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A Gull Barfing by the Sea
Respite and reflection in the company of regurgitation
ALTHOUGH I HAVE an inordinate fondness for gulls, I do not make a habit of watching them throw up. But in the fog on a tiny island at sea, the Herring Gull and I had been spending quality time together. And the barfing, well, you know, these things happen.
Most of the time the Herring Gull and I did little more than gaze into the gray and blue from our rocky spot on Monhegan Island in the Gulf of Maine. Now and then we’d watch Black Guillemots and Common Eiders feeding just offshore. We’d listen to the mournful calls of Gray Seals beyond the harbor. On occasion we’d make eye contact with one another. I even napped during one of our visits — the gull did not seem put off.
Before I get to the vomiting, however, let’s get a few things straight about gulls. They are among the most successful and audacious animals on the planet, occupying the polar regions, tropical beaches, ponds, bogs, farms, garbage dumps, sewage ponds, and fast-food joints. More than 50 gull species fly the far corners and near swaths of Earth, less so the open seas, which is why birdwatchers (but not necessarily authors) almost never call them “seagulls.”
So versatile are these birds that they inspired a novella, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Richard Bach’s parable about human potential and “a higher plane of existence.” And although they are graceful in flight and savvy in their ways, the painter Jamie Wyeth, in a series of portraits, saw fit to portray gulls acting out the Seven Deadly Sins. Yes, in the lives of gulls we might find pride, envy, anger, greed, sloth, lust, and gluttony.
Okay, technically my Herring Gull wasn’t barfing. Lots of birds instead routinely cough up pellets of undigested food. In the best-known example of this, owls that prey on small mammals regurgitate (once a day or so) a turd-like pellet of fur and bones. Over the decades I’ve noticed various bird species — from Virginia Rail to Thick-billed Kingbird — disgorge bits and pieces of prey in the form of pellets. Although the routine varies by species, it’s a bit like a cat coughing up a hairball.
The adventuresome and curious among us might retrieve one of those pellets, pick it apart, and discover the donor’s latest meal. My rail’s pellet, for example, had shiny, black bits of insect exoskeleton; I could not for the life of me locate the kingbird’s pellet; and from one Snowy Owl pellet friends and I (in a “pellet party”) unearthed the skeletons of no fewer than nine Meadow Voles (Microtus pennsylvanicus).
During one of our quieter moments together on the island, the Herring Gull leaned forward, yawned, tossed its cookies, and went back to its business gazing into the fog. As I approached to have a look, the gull walked a short distance away and then kept watch as I parked myself over its little pile of puke for an impromptu study.
Among the reasons that Herring Gull is one of the most adaptable birds on Earth is that it is both a scavenger and a predator, a generalist and an opportunist. Basically, like many gull species, Herring Gulls eat lots of things living, dead, or neither: fish, bivalves, gastropods, crustaceans, squid, small birds, small mammals, earthworms, carrion, berries and other fruits, as well as French fries, Wonder Bread, and other garbage, including plastic (which can kill a bird).
And yet by the looks of its pellet, which I picked apart with a stick, my gull had dined mostly on crab meat, probably an Atlantic Rock Crab (Cancer irroratus). The little black snail (at the center of the second image below) looks to be Common Periwinkle (Littorina littorea). Both are abundant along the north and mid Atlantic coastline of North America, which is also prime habitat for Herring Gulls.
Upon reflection, what else might I make of this odd encounter in nature? Transcendence? Hardly. This was a gull being a gull. And in many ways, this isn’t necessarily about the gull. It’s about the fog.
Among the infinite things in the world far bigger than me, fog in Maine is a welcome and necessary respite from the haze of human existence. That haze, a state of obscurity, is the acrimony of our public discourse, the toxicity of social media, and the elevation of artifice over art and nature and community. The haze too often obscures the hope that we humans might somehow find ways to do more to end wars and injustice and hatred.
I make no claim to finding those ways forward in the fog. Fog-watching, for me, like most anywhere I sit and think in nature, is merely my introverted means of recharging so that I might return to my extroverted ways of being in the world and striving to be a decent human being (and writing for you with fresh ideas here on Substack).
May you as well find your contemplative fog, your refuge from the haze — even if something like a Herring Gull comes along to remind us that the world can be sinful, beautiful, and messy … even crabby.
Essays like this one don’t grow on trees or get coughed up by gulls. They come from my decades outdoors and my hard work in the practice of writing. If you haven’t done so already, please consider becoming a paying subscriber. It helps me support other writers on Substack and keeps Chasing Nature published for everyone. Thanks!
For confirmation of the gull’s pellet contents, I turned to three reliable Mainers: Marine Biologists Kim Payne and Bradley Stevens (who writeshere on Substack) and author Jason Anthony (who writes). I support Bradley and Jason with paid subscriptions.
Weseloh, D. V., C. E. Hebert, M. L. Mallory, A. F. Poole, J. C. Ellis, P. Pyle, and M. A. Patten (2020). Herring Gull (Larus argentatus), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (S. M. Billerman, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.hergul.01
As Chasing Nature approaches its one-year anniversary (and 4,000 subscribers!), I’ll be polling readers about new way for me to express my gratitude to my community of paying subscribers. Chasing Nature can’t happen without you. One such benefit on the way will be a few lectures on identifying and enjoying birds, insects, and other things in nature. I’ll kick it off with a lecture titled “Getting Gulls.” Yeah gulls — I’m serious about this. Watching gulls can be a way to a better life — yours and theirs. Stay tuned for details on this and other perks. Thanks!