8. Larus glaucescens


July 27, 2016

Hardly any breeze this morning at seven. Leaves of the Lombardy poplars barely stir. On the big oak at the far corner of the park noisy crows raise a boundary to my back yard stillness. They flock from roosts somewhere north of here, gather in the oak and disperse for the day in town. The stillness contains voices of little brown birds, musical notes from an alarm clock in someone’s apartment, excited squirrel chatter and crow fuss in a poplar tree where I see a long tail hanging down from a branch, a raccoon. Erratic insect flight, the stillness includes, back-lit by sun that slants low across the valley to illuminate one strand of silk festooned between the birch tree and the back fence by a drifting caterpillar.

Yesterday evening in the park I identified Glaucous-winged gulls, Larus glaucescens. From the playground with Holly and Fuller, I trotted back here for my binoculars and bird books. They supported my assumption that the seagulls I might hear and see any time, any day, all year on this hillside are Glaucous-winged. Fuller watches the big gulls overhead from the swing or the climbing structure, and points to them and says “bird”. It was his second word. His first was “tree”. We are working on “crow” and “seagull” but that may take a while. He points also at the gulls that call from the roofs of apartment and condominium blocks on both sides of the park.

Identifying was not entirely easy. Local checklists offer too many gull species. The Naturalists Guide to the Victoria Region celebrates my confusion:

“Victoria is a paradise for gulls and gull watchers. Eighteen species have been recorded here. Gull identification, particularly for the immatures, is a challenge even to the birding expert, and the variations within each variety of plumage of the different species – as well as the presence of some hybrids – adds spice to the fun.”

The Glaucous-winged gull, for example, has a pure white head and body, except in those seasons when it is streaked with brown. The upper surface of it wings is pure “glaucous” (a pastel shade of blue-grey), except in the first three years of its life as it progresses through several juvenile stages of mottled browns and greys. The same “glaucous” extends to its wingtips, except for some natural variation in wingtip shade, and for the disposition of Glaucous-winged gulls to freely cross-breed, producing various wingtip effects. Identifying gulls here is a path to madness, except when it’s a symptom.

Whenever, in the past few decades, I have risen to the challenge of naming the gull that surrounds me in Victoria, I have come up always with Larus glaucescens. In 1992, for example, I must have made a New-Years resolution to get serious about birds. On the checklist in the back pages of Birds of Victoria and Vicinity on 1/1/92 I tick-marked Glaucuous-winged gull and three duck species, then apparently forgot the project. Identification, finally, is not so difficult when I sort out the key features. In Bowker Valley a large seagull with light blue-grey on its wings that extends to its wingtips is Glaucous-winged, our common resident gull.

Hundreds or thousands nest on rocks two kilometers offshore from Bowker Creek’s mouth at Oak Bay. The Important Bird Areas Canada website reports that “Chain Islets and Great Chain Island… is a site of global importance, supporting a significant breeding population of Glaucous-winged Gulls…” Great Chain Island is a treeless rock, which glaciers about 20,000 years ago scoured in long north-south grooves. Grasses and shrubs grow in the grooves. Across thousands of years, canoes launched, I expect, from Bowker Creek mouth for egg-gathering on Great Chain Island.

In Bowker Valley’s yearly round of life, people knew early June as a time for seagull eggs. The family that held rights to egg-gathering on Great Chain Island would land its canoe at the small gravel beach, bringing empty baskets. Here is Denise Titian’s description of egg-gathering, published online in Ha-Shilth-Sa, the newspaper of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth Tribal Council. Her family landed this year on a similar coastal islet where “…seabirds reign on the rocky reefs, depositing their black-speckled army green eggs in the swatches of seagrasses they nest in.”:

“…the family scours the island, loading up with seagull eggs as the birds circle above, squawking, squealing and dropping the occasional bird bomb.

“[Steve] Titian says they begin checking the nests in early June and do about three harvests spaced over a week.

“’They usually lay up to three eggs so we leave one in the nest and take the rest,’ he explained.

“They did their first harvest on June 12 and got about 80 eggs. Their second trip netted about 200 eggs.

“’We leave them alone for two or three days to give them a break and allow them to lay more eggs,’ Titian said.

“And when they get back to the village they give eggs freely to those that love eating them.

“The seagull egg can be used any way that a chicken egg is used but people from Ahousaht prefer them scrambled. A seagull egg is much larger than a chicken egg and the rich yolks are deep orange, almost red.”

Humans in Bowker Valley and Glaucous-winged gulls have participated from ancient times in each-others’ lives. The gulls have recycled our food wastes at our village by the shore. Clamouring, they have watched our fishers and hunters gut our catch, and have rushed in to clean up. Before the Capital Regional District began residential pick-up of compostable garbage, Sherryll and I often walked down to Oak Bay with a salmon carcass to fling onto the rocks. We enjoyed the gulls’ frenzied feeding while crows at the edges darted in for morsels. Since the first people stood at the creek mouth, the spectacle of Glaucous-winged gulls recycling salmon carcasses has entertained us.

