Tag Archives: gulls

Citizen science for urban dwellers

I just discovered the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Urban Bird Studies program. Urban Bird Studies consists of a number of interesting citizen science projects observing birds and bird behaviors in cities: Pigeon Watch, Crows Count, Dove Detectives, and Gulls Galore. As you might have guessed from the names of the individual projects, the target audience for these projects appears to be kids, and they have lots of photos of school groups full of cute kids with clipboards.

Nonetheless, it looks like there’s some pretty interesting science underlying each of these projects. For example, the Gulls Galore project aims to gather data to help ornithologists understand when and in what ways adult gulls relate to subadults and juveniles. And just looking at the tally sheets and the study site habitat form help me better understand what ornithologists do.

Better yet, Cornell Lab of Ornithology understands that it’s a Good Idea to help us urban dwellers to observe and understand our urban ecosystems, through careful observations of selected species. Now I’m trying to decide if I have the time to work on the gull project — it sounds like fun.

Gulls and crab

A few days ago, I was walking on Pope’s Island near the marina, seeing if any of the recreational boats had been taken out of the water yet. I happened to be watching as an adult Herring Gull suddenly swooped down and landed on the water right next to the rocks that make up the shore of the island. The gull stuck its head down in the water, balanced itself with a flurry of its wings, and came up with something in its bill.

The gull flew right in front of me, and landed in the marina’s parking lot about a hundred feet from where I was standing. It had a fair-sized crab, and it appeared that the crab was still moving. The gull lifted up its head, dropped the crab on the pavement, and quickly picked it up again. As far as I could tell, that drop was the coup de grace, and the crab no longer moved after that.

The gull shook its head with the crab in its bill, put the crab down, turned its head on the side, and pecked at the joint between the upper and lower shells. I walked a little closer as it repeated this maneuver several times. By now, it was pulling little bits of flesh out of the crab and gulping them down.

A second gull flew over, gliding in and landing a safe distance away, and watching the first gull eat. A third gull flew over to watch as well. But the first gull was very adept at eating the crab, and the other two gulls quickly gave up and flew away, either to search for food on their own or to find a clumsy gull from whom they could steal food.

Then a first-year gull flew over, awkward, with its drab brown plumage, and landed fairly close to the adult Herring Gull. It landed clumsily, hunched its shoulders, and gave the keening cry that baby Herring Gulls give when they’re in the nest asking for food from their parents. The adult gull shook the crab very hard a couple of times, and a couple of the crab’s legs flew off. The adult let the first-year gull steal one of the crab legs, which it quickly swallowed whole.

Pretty soon, it looked to me as though the adult had finished all the meat in the crab shell, so I ran over and chased the two gulls away to see what kind of crab it had been. All that was left was the top shell of a Green Crab (Carcinus maenas); its shell measured nearly six inches from point to point.

Eight things I noticed on the beach yesterday evening

Ferry Beach, Saco, Maine

A Herring Gull swooped down onto the beach a hundred yards in front of me, carrying something large in its bill. Through the binoculars, I could see that the gull was carrying a fish, maybe a flounder, that looked too big for it to swallow. A young gull stood nearby, watching and hoping the older gull would drop the fish. The adult gull tossed the fish in the air, dropped it several times, tried to maneuver it so the fish’s head was pointing down the gull’s throat, and then, so quickly I didn’t see it, swallowed the fish. I could see a bulge in the gull’s throat. It swallowed hard a couple of times, then flew away.

A light rain shower passed over the beach, leaving the sand pockmarked with tiny craters where the big raindrops had hit.

I looked out over Saco Bay as the rain showers passed. The sun broke through the clouds in the west, and lit up Eagle Island, which is a mile or so out in the bay. The island stood out, bright and green, against the dark blue clouds and the dark gray sea. More sun came out, and picked out the tops of waves as they broke against the beach, turning them from a dull color to brilliant white.

Bits of a rainbow appeared in the sky: two short, bright bands at the horizon, marking out the north and south points of the bay; and pieces here and there against the dark clouds, so faint that at times I wasn’t sure if I was seeing them or not.

