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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A Portrait of The Gull as a Cool Bird

On the ferry back from Carolina Beach, I noticed some of North Carolina’s more rural residents throwing bread to the gulls off the back of the boat. As they were all gathered in one place, it was really easy to pick out what species were present. Mostly we saw Ring-billed Gulls, easily the most common gull we get in the winter.

I've counted tens of thousands in one day, not something to be done lightly!

They would literally come down and pick the food out of people’s hands! So many gulls were going for the food that they’d even get fooled if you just extended your hand… not that I did it.

Oh wait... I totally did!

Among the enumerable Ring-billed Gulls, I spotted a couple brown juvenile Herring Gulls – their coloration made them stick out in the crowd, but so did their size. Close in size to the Ring-billeds though were a couple Laughing Gulls, a bird I’d thought was pretty good in the winter. Turns out, not so much – we probably saw a solid dozen of the course of a couple days.

They see me flyin'... they hatin'...

There were even multiple Laughing Gulls in this very flock! The best way to tell them apart is by checking the darker mantle color, but the dusky coloration on the head doesn’t hurt. When they’re landed, the white tips to the primaries are pretty obvious – in fact, as one trip participant put it, it looks like their primaries were pooped on by another gull.

Apparently, it helps them edge out other gulls for food!

The gulls weren’t the only ones looking for a handout – all along the deck, Boat-tailed Grackles sang mechanically and dove for any food the gulls missed. Mostly I saw a couple males, full tailed and everything.

Turns out, Boat-tailed Grackles like to hitchhike, but only when there's free lunch.

But occasionally, a female would take up the post a call a couple chip notes before moving on.

Some bread crust brings all the girls to the yard.

The light was so good that I was able to catch a couple of the grackles with their nictitating membranes up. Birds don’t blink, so instead they have a third membrane that travels across the eye to moisten it while still maintaining visual acuity. I even got one grackle mid nicti... tate!

Pretty sure that's what they call it.

Of course, once we got back to Southport, the party wasn’t over. On a lawn near the waterfront, people were once again feeding the birds, this time with a left-over back of pretzels. Where there are gulls, and there’s food… pandemonium ensues.

It's like a scene right outta that one Hitchcock film... crap, what's it called again?

Finally, the feeding frenzy died down, and one of the Ring-billed Gulls landed on a post right next to me. Seizing the opportunity, I took this portrait shot of the gull, undoubtedly the best I’ve ever taken, and probably the only one I’ll ever need.

This angle makes him look almost regal!

After that, we spent the evening looking at Clapper Rails, Bald Eagles, and Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. Sure these are all “better” birds, but it turns out nothing’s quite as photogenic as Ring-billed Gulls and Boat-tailed Grackles when there’s food around. I mean, when they’re that close, they’re just asking to be photographed. And I’m more than happy to oblige!

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