Monday, August 20, 2007

My Apologies to the Gulls.

It starts out, with my watching the squirrel on the picnic table eating corn.

Suddenly he turns and looks toward the park. There they are, THE GULLS, circling above the park. And I'm going to find out what exactly it is they're up to this time. I'm on a mission.

I run out the door barefoot, without a hat, without a camera, without anything (okay, yes, clothes) and splash through the saturated yard, it's been pouring rain for three days, and head towards the park. Where I stayed for an hour watching the gulls before finally returning home, grabbing the camera, no tripod-they might find it too weird, and scampering through the puddles back again.

I discovered that my crack about attention span was completely off base. Also I had the discovery of my unknown prejudice, that Gulls might be a little on the dim side, compared to say Red-tails, Parrots, and Pigeons anyway, and that though a flocking bird that they might well be a little on the every-bird-for-himself side of things when it came to pecking order.

Nothing could be further from the truth, at least in a flock that has not been polluted by humans and easy garbage pickings.

Lets start with a few observations that I'd gleaned without knowing that they might prove helpful in Gull behavior. What's the story on all those worms? They're dead.

It's been raining here, pouring as a matter of fact with very few breaks for days and days and days. There has been 12 inches of rain in some parts of Wisconsin in the last three days. In Vernon county north of here there are 8, count 'em, 8 damns that are leaking and in great danger of bursting. Evacuations abound. Including a mass evacuation of the earthworms from the saturated soil

But if they come up in a spot with standing water--it's curtains. With so much standing water, the earthworms are drowning by the thousands. I'd started noticing it two days ago and as the rain increased so did the worm casualties.

Then the question was why weren't they being eaten by the Robins. Well, because sometime in the last week every Robin in the vicinity has gone. Poof, not a Robin to be seen anywhere. They seem to have started their leisurely seasonal trip south.

Could the Gulls have appeared to feast on the bounty of exposed earthworms?
It seems possible. But they don't pull them up making them visible from some distance to an observer as Robins do, so that's yet to be seen. There is no doubt though that they are here eating something and there seems to be plenty for everyone.

On my first trip over to the park, immatures for the most part were standing sentinel. Yes, the birds on the lights are the watchers and they watch from the lights surrounding the area the flock had chosen to feed in.

They were feeding in the sand of the infield and the grass of the outfield of one of the fenced baseball diamonds. When I left the walkway to go through the gate. There were several loud cries, not sure from whom, but the flock then began to take to the air and moved feeding areas.

Once again these are birds which are not trusting of humans and have their own thing going, thank you.

Just a few birds at first took to the air circling when I crossed the invisible, at least to me, at the at point, boundary. They continued to circle until they had gathered most everyone but the sentries. The three sentinels on this street light pole turned from the baseball field to a broader span of view, which included me.

The bulk of the flock than went SE to a nearby very low spot that encompassed three football fields, with a perimeter that included, several park driveways and a highway.

This lone sentinel had been stationed to the east, several fields away, near the highway even when the bulk of watchers had surrounded the western baseball diamonds.

That sentry was watching a man and two dogs who were in the parking lot to the SE.

On the extreme NW another single bird watches the parking lot from a stadium light.

Wait, a minute. When I was here before the three sentries on this light, between the baseball and football fields had been immatures. Now they are mature birds.

The sentry follows the man and the dogs.
One dog leaves the path and a call goes out. Some Gulls take to the air most flying back to the W and the baseball are.

More birds go up and W.

Many of the birds on the ground are no longer eating but rather are upright and alert.

I step up on the curb from the parking lot, these birds are a good 1050 yards away and more birds go up and head back to a new area in the baseball fields. Keep in mind the dog who started the alert was on a lead and had only strayed a little off the sidewalk. My stepping into the invisible perimeter may have activated something as well.

A good percentage are now in the air going west to the new spot.
Instead of going directly west they curve slightly more south this time.
A few go directly east and then south, flying over this sentry who had been in the far NE corner. They fly directly over the lone sentinel who is in the NE corner. One of the flying birds call.

The lone sentinel calls back and he's into the air as they all fly out of the park to the far east by northeast over the high school to possibly the sports field behind that. Are these birds the vanguard, the ones who go in search of the next foraging spot?

A few mature birds have decided to remain on the football field.

Most have elected to fly over to the baseball diamond.
In the meantime, sentry One of the three, has disappeared while I wasn't looking.

But another bird arrives to take up the missing sentries spot.
Then another call is heard and the calling bird heads for number Three's spot, Three calls and leaves and the new "Three" lands. Both Two and Three may have been signalling before the call that it's time for them to be relieved or perhaps neither is sure who is going to be relieved and they have to be ready so they don't get knocked off the pole. The "call" seemed to clear it up.
Substitute in.
And here comes another bird who calls and relieves number One, who calls back and who actually had just gotten there, but he was a "sub" after all.

And here comes number Two's replacement. Again the call and response from the two. The one coming and the one being relieved. If I hadn't been paying attention, I would have thought the the birds who came in were aggressively stealing the sitting birds spot. That isn't the case at all, it's just Gulls sound rather aggressive and raucous to humans, it jaundices our take on the events.

At intervals of about 10 seconds all three of the sentinels in this pole position were relieved. Every bird is new. Who would have thought? This is a complicated social structure without a doubt.

Some birds have now migrated toward this area which is west north west.

There is a call and response and the nearest parking lot sentinel is relieved but not replaced. He takes off as the other lone sentinel did, who was also not replaced---in the direction of the outriders.
More rain is starting, it's getting on towards supper time and the park attendance is pretty much down to me and the Gulls. I remain on the concrete and don't have the bad manners to infringe on the curb or grass.

All seem relaxed. In fact a couple seem to have snugged down into the wet turf. Or perhaps being gulls who do spend time floating on bodies of water, they may have snugged down in a puddle and are feeling quite at home.
There were many things going on I couldn't decipher. There was much calling which I couldn't figure out as well. At least to my ear the calls don't vary but they seem to to a Gull's ear as they respond differently or else there is body language that communicates with the call. But the replacement of the watchers as if it were "time" for them to be replaced tells me there is much social structure in a healthy Gull flock that we are downright clueless about.
Bravo for birds!
Donegal Browne

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