Tag Archives: gulls

Dead gull season

The many flat roofs of downtown New Bedford host a nesting colony of Herring Gulls. By this time in the summer, the young birds have been out of the nest for some time, and they’re trying to figure out how to make a living. Some of them still cry at the adult Herring Gulls, trying to coax an adult into regurgitating up some nice fish. Herring Gulls are not particularly social, and the adults want nothing to do with the young gulls once they’re out of the nest. The young gulls turn to foraging for garbage. I was driving up Acushnet Avenue the other day. A young gull stood in the middle of the intersection with William Street, trying to tear open what looked like one of those brightly colored bags fast food comes in. I tooted my horn and slowed down, expecting the bird to fly, or at least hop, out of the way. It didn’t, and I narrowly avoiding running it down. The young gulls haven’t yet learned to avoid cars and trucks. On my walk today, I saw two corpses of young Herring Gulls, one in the middle of the swing-span bridge with one broken wing pointing up, and another one completely flattened in the middle of Route 6. From what I’ve seen along the sides of the roads, this year’s crop of Herring Gulls will suffer its highest mortality rate over the next few months; the ones that survive will have learned to hop out of the way of cars, no matter how enticing the smell that comes from the brightly colored paper bag.

Eagle Island

The weather hadn’t cooperated all week: fog, wind, rain storm. Some of us had hoped to paddle out to Eagle Island, but the weather had made it impossible.

Tonight at dinner, I realized that finally the weather was perfect: calm, no big swells coming into Saco Bay from the Atlantic, no chance of fog. I asked around, and Rebecca, who is from Arizona, said she’d be willing to paddle out with me. Just as we were about to carry the canoe down to the beach, Jon came walking along. He’s been waiting for the weather to break all week.

“We’re going out on the bay,” I said to him. He looked at his wife. “Go,” she said, “if you don’t, you’ll be miserable.” He ran and grabbed his kayak, and walked down with us.

We walked way down the beach to meet the low tide. We waded out, floating the canoe until the water was up over our ankles, then jumped in and started paddling.

About halfway out, a big fish jumped completely out of the water, and fell back in with a splash. It must have been four to six feet long. As we paddled along, Jon laughed and said, “I needed this.”

The water started getting darker. The sand ended, and the bottom dropped away to deep rocks. We passed a few lobster buoys. The island was getting closer: dark jagged rocks, long points or spurs exposed by the low tide, little specks of birds perched here and there, the highest part of the island covered with green (nettles and grasses) above the reach of the highest tides.

We got close enough to see rafts of eider swimming and diving around the island. They flew away when we got too close. Jon saw a seal slip into the water from off one of the rocky points.

Great Black-backed Gulls seemed to control most of the island, with a few Herring Gulls and Double-crested Cormorants. We could hear the keening cries of the baby gulls, saying, Feed us.

We slipped around one of the points of the island, out from the lee side. Low swells from the Atlantic slowly raised and lowered our boats. It’s a lonely, rugged little island.

The sun was getting low. We didn’t have time to go all the way around the island, so we turned around. “What a magical place,” I said.

On the way back, a Common Tern dove down close to our boats, pulled back four feet above the water, hovered for thirty seconds, and flew low over our heads. “Wow,” said Jon. “Amazing. Imagine being able to see that.”

The setting sun was off our starboard bow. Further to the right, thunderheads were building up over Casco Bay, the next bay to the north. We talked about other outdoor trips we had gone on, until at last we rode some waves in to the beach.

Rebecca and I put the canoe on my car, and Jon dumped the water out of his kayak. We looked at each other. “That was great.”


Sublimity consists, in part, of direct confrontation with unknowable mysteries of life and death. There are places in downtown New Bedford where you can stand at a window or in the open and look down on surrounding rooftops. The flat roof surfaces are always littered with shell fragments left by gulls, mostly Herring Gulls, dropping shellfish in order to break them open so they can eat the soft bits inside. The peaked roofs often show a coating of whitewash, gull guano, spreading down the peaks from where the gulls like to perch, facing into the sun. Midafternoon I was standing in a place where I could see down on half a dozen different rooftops. The sun broke through the clouds, and there was blue sky above, although the fog and low clouds wouldn’t let me see the mouth of the harbor, or even the steeples of Fairhaven across the harbor. With my binoculars I looked down on one Herring Gull, who was sitting on a pile of brown dead leaves and stalks, a pile which also included bits of green including a couple of dandelion leaves and bits of white trash or litter. It all looked too carefully piled up to be anything but a nest.

