Newburyport’s Seagulls – The Symbols of Romance

Ah Newburyport

“I think that going to the beach as a child, being in the water and smelling that salt air and hearing the seagulls, it had a real calming effect.     But also, it was a mysterious thing.”

Brian Skerry

One of the great battles that will need to be resolved in Newburyport is this issue of romance.         Perhaps it’s the familiarity of the place if you’ve grown up here; or the stress of making ends meet day in and day out; but so many here have lost something that literally oozes out of the city’s fabric.         They can see the expressions on the tourist’s faces; try to look in the direction that the tourists will point to; but it’s all lost on them.       To many, to their credit; do understand just enough to make money off our visitors – but it’s mostly driven by intense need and only just enough.

But without our romance, our city is nothing!     A pale image of something that is probably much grander somewhere else.

Some of our infrastructure as beautiful as it is, only points at the romance.     It isn’t the romance itself.

It’s the same as our seagulls.

To the jaded eye, these guys are only looking for the next meal.       As Eric Cantona says, “When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.”   Always looking for the next meal.     In urban slang, seagulls are selfish greedy people who think only to stuff their faces with other people’s food, without apology, without culture and without shame.          To some these birds are nothing more than flying cockroaches.

And yet, there is something soothing about their presence – something that speaks of peace, and adventure and the lure of the ocean; and mystery.       Yesterday, I walked along the waterfront and as much as I enjoyed the brief respite of winter with warm sunshine on my face; it felt empty somehow.     And then I realized not one lamppost had a seagull upon it.   The Gillis Bridge was naked of them.     In fact, there were none at all in the area.        The place seemed lacking in atmosphere.

Sure, they are not as grand as that fictional gull, John Livingston Seagull, that champion of Humanism; but the absence was sorely missed. (I found out later because there was no wind, they were all hunkered down along Joppa Flats, to my relief.)     Quoting J.L.S.; you’re heart can’t help to appreciate that, “a seagull is an unlimited expression of freedom”.

So, as you nervously see them approaching your picnic basket on the beach, it won’t be long that you notice quite a bit of variety in their shapes and sizes and particular markings.

So, after consulting with the local bird watchers at the Joppa Flats Audubon Center; I thought I’d lay out the different species that call The Greater Newburyport Area home.       All these birds are highly intelligent, extremely versatile and amazingly tough; yet are known to be wonderful parents, most are monogamous in their relationships – as my wife and I saw first hand out at Thacher’s Island.      After seeing who lives here; next time, while you’re chasing them on the beach after they’ve stolen a sandwich from your cooler; take note who you’re to blame:

Glaucus Gull (larus hyperborous)

Glaucous Gull on ice © Wikipedia/Wikicommons The Glaucous Gull is a large gull whose body will reach roughly 27 inches (68 cm) as an adult. Their wingspan can reach 59-72 inches (149-182 cm) in length. The Glaucous Gulls are very pale in all plumages, with a white head and underparts. The bill is yellow with a red spot near the tip of the lower mandible. The back and wings are light gray with no black in the wings or tail. A juvenile Glaucous gull will have light gray and brown coloration. The Glaucous Gull is a “four-year gull,” in that it takes four years to reach adult plumage.

The Glaucous Gull breeds in Alaska and northern Canada, but they migrate south to areas like Newburyport for the winter. The Glaucous is one of the most predatory gulls, capturing and eating plovers, small ducks and birds as well as fish though if it is necessary to survive, will also scavenge.

Great Black-backed Gull (larus marinus)

Great Black-Backed Gull photo © Stephen Moore Considered to be the largest gull in the world, the Great Black-Backed Gull adult body will reach roughly 28-31 inches (71-79cm) in length. Their wingspan can reach 57-63 inches (146-160 cm) in length. They have a white head, neck and under parts with pale pink legs. Their back and wings are a very dark gray to sooty black color. This gull also has a yellow bill with a red spot near the tip of the lower mandible.

The Great Black-Back Gull preys on almost anything smaller than itself, including other gulls, small ducks, small birds, fish and shellfish, as well as the eggs and young of other gulls. Unlike most Larus gulls, Great Black-Backed Gulls are mostly carnivorous and frequently hunt and kill any prey smaller than themselves, behaving more like hawks and eagles than a typical larid gull. They frequently rob other seabirds of their catch rather than finding food on their own. Great Black-Backed Gulls are often found in the company of herring gulls and the two species will even nest together in mixed colonies.