A Common Tern hovered over the water. I managed to get my binoculars up in time to watch it break out of its hover, plunge into the sea, and emerge with a small fish in its bill. It flew up, tossed the fish back and swallowed it, and shook itself dry as it flew off looking for more fish.

Halfway out to Eagle Island, fifty or sixty white specks appeared in a sudden ray of sun, circling around, hovering, and plunging into the sea.

Through some odd optical effect that I don’t understand, broad rays of alternating light and dark appeared in the clouds, radiating out from Wood Island; or perhaps I should say, converging down towards Wood Island. If I wasn’t aware that the sun was almost directly behind me, I would have thought that the sun must have been behind Wood Island, as if somehow the sun were setting in the east southeast, instead of in the west.

A dozen Bonaparte’s Gulls stood on the beach, keeping an eye on me now and then, but mostly doing nothing. They were all molting, losing the crisply-defined black heads of their breeding plumage, losing the odd tail feather, looking rather bedraggled. Presumably, these were first-year birds that never made it all the way up to the breeding grounds in Canada, and so here they sat on the coast of Maine, molting and waiting for the fall migration to begin in earnest. It was a poignant sight, an anticipation of the end of summer.

Posted two days after the fact — I’m a little behind in posting due to spotty Internet access here in Cambridge.

Happy 300th birthday

Today is Carl Linnaeus’s 300th birthday. Linnaeus invented binomial nomenclature, those two-part Latin names biologists have for living organisms.

I celebrated Linnaeus’s birthday by going out for a walk.

Just down the street from our apartment, I noticed that several Alianthus altissima — an invasive exotic that can be difficult to eradicate — are springing up near the pedestrian bridge over Route 18, and I wondered if the city would remove them before they overwhelmed all the nearby plants. Then I realized that the nearby plants were Euonymus alatus, an equally pernicious invasive exotic.

On the Fairhaven side of the bridge, the tide was low. Standing on the mud flats I saw quite a few Larus delawarensis and Larus argentatus, and a Larus marinus standing there preening. Two Branta canadensis swam in amongst the gulls.

Happy birthday, Carl Linneaus. For even though using binomial nomenclature in ordinary conversation is a pain in the neck, we still admire your genius as a taxonomist.

Blogger BioBlitz 2007 final list

Today was my only day off this week, and I had planned to do my Blogger BioBlitz survey today, trying to find how many of each different species — plant, animal, fungi and anything in between — live within the small area I chose to survey (the garden at First Unitarian in New Bedford). We had heavy downpours most of the day, so I had to cut the survey short. In between rain squalls, I took as many photos of living things as possible; I also relied on photos and notes I had taken earlier in the week when I was surveying the area. Unfortunately, the weather meant that I didn’t have time to search out many animals (e.g., I wasn’t able to dig up some soil and look through it for invertebrates, etc.).

My identification of many plants was hampered because it’s still early in spring and many plants have just begun to emerge from dormancy or sprout from seeds; and only a few of the flowering plants were actually in flower. I’m thinking I may continue with this survey of living things over the course of the summer, to see if I can do additional identifications.

I’ve included my list of organisms below, arranged in rough taxonomic order. Over the next week, I’ll be working on further identifications as well as filling in the taxonomic order, and when done I’ll update this entry. (Final update, 28 April, link to final data sheet included.)

Video tour of the site.
Photos from field work.
First post on Blogger Bioblitz 2007.
Second post on Blogger Bioblitz 2007.

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Spring watch

Monday:– The weather forecast had predicted a few snow flurries on Monday evening. Sure enough, as I went in to the district Board meeting over in Middleboro at 6:45, a few fat flakes floated down from the sky. But by the time I walked out of the Board meeting two hours later everything was covered with four inches of snow — that’s a little more than a flurry.

Tuesday and Wednesday:– It felt warm when the sun was out. But when the sun wasn’t out, and when the wind was blowing off the 35 degree ocean water, it felt like winter again.

