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On Gulls and Newfoundland

August 15, 2013

Well-traveled Birders! I never thought I’d say this, but I seem to have fallen in love with Gulls. The whole love affair arrived completely unannounced (as these things are wont to do). It happened last week, on the east coast of Newfoundland, about 40 km south of St. John’s, while we sat on the deck of our B&B contemplating life, the universe, and various other ponderous questions:

View of part of the Witless Bay Ecological reserve from our B&B deck in Bauline East (a vibrant community of approx. 15 households), Newfoundland.

Partial view of the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve from our B&B deck in Bauline East (a vibrant community of approx. 15 households), Newfoundland.

What the picture fails to capture is the cacophonous symphony of gull calls — a conglomeration of barks, moans, creaks and raspy wails, each with its own rhythmic pattern. Not a single person anywhere in our field of vision. Just us and the vociferous, pleading, slightly demonic sounding gulls. I was happy to recognize the Herring gulls (Larus argentatus) immediately by their light grey backs and black wingtips. Not a particularly exhilarating bird, but I had never heard them yelping with such vigor and in such great numbers. And then, an enormous-looking gull with a shiny black back swooped down toward the water, barely skimming its surface, to retrieve some fish for lunch, and then confidently glided toward its next destination. I couldn’t take my eyes off the largest of gull species, the Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus), with its broad wingspan and the way the seabird glided through the sky, effortlessly carried along by the wind current, operating as if he owned the place. Even though there were dozens of Atlantic Puffins dipping in and out of the water, flying haphazardly just above its surface, flapping their wings like little propellers, the black backed gull held me in its thrall.

Great Black-backed Gull. Image by Michael Finn from here.

Great Black-backed Gull. Image by Michael Finn from here.

Watching the black-backed gull fly, I felt like I was rediscovering the Laridae, seeing the entire family for the first time. I mean, I don’t think I’m going to transform into a Gull fanatic or anything (nor do I think I have the skills to do so — in large numbers, gulls remain some of the more challenging birds to tell apart! They do all tend to blend into a homogenous whole), but I find them more fascinating than I ever believed was possible. I was both horrified and amazed to learn that the majestic black-backed gull whose flight pattern sent an electrical current through my spine every time I saw him — the confidence, the ease, the elemental power to withstand the elements, the fearless drive — is also a ruthless and violent predator to chicks as well as adult puffins, murres, grebes, herring gulls, and other many others!

One of the things I love most about birding are the surprises it offers. Just when I think I know myself, know my preferences, have a favorite bird (Indigo Bunting! Scarlet Tanager! Black and White Warbler! Wood Duck! Tree Swallow! Snowy Owl!), another, completely unexpected one comes and squeezes itself into my most “beloved bird” slot. Never did I imagine that a Gull would find its way to the top of my list of most memorable birds. The beauty of birding is that the list changes constantly, rearranges itself, and that I grow to love what I learn to look at most closely. Sometimes a bird has all the right ingredients to make me fall in love with it instantly (Scarlet Tanager, I’m thinking of you) — almost like it was designed with me in mind as its ideal viewer. But other times I fall for a bird on the second, third, or even tenth glance — in a curious confluence of timing, weather conditions, geographical coordinates and willingness to allow for heightened observation. Maybe I fell for the black-backed gull because I was finally ready to see it? It’s often like that with love.

Anyhow, gulls aside, Newfoundland was spectacular. It only rained (hard) two days out of seven, and we managed to hike a nice slice of the East Coast Trail in spite of soggy conditions.

Our lunch on the East Coast Trail.

Our lunch on the East Coast Trail. The raspberries were so delicious we forgot about the rain almost entirely.

I wore my Tilley hat every single day (rain notwithstanding), ate fabulous cod and lobster, stared at the ocean for hours on end, and am now overcome with longing for coastal living. I had meant to read a Newfoundland author while on vacation, but instead read Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief, which thoroughly entranced me with it rhythms, its similes, its reflections on family, memory, place, longing and genealogy. Stay tuned for more Newfoundland pelagic goodness.

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