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    Sunday, July 21, 2024

    Kayaking among avian ‘royalty’ off Flat Hammock

    An adult great-blackback gull is protective of three chicks. (Steve Fagin)

    Gulls are everywhere. You often see them sneak up on inattentive picnickers to swipe bags of potato chips, swoop down to snatch French fries and hamburger buns from fast-food parking lots, tear open curbside trash bags, and drop clams and mussels on the pavement to crack open their shells.

    Opportunistic eaters, they are just as likely to peck for bugs and crabs among clumps of seaweed as they are to circle above fishing boats, waiting for cleaned fish guts and leftover bait to be tossed overboard; loiter among squirrels and pigeons in urban parks, begging for handouts; or scavenge at municipal landfills.

    Not cute, like chickadees, or majestic, like bald eagles, they squabble, pilfer, and even cannibalize. But you have to respect their toughness, resiliency, and just plain attitude.

    Like most people, I’ve observed more gulls in different settings than any other bird – but until the other day, there was one thing I’d never encountered: a gull chick.

    “Hey, what are those?” I asked kayaking companions Curt Andersen, Marco Barres and my son, Tom, as we peered at a flock of fluffy gray creatures with stubby wings that milled around on Flat Hammock, a tiny, boomerang-shaped island in Fishers Island Sound.

    Curt had the answer: Baby gulls.

    “I’ve seen them on Sandy Point,” he said, referring to the island in Little Narragansett Bay between Stonington and Rhode Island’s Napatree Point. Gulls principally nest in isolated, sandy locations in spring, which explains why few people rarely, if ever, see their chicks.

    Hatched a few weeks ago and still flightless, the young birds on Flat Hammock stared silently as we drifted a few yards offshore, while the adults flapped their wings and squawked. We humans were returning from a favorite voyage from Esker Point in Noank to Fishers Island and back, and had decided, more or less spontaneously, to take a short detour around Flat Hammock, which lies in New York waters about a half-mile north of Fishers Island’s West Harbor, and a mile-and-a-half south of Groton Long Point.

    “The parents aren’t happy. Let’s keep moving,” I said. We stayed in our boats and lingered less than a minute – just enough time to take a few pictures, but not long enough to provoke attack by fiercely protective parents.

    That was the right decision, naturalist/ornithologist Maggie Jones told me later.

    “They’re very vulnerable now. You should never go ashore during nesting season,” she said. Gulls, along with least terns, common terns, oystercatchers and piping plovers, all build nests in the sand, where careless beach strollers, and especially dogs, can wreak havoc.

    Gulls are particularly at risk because they lay their eggs near wrack lines, where seaweed and debris wash up at high tide.

    “The nests are almost invisible,” Maggie said.

    The chicks we saw were great-blackback gulls, which were nearly killed off by hat-makers more than a century ago but have since rebounded after feathered hats fell out of style. With powerful bills and aggressive temperaments, great-blackbacks, the largest in the gull family, are considered apex predators. Along with their smaller cousins, ringbill and herring gulls, great-blackbacks are common along the Connecticut shore.

    By the way, they’re all called “gulls.” The fictional Jonathan Livingston Seagull aside, “there’s no such thing as a seagull,” Maggie pointed out.

    If you do kayak out to Flat Hammock, which almost disappears at high tide, and measures only a couple dozen yards wide and about 300 yards long, you’re also likely to observe a variety of other shore birds. During our brief, offshore visit, we paddled past oystercatchers, egrets and terns, all feeding on small fish and crustaceans that abound in shallow water.

    But don’t stay long, and don’t step ashore, at least until the end of nesting season in late summer. The chicks will still be growing – they take about four years to mature, and then can live another 20 years – but at least they’ll be able to fly.

    You probably wouldn’t want to walk near a chick anyway, if its parents were nearby. You might find out the hard way why the Cornell Lab of Ornithology calls the great blackback gull “the king of the Atlantic waterfront.”

    Like all wildlife, they are best seen at a distance.

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