After my third attempt to photograph piping plovers at the Far Rockaway’s ended up in a failure, I began to feel disappointed. To protect the plovers, a part of the beach was closed. I walked for hours with my long lens camera, only to learn that the plovers moved to the other side. I wondered what happened to the beginner’s luck.
To help with my failure, the volunteers for the NYC Plover Project handed me some really nice blue stickers depicting a sketch of a plover. I proudly attached it to the back of my computer while hoping for a more fruitful next visit.
I think the child artists, must have foreseen this moment. As I was walking on the broadwalk, I saw many drawings of plovers. I was glad that we were educating the youth on the importance of the environmental protection, but I was upset that these children were not drawing happy birds, but were asking us to protect them. Definitely this is not the future I have envisioned.
With no plovers to photograph, what else was there? As I was starring at the water for a moment, a group of gulls began to fight near the garbage can. I never paid too much attention to the gulls. They are present in most places of the New York City, even not too close to the water. Their white and gray plumage seemed to blend with the surrounding sand and the Ocean water.
Gulls are the villains of the beach. Some are known to steal people’s food, and their loud voices can be heard from afar.
To my surprise, the gulls turned out to be quite mysterious and with a sense of fashion.
With no knowledge of the different species of gulls, I started taking some pictures and noticing the details for the first time. I have seen gulls many times when I was on the beach, but I failed to notice their differences. What made things worse, is that gulls can have multiple plumage colors depending on the season, their age, and species. All seemed very similar to an inexperienced eye like mine.
The ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis) is characterized by a ring located at the top and bottom half of its bill, paler color, and yellow legs. The ring-billed gull depicted below, has a streak of tan on its head and neck, marking it as a non-breeding adult.
Breeding adults have a clean, white head, pale eyes, and yellow eyes. To an amateur bird enthusiast like me, he looked like totally different bird.
This beautiful bird is often a big nuisance, but maybe we are thinking about this the wrong way. Gulls are known to gather at landfills, from where they pick up garbage and spread it around. The fact is that the bird does not know that this is a landfill, or a garbage can, all he knows is that there is food.
A bird that can adapt to the changing world so well, points to us our failure at managing our trash, and not the bad behaviors of the species.
A second most common gull on the East Coast is the herring gull (Larus argentatus). The herring gull is a true fashionista. This species has 4 different plumages in the first 4 years of their lives. From white to different shared of grey to brown, the differences are subtle, and not easily differentiated.
Herring gulls have a spatial adaptation, they can drink saltwater. They have special salt glands located near the eyes helping them to excrete the extra salt, but they prefer to drink freshwater. Most animals cannot drink saltwater, as it will lead to quick dehydration due to high salt content, including humans. We all heard of people stranded in the Ocean suffering from dehydration.
Herring gulls, similarly to other seabirds, present a tricky conservation problem. The herring gulls have been declining by about 2.7% per year since 1966-2019. This may not seem like a big number, but that accounts for about 76% decline over the years. Since the herring gull numbers are difficult to assess, the species is classified as rapidly declining. I am sure this is not something beach goers realize when they complain about the screeching sounds of the herring gulls.
The herring gulls are omnivores. They will eat fish, crustaceans, mollusks, birds, eggs, and insects. At the beach, they will also pick up trash, which makes the young very vulnerable and less able to survive in the wild as adults.
Juvenile herring gulls are brown and require 4 years for full adulthood. They remain brown for the first two years of their lives.
This particular individual was feeding off sand crabs, a very popular snack on the shore.
A third species of gulls, the laughing gull (Leucophaeus atricilla), is also quite common. Similarly to the herring gull, its plumage is dependent on their age and sex. They are much smaller than the herring gulls. Their colors are darker and more distinct form the gulls, making them easier to spot.
Gulls turned out to be are much more interesting than I anticipated. Although the gulls may seem quite abundant, we should not fall into a trap that they are not threatened. Once again this quote come to my head, we should protect what is abundant, before it becomes scarce. Same applies to the gulls.