It’s always been a half-truth, calling “the gulls of Appledore” by that name. Appledore is their summer home, singles bar, nursery for the young. But by September, they’re basically all gone, off to wherever they go. Sometimes we know very well where, other times not at all.
Plum Island in Massachusetts is a big long barrier island encompassing chunks of multiple towns, and also the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. At the far southern tip of the island is a bit of Commonwealth land: Sandy Point State Reservation. It’s down that way that we lay our first scene.
Dan Prima, frequent sighter of gulls, sent an email this week with the subject line “Showdown at Bar Head.” I opened the missive expecting news of a brief tiff between gulls, and maybe a photo. Most Famous Gull of Appledore, 2E2, lives on the southern section of Plum Island, down by a spot called Bar Head.
Dan described and photographed a scene that startled me, and left me feeling a bit uneasy about 2E2’s general welfare.
“So I was at Lot 7 on the Refuge scanning the ocean when I saw two Great Black-Backed Gulls squabbling on the water….at first I thought it was a food thing. But when I watched in the scope for several minutes, I could see this was no food discussion. This was a full fledged street fight! After watching for 10 minutes, I went to video.
The gulls finally separated, and I checked them real quick. One was 2E2! Of course, I went down the beach to check on him….couple photos show him a little beat up but he seemed to walk it off.
Wondering if this other gull was challenging him for his mantle as top gull of the south end of the refuge.”
The photos alone give a sense of the protracted and violent struggle. In one frame, one gull bites the other’s head. In another, a beak clamps the leading edge of a wing. One bird is dragged backward, webbed feet pitched up in the air. They roll across the sand and the surf advances and recedes around them repeatedly as they remain literally at each other’s throats.
2E2 is a generalist, and will feed on anything from seal carcasses to clams to unattended picnics. As Dan says, this battle was not clearly about food or any obvious cause at all. We don’t usually see fights this severe, even on the breeding colony. The physical risk of engaging in beak to beak combat generally means the gulls avoid it and settle their differences with displays and vocalizations. Whatever happened between these two could not be settled with words, evidently. I wonder about Dan’s speculation–2E2 is now at least twenty years old, and could be quite a bit older. Could he be vulnerable to challenge over…what? A particular bit of beach? The birds generally are not all that territorial off the colony, at least when there’s no food at stake.
It’s a weird little mystery, and the mysteries mounted when another of our gull enthusiasts, Kat Couree, wrote me this week to report another strange behavior regarding 2E2:
“Just sharing that I have heard about 2E2 twice in a few days exhibiting some interesting behavior ..maybe normal but nothing I have seen though I am not at lot 7 every day. Apparently he came down on a person in a school group and swiped a sandwich from her hand..then flew off but didn’t eat it and came back to the group again.
I have never seen him go near people at all like other gulls in all the times I have been there. He usually stays off on the edges of everything.”
I agree with Kat; 2E2’s personality tends toward diffidence. He’s not usually the kleptoparasite kind, and when he does eat people food, he snags it only when some unsuspecting person has left it unattended. On Appledore, he’s not the most vehement nest defender. He has a generally easy-going demeanor and is neither particularly alarmed by people, nor all that comfortable approaching them.
Could it be that 2E2 is not doing well in some way? Maybe it’s just a strange/bad week for him. I know 2E2 can’t live forever, but I wish he would, and these reports of perturbations in his usual flow have me a bit worried, I confess.
My worries aside, this is the great joy of our long term banding: intimate knowledge of individual gulls; their families and friends and frenemies; their food preferences and personalities.
I also am deeply grateful to all the other folks who devote time to gull watching on Plum Island and elsewhere, helping us build up this picture. Some of these folks go beyond gull watching to gull rescue. Kat has worked to save sick and injured gulls in the past, and she’s not alone. Rounding out the gull news trifecta this week, I also had an email from Mike Paige, who has proposed, along with Kat, starting up a local gull rescue that, to my utter delight, they want to call “Wicked PISR” (as in “Plum Island Seagull Rescue”). Mike has seen gulls get into all manner of trouble, generally due, in some way, to human interference. He wrote:
“A few weeks ago I was at Sandy Point. Some woman was fishing. A gull grabbed her bait and got snagged. Luckily I was there. I was able to grab the gull because it was still on her line, cut the line free and carried the gull back to my space on the beach where a friend was. The hook went through the beak but not the tongue, looked like just beak cheek. I had my friend hold the gull. I went back to my car where I have a toolkit. Got the wire cutters. I was able to cut the barb off and the hook fell free, My friend let go of it and it flew away. There’s a success for you. The gull must have pecked and bit my hands 50 times. I had to stick something in its mouth so it couldn’t bite me and so I could get at the hook. I bought my friend and I the smallest ever pair of bolt cutters so we can cut fish hooks. Fish hooks for surf casting really should only be made out of iron so they’ll rust out of creatures’ mouths and fall away. No more stainless fish hooks. I still chuckle when I think how mad that gull was at me.”
In a fortuitous convergence, I now find myself in a better-than-ever position to help our gulls throughout their annual and life cycles: I have a new job as a Program Ornithologist at Mass Audubon, based at the Joppa Flats Education Center, just down the road from Plum Island. I get to help out leading bird outings to the Refuge and other local spots, and visiting with Plum Island based gulls is a real perk of the job. I hope I can also help facilitate Wicked PISR as they get off the ground, so to speak.
If we hear more about 2E2, whether more bizarre or untoward interactions, or just that he’s back to his normal self, you will, of course, be the first to know. In the meantime, keep him in your prayers, if you’re the praying kind, or just send him some good vibes, on the vibe radio frequency gulls usually tune in to.