If you’re interested in visiting the Antarctic, the Arctic, or any of the other places where I’ve done fieldwork, send me an email,
30,000 years before Athena acquired her owl, birds of prey had already captured the human imagination. The single owl among the cave paintings of Chauvet is solid proof. Falconry was practiced in ancient Mesopotamia, the Japan of the Kamakura Shogunate, Genghis Kahn’s Mongolia and in Medieval Europe. Birds of prey are mentioned in Dante and in Shakespeare.
Seagulls? Not so much (Chekhov notwithstanding).
We have all heard the epithets: Garbage Gulls, Rats with Feathers. Even the ornithologists, quick to point out there is no such species as a “seagull” call them kleptoparasites (meaning parasitic thieves). In lay terms: Stupid Seagull. Nuisance. Pest. The most annoying of birds…
That’s what we call them.
This is a failure not of imagination, but of observation. Gulls in general, and Herring Gulls in particular are the brightest bulbs on the shore. Gulls are great hunters. There is no seaborne food source they cannot advantage. Every kind of crab, shellfish, bate fish, scraps of bunker left by ravenous schools of striped bass and blues, the shiners when the pool in close to shore, even insects (including the near-invisible things they catch in late summer, on the wing), all this is on the plate.
Then, there is the tendency to assume seagulls and certainly those within the same species, are all alike. Also not true. Herring gulls have distinct physiognomies, different personalities and individual voices all of which any human who pays attention can learn to distinguish. Gulls recognize each other, individually, and extend that same recognition to us, as individual human beings. Feed a seagull, be remembered. Harm one? They will remember that, too.
My favorite time and place for watching gulls is any sand spar at low tide. Black-backed gulls as the name implies have wings and bodies that are black on top. They are our largest gulls. Herring gulls are blue-gray on top and have a pronounced red spot on their bills. Among herring gulls the males are larger, the females have longer necks. Ring-bills are also blue-gray on top, smaller than a herring gull, and have a distinctive black ring on the end of their bills.
Pick a gull, any gull, watch what he or she is doing. Be surprised.
Where is this?
The gulls shown here (adult and juvenile Black-backed Gulls and Herring Gulls) were photographed on the Connecticut Shore. They live and hunt in and around The Stewart B. McKinney Wildlife Refuge. The Refuge, which is run by the US Fish and Wildlife Service is one of our great coastal treasures, a major nesting area for many species of birds, and also a breeding ground for horseshoe crabs, spider and blue crabs and sea turtles. Like almost all of USFWS, the Refuge is acutely underfunded. A new group of volunteers is coalescing to support the Refuge and the rangers who work there. If you’re interested in participating, let me know. MSL (at) MarkSethLender (dot) com.
To hear or read my prose poem, “Gulls Hunting for Spider Crabs on Public Radio International’s Living on Earth, click here: http://www.loe.org/shows/segments.html?programID=17-P13-00024&segmentID=6
“Baby face! You’ve got the cutest little baby face!”
How do we know that the young of other animals are young? There is a quality of voice, which tends to be higher pitched and less well articulated. Ungainliness is another characteristic (think about kittens on their first exploratory walk). Some research suggest that softened, rounded features are a major clue which, if we think about it, is or less confirmed by our own individual observations and experience.
None of this explains our sympathy.
We are categorical unsympathetic to the young of insects, even those we regard as beneficial or beautiful. Many who would welcome a monarch butterfly landing on their hand would be reluctant to grant a monarch caterpillar those same privileges. Unless taught (or in the rare case where we directly observe) there is nothing about the caterpillar that tells us who or what it will become. Or even that it will “become,” as opposed to going through life, like an earthworm, exactly as it is in the instant – a caterpillar. There is above all, an innate lack of feeling on our part as opposed to our relationship to baby mammals. The majority of us love to see wild birds. But even so, newborn birds with their bulging eyes and reptilian necks don’t make us feel warm and cuddly.
And yet the when it comes to mammals the inverse is almost always true.
There is little to commend an adult male elephant seal in the way of aesthetics. Jabba the Hutt comes to mind, or perhaps some Kleptoparasitic politician. And yet the newborn of the species strike us in an entirely different way. We sympathize.
How to get to there:
South Georgia Island is nothing if not remote. Be forewarned: That makes the trip expensive. You can go to the Canadian Arctic or even Africa twice for the price of one good trip to the Southern Ocean. But the rewards are extraordinary.
Several tour companies can get you there. Before you choose one, get some idea of how many landings they intend to make, and how long they allow you to stay on shore. For most sites, you want 2 hours at a minimum, and as many landings are possible. Be forewarned: the big cruise ships lean towards a twenty minute drive-by in a Zodiac or the view from a mile off shore. Not the way to go. As a rule of thumb, you don’t want a ship with a complement of passengers much over 120 people.
I was hosted in the Southern Ocean by One Ocean Expeditions (WWW.OneOceanExpeditions.com) and I highly recommend them. It was indeed the trip of a lifetime.
The broadcast of my prose essay that accompanies this post can be heard on Living on Earth.
Antarctic Peninsula from Astrolabe Island
The seal has not been out drinking. His seemingly bloodshot eyes are not the result of excess. Like us, all seals must hold their breath when they dive. Because they dive so much deeper and longer than us, they have to supersaturate their blood with oxygen and it is that oxygen that reddens the blood and in turn reddens the eyes. Color tells you nothing of this animal’s emotional state or level of stress.
The Ol’ Red Eye
We tend to look for gross cues from wildlife. If they growl, we get it: “Too many, too close, or both – go back the way you came!” Except by then it is usually too late. In the case of this particular seal, his still and direct stare was his “growl.” To the seal this was as loud and clear as he needed to be, a sign in 3 foot letters.
Wendell Seal Takes A Backwards Look
It’s not just that we ignore the cues. We want to get too close. Why? Because we are so much alone here. And the soft thick fur and cat-like face of the seal only add to the force of attraction. It is not a trivial need. Companion animals even lower our blood pressure. Imagine then, the state of human well-being in a world without wild animals. It will be a state of perpetual aloneness of a kind we may not be able to endure.
Antarctic Shag, a variety of cormorant, on their roost, Astrolabe
How to get there:
I found the weddell seals in these photographs on Astrolabe, a small island off the Antarctic Peninsula. My fieldwork there and throughout the Antarctic was made possible by One Ocean Expeditions. They can get you there, and back.
For more on seal hematology:
See the excellent article (focusing on harbor seals) by Amber Thomas and Kathryn Ono: Diving Related Changes in Blood Oxygen Stores…
My essay, “Let Sleeping Seals Lie,” can be heard on: Living on Earth (Public Radio International)
Mark Seth Lender
Explorer in Residence
Living on Earth (PRI)