I learned years ago, that it’s generally best to give nesting herring gulls a wide berth, unless you’d like a hefty helping of warm, slimy gull poop slowly dripping off the back of your …
I learned years ago, that it’s generally best to give nesting herring gulls a wide berth, unless you’d like a hefty helping of warm, slimy gull poop slowly dripping off the back of your head.
I was ever so conscious of that somewhat nasty herring gull habit as I slowly approached their nesting rock on Lost Lake the other morning. It’s the lake’s only island, a treeless quarter-acre chunk of the Canadian Shield that the gulls laid claim to decades ago. It’s the summer home of about 100 gulls and the two dozen or so young ones that they raise there each year in crude nests built in the rock’s nooks and crannies.
I was in my kayak not long after sun-up, hoping to snap a few images of the gulls and their progeny for the year, recognizing, yet again, the hazards I contend with on a regular basis in my effort to gather interesting content for the outdoors page each week.
Like the time I climbed 300 feet up into a white pine to obtain a quality photo of a raccoon. Okay, so it wasn’t quite 300 feet, but it was plenty high enough to guarantee I’d have died horribly had I fallen. At the time, Jodi complained that the $1,000-dollar camera I was carrying up the tree with me likely would have been destroyed as well, unless we somehow got lucky and my bleeding, mangled body managed to soften the camera’s impact with the ledge rock below.
But that’s just an aside. I had been talking about herring gull poop.
I learned about this remarkable defensive tactic many years ago while spending the summer on a scientific station in the Bay of Fundy, located between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. The south half of the 600-acre island that was home to the station was occupied (and I do mean occupied in the military sense) by thousands of hostile herring gulls, which meant we humans were largely confined to the north half of the island. One poor researcher who had to work on the south end wore a heavy raincoat with the hood up every day, to protect himself against the daily deluge of droppings as he made his way through enemy territory. The gulls like to come up from behind, then swoop down toward your head, like enemy fighter planes, before unleashing their drippy ordinance in a big sploosh. I guess you can tell it made an impression on me. I’ve managed to avoid a big load of herring gull poop in my hair my entire life and that just happens to be one experience I’m content to live without.
So, naturally, I grew wary as the first scouts took off noisily from their nesting rock, located a couple hundred yards out from the public access at Lost Lake. These first ones are quick to sound the alarm anytime a boat goes by. In my case, I kept moving toward the island, which eventually prompted another heftier squadron of gulls to launch in my direction. These were the gulls I was worried about. Fortunately, the herring gulls at Lost Lake still need a bit of work on their aim, so I managed to avoid a direct hit even as occasional “bombs” fell around me.
Life on the rock looks pretty placid most of the time. The young ones start out sporting a camouflage fuzz, which soon transitions to dark gray feathers. They mostly sit around during the day, waiting for the adults to bring them their meals. While many of us might think of herring gulls as dining on popcorn and French fries in a mall parking lot somewhere, here at the lake they rely on their natural foods, which include any fish they can catch, along with crayfish, baby ducks (I know, nature is cruel sometimes), insects, and just about anything else alive that they can catch. They even eat smaller gulls if they can catch them. In short, herring gulls— which are the largest of the gulls commonly found this far from the coasts— don’t mess around.
Even as I bobbed in my kayak just offshore, it was clear that while the gull’s air force was fully airborne, the infantry was still in place, standing around their young ones on the rock, with no sign they intended to give way should I come ashore. I had no intention of leaving my kayak, so I didn’t have to test their resolve, or their aim.
In either case, the young ones were in no danger, even had I had hostile intent. By this time, they’re fully capable of flight, so they could have easily avoided me. But they showed little interest in doing so, seemingly well aware of the fact that they were guarded by some pretty tough customers.
Herring gulls may not seem like romantics, but they do form strong bonds with their mates, which they maintain for life. They return year after year to the same rock, often setting up shop in the same nook or cranny as the year before. Both mates spend time sitting on the eggs during their month-long incubation period, and then spend the next three months sharing the duties of caring for the young. During that time, one parent is virtually always at the nest or with the fledglings. They’re actually pretty dutiful parents. Must be their military-like discipline.
While we think of herring gulls as fairly common, their numbers have actually been on the decline in recent years. In fact, they’re numbers have declined by almost 85 percent since 1965, although it’s not really clear why. For now, at least, the gulls at Lost Lake seem to be doing just fine. Which means you have to watch the skies if you pass too close to their rock. A bombing run just might be headed your way.