Thursday:– The gulls are starting to get more active. I suppose they are starting to pair off for breeding season. I’ve been hearing them screaming at each other all evening long, and every once in a while it sounds like one gull throws another one down onto our roof from the building next door.


Today, for the first time this year, I saw ice floating in the harbor. Even though today the temperature almost got above freezing, you can finally see the effects of the cold snap of the past week. There was a shelf of ice in a sheltered area on the Fairhaven side of the harbor. The wind broke off small pieces of it. Three gulls sat on one such piece, drifting along towards Pope’s Island, surveying the world as the piece of ice spun slowly around. On the other side of Pope’s Island, I watched two Harbor Seals playing in the deep water of the main shipping channel. With the cold weather, the seals have moved back into the harbor again. One stuck its head and neck up out of the water; through the binoculars I could see its dark eyes and its whiskers dripping water.


This was one of those days where I simply didn’t have enough hours in the day to do all that needed to be done. Meeting first thing this morning, then a church work party, a lunch appointment, an hour and a half off in the afternoon (I used some of that time to start reading in preparation for this week’s sermon), meeting with the building committee and building engineers this afternoon, which I had to leave early so I could drive out to make a visit at a rehab center. Got home and immediately left for the laundromat (and no, laundry could not be put off for another day or two), did a little grocery shopping while the clothes were in the washing machine, took a walk (for exercise) while the clothes were in the dryer and made some phone calls while I was walking (thank goodness for cell phones). Got home at quarter to eight, made phone calls to try to track down Sunday school teachers for Sunday, ate dinner, and wound up with a pastoral phone call after dinner. Still haven’t put the clean clothes away. Still dirty dishes in the sink.


And somehow I remembered to notice the beauty of two Ring-billed Gulls in Buttonwood Park at dusk, and somehow dark clouds moving through in the middle of the day reminded me of higher matters. The busyness can only take over if I let it.

Buttonwood Park

My laundry was in the dryer, and I decided the evening was too pleasant to waste sitting in the laundromat staring at my clothes going around and round. I walked down to Buttonwood Park.

Plenty of people were out walking on the broad sidewalk at the west end of the park: two middle-aged women out for a fitness walk, a tall exceedingly fit-looking man jogging, a little boy riding a little bicycle with training wheels and his father close behind. Two young people stood in the middle of a gaggle of Mallards and domestic ducks at the edge of the pond, and even though they were right next to a sign that said “Don’t Feed the Ducks/ Por Favor….”, they were feeding the ducks. A pleasant-looking woman striding by looked over at them and said (pleasantly), “Don’t feed the ducks, now.” The two young people guiltily said, “We’re not. They’re eating something else.” The latter sentence was true: the ducks were snapping at big, slow, fat insects rising up from the edge of the pond. “They’re eating the bugs,” said the pleasant-looking woman matter-of-factly, and strode on.

I turned left down the road that bisects the north half of the park, ambling along, feeling logy. Two small girls, who looked to be twins, came tearing down a side path towards the road. “Don’t run out into the road!” shouted an adult voice from far behind them. Laughing, the two girls stopped one another, which involved one girl pulling the other girl’s shirt off her shoulder, and the second girl pushing away the face of the first girl. They got disentangled, still laughing, and resumed tearing along the path, coming to a dead halt at the very edge of the roadway (disconcerting the driver of a huge SUV that had fortunately come to a complete stop at the “Stop” sign at the crosswalk). They turned around in order to look back at the woman walking towards them pushing a stroller, and put on their best angelic faces as if to say, “See? We came to a stop before the road!” The angelic effect was spoiled when one poked the other, and the other whispered something back that made them both giggle.

A hoard of Ring-billed Gulls swirled around the edges of a soccer game, screaming and trying to steal scraps of food from each other, but now I am bored by the gulls that scream all night from the rooftops around our apartment, so I walked on by. Besides, I realized that my laundry would be done soon, and it was time for me to hurry back to the laundromat.