This far up the creek, on the hillside, we might not have seen so many gulls in the past. Now they gather worms on the lawn in the park. Our food waste and our buildings attract them here. Glaucous-winged gulls roost and nest increasingly on roofs of big buildings, such as these apartments and condominiums. The roofs provide flat expanses with good visibility and few predators. Eagles leave them mostly alone.

In recent decades, more and more Bald eagles nest on southern Vancouver Island. They prey on Glaucous-winged gulls nesting on the rocks off Oak Bay. Recently I noticed a seagull wing hanging from our Bowker Valley eagle nest, high in a Douglas fir near the creek mouth. Glaucous-winged gulls may be learning to site their colonies in locations safer from eagles. Gull populations are smart like that.

Not eagles, I suspect, but ourselves, gathering eggs from offshore rocks have been Glaucous-winged gull’s most efficient predator in the past. “Predator” however, is too limited a word; it ignores our human intelligence. We learned thousands of years ago that we and the gulls depended on each other; we understood our power in the relationship; we set ourselves egg-gathering rules by which the gulls and we could thrive. Human populations are smart like that. We construct our morality around our well-being in community.

About 150 years ago we largely set aside our understanding and rules about Glaucous-winged gulls. The gold rush on the mainland attracted a new influx of people with a new mixture of moral codes, not local to Bowker Valley or the Salish Sea. Rules about gathering eggs and hunting birds broke down. Plunder ensued. We have been working, ever since, to rebuild our understanding, morality and policy.

Already 100 years ago, the rules took a big step forward. People across North America saw that species of birds were disappearing. We had made extinct the Great auk and Labrador duck, and in 1914, the Passenger pigeon. People knew it was wrong and dangerous. In 1916 we signed the Canada-United States Migratory Bird Convention to conserve birds “that are useful to man or are harmless.” It protected the Glaucuous-winged gull, a migratory bird.

Migratory? When does it migrate? I can see Glaucous-winged gulls in Fern St. Park every day of the year. The Birds of North America website provides a better word: “disperse”. “Banded birds in British Columbia”, the site reports, “disperse mostly southward along the coast.” Immature birds may drift for two years or three, for twenty kilometers or 2,000, before returning home. Juveniles from a Victoria rooftop might wander as locally as Seattle or as distant as San Diego. An immature bird I see in Fern St. Park might have coasted from Sidney, the next town up-Island, or from Anchorage, Alaska.

Glaucous-winged gull colonies breed on rocks off Oregon, Washington and BC, and along Alaska’s south and west coasts and the Aleutian island chain as far as the Commander Islands of Russia. Young birds wander to Japan and Korea. A few disperse east on Alaska’s Arctic coast. Rarely, they end-up in Europe. Last January an Irish birder, Fionn Moore, set off a Rare Bird Alert, photographing a Glaucous-winged gull in the harbour at Castletown Bree, County Cork.

Here at home, our migratory bird legislation aided gull populations. After we limited egg-gathering and hunting, Glaucous-winged gull numbers increased through most of the 1900s. We specifically protected many of their breeding colonies. BC’s provincial government enacted the Oak Bay Islands Ecological Reserve, including Great Chain Island.

Numbers of Glaucous-winged gulls increased until the 1980s. Perhaps our fabulous quantities of food waste helped. Scientists debate that question. Certainly, dense clouds of the birds have fed from our dumps. Some of us still remember the white and grey tempest of seagulls that adorned our garbage barges and ferryboats. A tourism slogan of the day was “Follow the birds to Vancouver Island”. In fact the gulls followed the ferries, anticipating the gullet-stuffing moment when crew dumped containers of restaurant leftovers astern. We no longer distribute our food waste quite so freely.

Since the mid-1980s our gulls around the Salish Sea have greatly declined. Surveys in the Oak Bay Ecological Reserve found about 2400 Glaucous-winged gulls nesting in 1986, but a thousand fewer in 2009. The authors of a study, A Century of Change in Glaucous-winged Gull (Larus glaucescens) Populations in a Dynamic Coastal Environment (The Condor, 2015) state that numbers breeding in the Georgia Basin fell fifty percent between the mid-1980s and 2010. They identify two likely causes: more eagles, and less of the fish on which the gulls naturally feed. Eagles have come back since we banned DDT in the ‘70s. Abundance of fish in the Salish Sea has decreased from overfishing and from destruction of their habitats.

Now, as of old, human actions dictate the fate of Glaucous-winged gull nests on Great Chain Island. In ancient times we saw and thought local. You knew it made a difference whether you gathered all three eggs in a nest, or left one. Now we see and think more global. That’s good; clearly it matters that we act internationally to stop DDT and regulate hunting and fishing. But local disappears from our mind. You live in Bowker Valley but you’ve never heard of Great Chain Island. I hadn’t until now. You disturb the nesting gulls, not consciously, not gathering eggs, but unaware, partying on the beach.

Bowker Valley itself disappears from our wisdom. Twice a day you drive across the valley and the creek in its culvert under Cedar Hill Cross Road at the Shelbourne intersection, and never know. Decades you live here before you stand on a rock at Bowker Creek mouth and watch Glaucous-winged gulls dip and splash in fresh water. People you can’t see stand with you: Elders, ancient mind of our community and place. Gulls, crows, eagles, feasting on Chum salmon that your imagination might remember spawning and dying here entertain the Elders.