hanging out at the shopping centres or passing high over inland forests. And it's the sound of Laughing Gulls that is so prevalent here, from early March right through to late November they dominate the scene and are an all important part of everyday life here.

Back in April, when the gulls were all fired up at the start of the breeding season, I spent a lunch break with them, so here's a picture diary of lunch with the Laughing Gulls!

When I arrived, the gulls were well settled into their routine; some were loafing on the grass, others were bathing in the freshwater lake. Coastal birds that come into contact with salt water a lot will often wash periodically in fresh water to reduce the salt load in their plumage. Interaction between the birds was most intense when new arrivals appeared on the scene. Here, a bunch of bathers are heading for land...

The bathers drop in amongst the birds already settled and preening at the water's edge. Now it's time to jostle for position or get back together with a partner.

On arrival, a bird will first locate its partner - usually by calling, which is when it really gets noisy sitting this close to them!

Sometimes, someone comes in too close to another bird and a bit of a barney flares up!

A newly-arrived bird calls to its mate, using a ritualised stance, with head held high, wings held out from the body and drooping, and with mouth well open, showing the rich red colouration that is at its brightest during the breeding season.

Another typical greeting posture, once a pair comes together. Both birds are greeting each other with the long version of their call. The nearest bird is in the posture described above; the back bird is further into the call and here you can see how the call ends with the head pushed right back and the bill pointed skyward.

After the formal greeting, the two circle each other, strengthening the pair-bond.

I put this picture in because it shows something I see regularly but don't know exactly what's going on. If you watch a flock of gulls or terns for any period of time, you will find that the birds regularly stare at the ground immediately beneath them, sometimes for several minutes at a time. I don't know why this is, but maybe they're just keeping an eye out for anything that might harm them, like spiders or biting or stinging insects.

As I mentioned earlier, gulls tend to be pretty aggressive towards each other and there's a certain decorum involved in flock behaviour. Seeing two birds as close together as this is a clear sign that this is a bonded breeding pair. Indeed, while I watched, the standing bird seemed almost trying to sit on the other one!!

Here's another pair whiling away the warm hours of midday; again, the standing bird is almost sitting on its snoozing mate!

Most gulls are pretty aggressive birds; they need to be, otherwise they'll miss out on their share of the food. Typically, this means that a rather lengthy courtship procedure develops to allow them to get over their aggressive tendencies and be nice to each other - otherwise there's not much hope for the future of the species! This pair have just reunited with each other and proceed to call loudly for a couple of minutes....

The loud calling became more intense in the bird on the left - and look at the reaction form the newly-arrived bird on the right; his throat is swelling up...

What's happening is another piece of ritualistic pair-bonding, where the female is food begging from the male like a chick would do, and pecking at his bill. So here, the juvenile behaviour of the female is helping to break down aggression, while the male is showing that, by feeding the female, he is capable of finding enough food to provide for a family.

Some food is passed over from the male to the female (sorry I missed it!) and the female goes back to ritual long-call displays.

More food-begging further cements the pair bond.

So, what else goes on in the busy, daily schedule of a Cape May Laughing Gull? Well, a lot of yawning....

....a lot of preening to keep the plumage in good condition....

....and quite a lot of scratching too - in fact, pretty much like the family pet!

One other thing which is always worth keeping an eye out for, is noticing when a bird is looking skyward. If you see a bird tilting its head in this way, it's probably seen something passing overhead. Birds have amazing eyesight compared with ours and never fail to spot a minute speck in the sky which - several minutes later - turns into a bird of prey. While I was watching this group, they got me onto three Turkey Vultures, a Red-tailed Hawk and an American Kestrel, all passing high overhead, but all spotted by the gulls.

So next time you're at a loose end one lunch time, go spend some time with the local gulls and see if you can work out what they're up to.