The Herring Gull casually stood up in the sun, stretched its wings out a little, and wandered off a few steps to where it was hidden from my view. The pile of leaves and litter had been hollowed out in the middle, and down inside I could see two olive-green eggs spotted with brown.

Since we moved here last August, I have been pretty sure that there’s a Herring Gull nesting colony on the rooftops of downtown New Bedford. With all the Herring Gulls in the neighborhood all year long this should not be surprising. A hundred years ago it would have been surprising; in Birds of Massachusetts, Richard Veit and Wayne Petersen write:

Before 1900, Herring Gulls were not known to breed south of eastern Maine. In the summer of 1912, the first nesting in Massachusetts was recorded by Allan Keniston on the south side of Edgartown Great Pond, Martha’s Vineyard, and, between 1919 and 1920, 20 pairs were found breeding on an ephemeral sandbar called Skiffs Island off the southern end of Chappaquidick Island. At the time, the prospects seemed so remote that Herring Gulls could ever establish themselves in Massachusetts in the face of the expanding human population that Forbush was prompted to state, “It is improbable that the Herring Gull can maintain itself anywhere on the coast of southern New England.” Defying Forbush’s prediction, the Herring gull underwent one of the most remarkable population expansions of any New England bird. The growth of the population between 1930 and 1970 was almost exponential until about 1965, when it leveled off. The slackening in the rate of increase may have been due to the refinement of garbage disposal, sewage treatment, and fish-processing practices because space for nesting sites does not seem to be a limiting factor. [p. 219; references removed for readability]

The fish processing plant off Route 6 on Fish Island regularly attracts Herring Gulls and other gulls, when the plant pumps blood and byproducts into the harbor; I’m sure they also frequent the other fish processing plants nearby. Gulls also sometimes flock after incoming fishing vessels, and they obviously eat shellfish that they find. Food sources may well be the limiting factor for the Herring Gull population in our neighborhood, since there are plenty of suitable rooftops on which to nest. As I stood watching this afternoon, I found only one other definite nest, and one possible nest, although I saw plenty of gulls in adult plumage who did not appear to be nesting. I stood looking down at those olive-green eggs for five or so minutes, and never saw the adult return to the nest.

Harbor watch

Late this afternoon, I stood at the pivot point of the swing-span bridge that connects New Bedford and Fairhaven, one of the best places to watch the harbor.

Out in the distance, I could see a blue fishing boat coming into the harbor  through the hurricane barrier. She kept to starboard, and a small recreational boat darted past her out into Buzzard’s Bay. The lighthouse on Palmer’s Island was stunningly white in the bright late afternoon sun.

Over at State Pier, the Kent Explorer was docked [her picture on a Dutch shipping blog]. At a little over 400 feet (123 meters) length overall, this is one of the larger ships I’ve seen in the harbor. The bridge was eight or nine stories from the deck, and so the ship towered over the ferry terminal building; even the open hatch covers were taller than the ferry terminal. The two cranes, one fore and one aft, were unloading what looked to be plywood or other sheet goods.

Next to the Kent Explorer, the fishing boats and the ferries looked tiny. New England Fast Ferry has brought in their other fast ferry and it is now docked at the State Pier; the summer schedule starts up again on May 15th, only two weeks away.

On the other side of the bridge, over at the Maritime Terminal, the Silver Fjord (320 feet/ 97.6 meters LOA) was taking on cargo. Two days ago, Carol and I tried to figure out what they were loading. It was something packed in white cardboard boxes, and I thought perhaps it was some kind of frozen seafood. MarineLink.com reported on March 20 of this year that Green Reefers shipping line has purchased Silver Fjord, and will rename it Green Tromso. Since Green Reefers ships call here regularly, there’s a chance we will be seeing Green Tromso, a.k.a. Silver Fjord, sometime again.

Over on the south end of Fish Island, I saw a boat I hadn’t seen before. Barbara Joan, out of Montauk, is sitting on one of the old piers up out of the water, and presumably she’s being stripped; a large dumpster sat on the pier beside her. She looked like she once was a small fishing boat, but once a boat gets over to that end of Fish Island, it pretty much means it’s now scrap.

