Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Gull-ible at Barnegat Bay

As a part of our Pennsylvania trip earlier this June, Maria and I made a rare visit to the east coast. The prospect of doing some birding along  the New Jersey shore was very exciting, even if we weren't heading to Cape May or some of those other famous sites. We set our sights on lovely Barnegat Bay, a strip of beach with beautiful scenery and, as it turned out, a few birding treasures of its own. Since I had only been to the Atlantic coast a few times, the prospects of seeing some new and cool birds were great. The Jersey shore did not disappoint, and in fact it exceeded my expectations. Even before Maria and I arrived at the beach, we started to see new birds, with sentinels such as this handsome Laughing Gull dotting utility poles along the road.

We saw Gulls high atop the famous old Barnegat Lighthouse and soaring along the coastal thermals. We also saw them along the lowest points of the Barnegat wharf and shoreline, sometimes in very compromising positions. Gulls can live high and they can live low. You don't become one of the most successful avian groups without making a few compromises.

The Seagull is often used as a symbol for freedom and versatility in literature. Most appropriately for birders, it can represent the unattainable ideal, something you want but can never possess. Keeping in mind the different plumages and vast ranges many Gulls have, as well as the propensity for many Gulls to turn up in unexpected places, I think Gulls embody the frustration and excitement of an unattainable ideal very well.  Especially for a non-coastal person like me, almost every Gull is a potential new bird, but they're so often ambiguous and identifying them is seldom a certain thing. Here, to make the point, are some mid-cycle Ring-billed Gulls. Or at least I think. Maybe Herring Gulls? Maybe not. They could also be space aliens.

Maria and I counted four different species of Gull along the Barnegat shore. The Laughing Gulls were by far the most visually striking and the most graceful of the bunch. Seagulls are pretty talented aviators, but the way that the Laughing Gulls rose and cut and dove almost put them in the Tern and Kite class of flyers. They had serious skills.

The Laughing Gulls were most comfortable in the air, and unlike the other Gulls, I never saw them on the ground. Conversely this third/fourth year Herring Gull seemed to abhor the very idea of flight. Even as I approached it, the bird started to walk out into the ocean instead of taking to its wings. I've seen some impressive flight displays from Herring Gulls and Ring-bills before, so this one must've just been pretty tuckered, or else it was just really wanted to soak its feet.

The Herring Gulls were the most numerous on our stretch of the Jersey beach, and they were visible in the air on the ground, floating atop the water, and popping into trash cans along the peer. Bulky, large, noisy, common, versatile, and semi-indestructible...surely this is the quintessential 'Seagull'.

It is often said that cockroaches and rodents would be the sole survivors of a nuclear holocaust. I'm putting my money on the Herring Gull. This is the cold calculating stare of a bird that can be caught at the epicenter of an atomic explosion and fly away wondering what's for dinner.

The most impressive Gull on the beach was, by far, the Great Black-backed. Their range in North America may be only a tiny fraction of the Herring or Ring-billed Gulls' range, but with a wingspan well over five feet, this bird more than compensates.

The Great Black-backed is the largest Gull in the world. The few that we saw at Barnegat Bay cruised low and slow along the beach, confident in their size and the proper awe they inspired in all whom they passed.

Folding in those wings must be a bit of a chore (I can sympathize too). This Gull held its pose for a little while, so maybe they were just telling me that they were tired of being spied on, and were pointing me in the direction of other cool stuff to see. 

"Go bother those Oystercatchers over there"

As I moved beyond the shoreline and out onto the rocky wharf around the bay, I realized that the awesome birding was just beginning. I already related the story of the Purple Sandpipers, and there are still many cool birds to come!