Ring-billed Gull (larus delawarensis)

Ring-billed Gull photo © Steven P. Wickstrom The Ring-billed Gull is a medium sized gull that is roughly 17-21 inches (43-54 cm) in length with a 41-46 inch (105-117 cm) wingspan. Their head, neck, and under parts are white. The bill is yellow with a black ring near the tip (hence the name of the gull). The back and wings are gray; the wingtips are black with white spots. The legs and feet are yellow. The Ring-billed Gull is a “three-year gull,” in that it takes three years to reach adult plumage.

The Ring-billed Gull is willing to breed in the Greater Newburyport Area.  The nest is a shallow depression made on the ground that is lined with grass, reeds, and rushes. The nest will typically contain two to four eggs. Both parents will incubate the eggs and both will feed the hatchlings. The young chicks learn how to fly in about four weeks.

Ring-billed Gulls are omnivores (they will eat most anything); their diet includes fish and other marine creatures, small birds, eggs, rodents, earthworms, and in populated areas, refuse from dumps, trash cans, and of course, Port City Plaza and the Market Basket Mall parking lots.

Laughing Gull (larus atricilla)

Laughing Gull photo © Steven P. Wickstrom Laughing Gulls, named for the sound of their call, are a medium sized gull with a black head in breeding plumage. The adults have a body length that is roughly 15-18 inches (39-46 cm) in length, and a wingspan of 36-47 inches (92-120 cm). During the summer months, the adult’s back and wings are dark gray, and the trailing edge of their wings is white, with a black wing-tip. The bill is a dark red color. During the winter months, the black “hood” is replaced with a mottled gray hood. The Laughing Gull is a “three-year gull,” in that it takes three years to reach adult plumage. They live in Newburyport but won’t hesitate to spend the winter in the Caribbean. (Smart birds!)

Like most gulls, the Laughing Gull has a highly varied diet. It is a carnivore as well as a scavenger. They will eat insects, fish, shellfish, and crabs. They can get their food from the water while they are airborne by either skimming the surface or diving. They often steal food from terns and other seagulls after they have made a catch. The Laughing Gull also gets food from man-made sources such as garbage, refuse from fishing boats, and anything tossed to them by humans.

Herring Gull (larus argentatus)(Our most common gull)

Herring Gull photo © Wikipedia/Wikicommons The Herring Gull is a large gull that can easily be confused with almost any of the other large gull species. The adults have a body length that is roughly 22-26 inches (56-66 cm) in length, and a wingspan of 54-57 inches (137-146 cm).The adult wears the typical gull-like plumage of slate-gray back and wings. The wingtips are black spotted with white. Their body and head is white and their eyes are yellow. The beak is yellow with a red spot on the lower mandible, as in most large gulls.

Herring Gulls feed mostly on natural prey such as marine fish, especially the herring (which is one of their favorite foods – hence the name “herring” gull) and invertebrates, although the diet varies considerably with season and location. In addition to marine life, Herring Gulls also eat other birds, eggs, garbage, and carrion.

Breeding and nesting time in the Greater Newburyport Area for Herring Gulls is usually in May to June.  Relatively long-lived birds, Herring Gulls don’t typically breed until they are four or five years old. Herring Gulls are very social birds and prefer to nest in colonies. Both members of a pair help build the nest, which is typically located on the ground in a sheltered location to protect it from the wind. The nest is a shallow scrape lined with grass, feathers, and other debris. The parents continue to feed the young by regurgitation for approximately another month after they begin to fly. The young first fly at the age of about six weeks.

 Iceland Gull (larus glaucoidus)

Iceland Gull photo © Wikipedia/Wikicommons The Iceland Gull is a large gull which breeds in the arctic regions of Canada and Greenland, but oddly enough, not in Iceland, where it is only seen in the winter. It is a migratory gull, wintering in the Greater Newburyport Area.   Its coloring is very pale in all plumages, with no black in the wings or tail. Adults are pale grey above, with a yellowish-green bill with a red spot near tip of lower mandible. The adults have a body length that is roughly 20-24 inches (50-60 cm) in length, and a wingspan of 45-54 inches (115-137 cm).

The Iceland Gull is rarely seen in our area, but will winter in the Greater Newburyport Area.

There are occasionally other gulls that visit but these are the ones that brave our boardwalk mostly year round.

So next time you hear their plaintiff call; realize they are all part of our Romantic City.       The Bald Eagles may try to steal the show but it’s our gulls that provide our alluring and comforting and peaceful atmosphere.

-P. Preservationist

This entry was posted in Art & Culture, Eco-tourism, Ecology, Education, Health and wellness, Maintenance, News and politics, Quality of Life, Science, Waterfront, Wildlife. Bookmark the permalink.

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