I began walking back. It was a fine day, so there were a fair number of idlers like me: a man fishing off the swing-span bridge, a cocky young man strolling along the other side of Route 6; once I got back down on MacArthur Drive, three young men came out from behind Crystal Ice whooping and hollering; as I climbed up the stairs for the pedestrian overpass over Route 18, I could hear some teenaged girls laughing and giggling on the observation deck above.

Just before I started across the overpass, I glanced out and saw that blue fishing boat I had seen coming through the hurricane barrier was now waiting for the swing-span bridge to open up for it. A cloud of gulls swarmed around it, waiting for scraps of fish to hit the water.

April on Pope’s Island

After a six-month’s absence, a dozen or so of the recreational boats have returned to their summer slips in the Pope’s Island Marina.

Gray and faintly yellow clouds move over me, a few drops of rain. I stand, waiting and watching, and sure enough, a faint end of a rainbow after the clouds move past. Humid spring air diffuses the bright sun low over the city, and everything shimmers faintly, and things far away from me are bluish, blue-er, blue-and-gray. The huge clouds looming and moving in a sky so big it’s almost hard to look up.

Fourteen gulls watch, from a safe distance, as three people eat a picnic on one of the concrete benches looking out at the marina. I can smell the food as I walk closer. One gray-and-white gull rushes two immature gulls, driving them away with outstretched wings. The other gulls watch the people intently; they haven’t seen a picnic in a while.

A lone man in a faded orange sweatshirt stands on the rocks below the bridge, snaps a fishing rod over his head, casts into the clear water of the harbor, and jerkily reels in his plug. He doesn’t bother to look at me as I walk above him.

Away up in the inner harbor, the silhouette of one last loon who has not flown north yet. It dives under the surface of the water bright with the white gold light of setting sun, a liquid reflection that hurts my eyes. I never see it come back up again.


Last week, I was walking up William Street towards the church when I saw two Herring gulls standing together in the bright morning sun, right in the middle of Achusnet Avenue. The one was an adult gull, and the other a brownish first year gull. The first year gull had hunched itself down and was trying to peck at the red gonys spot on the bottom of the adult’s bill, all the while making a high-pitched call note. The adult, its bright gray and white plumage looking quite dapper in comparison with the dirty brown of the younger bird, had its head pulled back, dodging and keeping its bill out of reach of the young gull.

We are told that young Herring gulls on the nest will peck at the red gonys spot, stimulating the adult to regurgitate food for them. At this point in the year, the young gulls should be able to forage for themselves, but here was this gull engaging in what seems to be immature behavior. The two gulls were oblivious to the car rumbling along the paving stones towards them, the young gull still trying to hit that red spot, the older gull moving its beak out of the way but not flying away either. The car came to a complete stop a foot from the young gull. The adult immediately flew away, and the young gull hesitated for just a moment, and then fled.

Gulls live their own lives in this city, and seem to pay little attention to human beings. The roof tops of the tall downtown buildings are their domains. You can hear them calling ten stories up, you can see them wheeling around, settling in, gathering in little groups at the edges of the building roofs. The Elm Street parking garage is never full, and the fifth and top level, open to the sky, is littered with shell fragments where gulls have dropped shellfish to crack them open. The gulls swoop down into the streets to rifle through garbage cans, or to pull open particularly fragrant garbage bags on trash collection days. From a gull’s point of view, human beings must seem to be little more than annoyances who sometimes come along to drive them away from garbage cans, or from pecking at the red spot on an adult’s bill. If all the humans went away, the gulls would miss the garbage we produce, but aside from that I doubt they’d notice we were gone.


The snow moved in late this morning. At a quarter past eleven, Carol looked out the window of our apartment and exclaimed, “Snow flurries!” I went out for a walk fifteen minutes later, and the snow flurries had settled into a heavy snow fall; I got to the waterfront and I could not see the town of Fairhaven across the harbor; I got halfway across the bridge and the ground was white, by the time I returned home, and hour later, there was an inch of snow on the ground.

The visibility was poor, but I could see the usual waterfowl on the water, and the usual gulls flying overhead. The ducks never seem bothered by rain or snow, only by high winds that force them to seek refuge on the lee side of the harbor and islands. The gulls don’t seem bothered by snow, rain, or high winds.

