Nature Notes: Herring gulls not your ordinary shorebird

This young herring gull is resting on a jetty in Weekapaug, R.I. They are the most common gulls in New England, and can live 29 years or longer in the wild. (Photo by Bill Hobbs)
This young herring gull is resting on a jetty in Weekapaug, R.I. They are the most common gulls in New England, and can live 29 years or longer in the wild. (Photo by Bill Hobbs)

For many, the herring gull is synonymous with the Connecticut coast, but few know how clever this “seagull” is.

Watch them carefully and you’ll see herring gulls take clams 30 feet in the air and drop them on rocks or parking lots to open them.

If you’re a fisherman, you know that herring gulls and terns actively follow schools of striped bass and blue fish, waiting for them to drive swarms of menhaden, a silvery minnow-like fish to the surface, where fowl and fish can feast on them.

They’ve also been observed bait fishing, according to “All About Birds,” The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website.

“The herring gull floated bits of bread on the surface of a pond and attacked goldfish feeding on the bread,” the website said, adding, “The gull ate none of the bread itself, indicating deliberate tool use.”

There are 28 different species of gulls in North America. The herring gull is the most common gull on the Atlantic Coast.

If herring gulls survive their first year or two, learning how to catch crabs, sea urchins or worms and scavenging for fish, carrion and trash, they have a good chance of living a long life. The oldest recorded herring gull lived 29 years and three months in the wild.

When herring gulls reach 4 years old, their head and breast feathers morph into pure white, and wings turn grey with black-tipped primary feathers, while juveniles, 1 to 3 years old, sport all brown or some variation of brown and white feathers.

These enduring birds mate for life and usually nest in colonies on isolated islands or barrier beaches. Both parents share in a one-month incubation of eggs and three months of chick rearing.

When I was a kid, I used to drive my skiff over to Sandy Point, a 35-acre barrier beach and nesting colony for herring gulls, located in Little Narraganset Bay, between Westerly and Stonington, and walk among the nestlings.

It was fun to watch these flightless fluff balls scuttle through warrens of grass. But you took your life in your own hands when you walked into this busy nesting ground, because multiple herring gull parents would dive bomb you, missing your head by inches.

How are herring gull populations faring today? Pretty well, according to All About Birds, which cites estimates of 246,000 breeding birds in the continental United States. Herring gulls are listed as a “Species of Low Concern.” a

In the months ahead, I plan to research, photograph and profile more animals like the herring gull that share the coast with us.

For instance, I will put the horseshoe crab, a creature that’s literally a 400 million-year-old living fossil, “under the microscope” and reveal its interesting life history.

Other subjects will include cormorants, eider ducks, loons, buffleheads, scaup, harlequin ducks, snowy egrets, terns and oyster catchers.

Harbor seals, who haul up on rocks off of Weekapaug and Fishers Island in the winter, herons and hawks, shellfish of all kinds, lobsters, crabs (blue claw and spider), pipe fish, puffer fish, menhaden, flounders, porgies, stripers, blue fish, black sea bass, albacore, Atlantic bonito, and on-shore prowlers like bobcats, fox, mink and otter will be among other animals to explore.

If you think of more, please drop me an email with observations and I will gladly write about them. Feel free to enclose photos you might have taken as well.

Bill Hobbs is a resident of Stonington and a life-long wildlife enthusiast. For comments, he can be reached at whobbs246@gmail.com.

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