I didn’t have a solid plan to go birding that Friday after work. It was a vague notion in my tired brain. I was so burnt out from a week of too much work and not enough sleep that all I wanted to do was go home to my couch after I finished my errands in Fall River, even if the drive did take me by at least a dozen easy spots for birding. But I wasn’t in the mood for the cold or the whipping wind, never mind the fact that I forgot my hat and gloves.
For weeks, I hadn’t been feeling the itch to bird – the one that I usually feel on a daily (ok, hourly) basis. It was a combination of the stress of work, coupled with some late winter (ok, early spring) blues. As I ran my errands, the opportunities to stop dwindled, as did the remaining hours of daylight, and on the return leg of my drive, I went grim with worry. What if this thing that I love so much, this thing that has become so life enriching, and so central to my happiness – what if it is simply no longer interesting to me? What if it’s gone?
Determined to prove my worries wrong, I took the next exit, the one for Tiverton, and drove straight to Seapowet.
I hadn’t even put the car in park yet, when I saw this big white gull among a group of Ring-billed and Herring Gulls. It took one second for my flagging interest to reignite. I turned off the car and began fumbling around for my binoculars and camera, saying “What the fork is THAT?! Don’t screw this up, Ruggeri. Get a picture, jackass, even if it’s a shitty one!”
Yeahhhh. I may need to work on the self talk thing.
Anyhow, I jumped out of the car, took a quick photo and posted it to “What’s this Bird?”, an American Birding Association Facebook group. And while I waited for input, I consulted my Sibley Guide and some apps on my phone, while keeping an eye on the bird. Everything checked out – it was indeed a Glaucous Gull.
As a kid, I inherited the disdain that coastal dwelling folks tend to have towards gulls. They were all just “seagulls”, and all they seemed to do was make a lot of noise and steal our sandwiches while we swam in the waves.
As a budding nature-nerd living in Utah in my 20’s, I gained a faint appreciation of them – the California Gull is the state bird of Utah, after all. There’s even a statue dedicated to them, in Temple Square in Salt Lake City.
The story goes like this: Mormon settlers in the mid-1800’s survive their first winter in the Salt Lake Valley, only to have their spring crops threatened by swarms of shield-backed katydids (now commonly known as “Mormon Crickets”.) But then the large flocks of gulls arrive and save the day by eating the katydids. It’s known as “The Miracle of the Gulls,” and is an important piece of history, folklore and faith, for Utahns and Mormons alike.*
As birder in my 40’s, I have gained a deeper appreciation of gulls. They are tenacious and adaptable, curious and intelligent. They can drink both salt water and fresh water, and are opportunistic, omnivorous feeders. They are monogamous, and mate for life. They are highly social birds that form complex nesting colonies. They are doting, protective parents, and will even look after their neighbors offspring.
Even still, it wasn’t until very recently that I started to take a closer look, and to try my hand at ID-ing them. They are notoriously difficult in this regard, so much so that a lot of birders (myself included for many years) avoid them full tilt. When I started birding regularly a couple years ago, I had too much to learn, and gulls just didn’t seem all that sexy. I didn’t want to go messing around with their confusing multi-year plumage patterns. I wanted rarities, and pretty things.
But I bought a couple books this winter, and am slowly learning how to identify them. And that’s the thing about birding – I will never be bored, will never not have something to learn. There are 10,000 species of birds in this world, and nearly 1,000 in North America alone. And there’s no lack of gulls around here in RI. Even on a slow day, there are gulls, and a closer look at them reveals so much more than the sandwich stealing pests of my childhood.
Of course the Glaucous Gull wasn’t that difficult to ID, there were really only a few possibilities, but I am too new at this game to trust my own judgment. And I’d be foolish to not utilize the community of generous and way more knowledgeable and experienced birders out there.
It was dumb luck, finding that Glaucous Gull. For a birder, these moments are gold. For me, it was more, because it re-sparked my desire to get out more and see more. It was my own little “miracle of the gulls”, reminding me to have faith again in my love of birds and the natural world.
*I enjoyed reading these different perspectives about the “Miracle of the Gulls”:
From the viewpoint of LDS historians, written by Trent Toone, for LDS Living: Was the Miracle of the Gulls Exaggerated?
From a more secular viewpoint (though I kinda resent his use of the term “trash bird” in the title) it’s still an interesting take, written by Ryan Cunningham for (Salt Lake) City Weekly: A Seagull Story: Why a bug-eating trash bird makes Utah proud