Not only did the birds remain unfazed by the snow, but we have gone far enough through winter that humans didn’t seem bothered by it either. The traffic rushed over the bridge and across Pope’s Island the same as usual; the only difference being that the tires made a different sound because of the snow that had been melted by road salt. And I passed half a dozen pedestrians, whereas we often see no pedestrians at all on our walks over to Fairhaven. It was almost as if the weather brought out more pedestrians, more people who wanted a chance to walk through the falling snow.

Winter beach

Drove to Horseneck Beach for a long walk today. I had a desire to walk down the beach and pick up a few shells and not think about anything but sun and sand and waves. A brisk westerly breeze kept me walking quickly until I drew near to the Westport River where the beach was somewhat protected by a low rise of land to the west. I slowed down and started looking at the beach.

A different mix of shells from the beach at Fort Phoenix: Most of the clamshells appeared to be Atlantic Surf Clams, and I don’t think I saw any quahogs. (I saw one clammer working the beach, and I would have liked to have asked her what she was raking in, but she was too busy.) I also found a good number of Blue Mussel (Mytilu edulis) shells, which we haven’t found at all at Fort Phoenix. I picked up two or three clamshells that I couldn’t identify; after looking at the “Marine Organisms Database” on the Web site of the Marine Biological Laboratory at Wood’s Hole, I believe the shells are either Transverse Ark (Anadara transversa) or Blood Ark Clam (Anadara ovalis), both of genus Anadara. It must be a somewhat different ecosystem along Horseneck Beach.

At one point, I saw a Great Black-backed Gull floating on the sea with something quite large in its mouth. I looked through the binoculars to see what the gull was carrying. It was a sort of pinkish color; the gull had to open its bill quite wide to hold onto whatever it was, and at one point it dropped the thing into the water, but quickly snatched it up again. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what it was, and the gull’s eye glowed a brilliant, mysterious red in the setting sun. At last the gull flew ponderously up into the air, and I could see that it was carrying a Horseshoe Crab with the long tail dangling down. Off the gull flew, presumably to drop the crab onto something hard to break it open.

But mostly I just walked, and didn’t think of anything at all.


For the first time in five days, I managed to take a long walk. Evening meetings and snow and early sundowns have kept my walks short.

I walked over the bridge to Pope’s Island. The water in the harbor looked black and gray, winter colors. One or two small gray-white chunks of ice floated near shore. I came around the tree next to the marina building, and saw four black-and-white ducks calmly swimming fifty feet from shore: Buffleheads, three males and a female. I’ve seen a dozen or so cautious Buffleheads nearly every time I’ve walked on Pope’s Island; usually swimming away from me as fast as they can. These four, howver, were not nearly as wary, so I stood and watched them for a while. I like the look of Buffleheads: the neat black-and-white males, the black female with her white cheek patch.

A lot more ducks were swimming at the far end of Pope’s Island: thirteen, no fourteen more Buffleheads; then another six; two dozen in all. I walked across the bridge to Fairhaven. A hundred or so pigeons who had been resting on the docks by the old Seaport Motel started up all at once, wheeled acorss the sky, and settled back down. There was another duck behind them. I headed down to the edge of the water to see what it was, cursing the fact that I had left the binoculars at home; but the duck, whatever it, was right in the sun. A Ruddy Duck? Another female Bufflehead? I couldn’t be sure.

On the other side of a little stone pier, just past a skin of ice, were still more Buffleheads, maybe another two dozen. Half a dozen Scaup were diving and feeding near them; perhaps Lesser Scaup. The sun was getting close to the New Bedford skyline, low enough now that the surface of the water looked almost creamy white in places. Clouds moving in from the west. Overhead, a thousand black specks of starlings wheeled in synchronized flight; they started up the hundreds of gray and white pigeons who wheeled counterclockwise below them.

Back across the harbor via the north side of the bridge. A gaggle of gulls sat at the Fairhaven end of the bridge: Ringbills, Great Black-backed, Herring, and Bonaparte’s Gulls. A few Canda Geese, too. The gulls and geese didn’t like the looks of me, and most of them sprung into the air, screaming and splashing and flapping, gray and white and black against the black water. One yearling gull didn’t move, hunkered down on the dark gray pebbled beach, nearly invisible until it swayed ever so slightly. The gulls and geese settled down out on the water near a pair of black-and-white ducks: not Buffleheads, but probably Common Goldeneye.

It was good to see the wild ducks in the harbor; mostly I just see gulls, starlings, and pigeons. By the time I got back, it was getting pretty dark: the city streets, shades of black and gray, warmed here and there with red brick.