Field work is never without an element of comic relief. In my case, a very great deal of it comes from an unlikely bunch of creatures – sea gulls. Over the course of the time I have spent near or at sea, they have delivered generous doses of awe, surprise and sheer entertainment on a regular basis.
But first, a quick, serious ornithological introduction to gulls (family Laridae). A number of large and small gulls occur in India and are reasonably widespread throughout the country in winter, particularly on lakes and at sea; most of these spend the summer breeding around Central Asia (the brown-headed gull, perhaps the commonest of the lot, breeds near the high-altitude lakes of Ladakh). All these birds have the general appearance of a plump seabird with a white head (when in winter colours) and underside, grey upperparts, and yellow/orange/red legs and bill. If you find this very broad, general description unhelpful, you might want to know that many experienced birdwatchers and even some ornithologists often fail and give up hopelessly when faced with a gull to identify (beyond saying it is, well, some large/small gull). Let alone identification – for many species of gull, there isn’t even a consensus on where they fit into the family and whether they are distinct from other species or not.
Gulls are generally people-friendly birds – none more so than the gluttonous gulls at the Gateway of India that know how to get a sumptuous snack from the merry, food-wielding tourists who throng their wintering grounds. A few people even feed huge amounts of unnatural food to these gulls on a daily basis (wildlife enthusiasts have often raised concern about these gulls living on a 100% junk food diet while they are here). My introduction to gulls happened in much the same way in Mumbai, but this was just the beginning…
The second kind of experience I had with these birds was a similar but rather traumatising one. It happened on the other side of the world, in Florida, when I was there for a research internship. I had taken a halt at a deserted beach during a long bicycle ride, and after checking to make sure there weren’t any hungry gulls around, I pulled out a pop tart from my backpack. No sooner had I taken one bite of it, than a huge flock of laughing gulls (that’s what the species is called; surprisingly, it has nothing to do with evil laughter) appeared out of nowhere and descended upon me. I did not care to count their numbers, but much like the legendary shower of arrows shot in unison by the archers of the Persian Immortal armies, they were so numerous that they almost blotted out the sun. I had no choice but to toss the pop tart high up over my head, never to see it come down again, and make a dash for cover.
These dense flocks are not an unusual thing. Here on the coasts of India, multiple flocks of wintering gulls seem to come together to form maddeningly huge flocks (I have taken to calling them ‘superflocks’, even using this term on my survey data sheets where I record bird presence). These flocks are often so vast and dense that they appear on the horizon as a sort of fast-moving, swirling cloud. Having them approach the survey boat is nothing short of a nightmare. I have actually had to pause or discontinue surveys after running into gull superflocks. The data sheets say “low visibility due to gull superflock”, or simply “gullstorm”. It is literally like running into a snowstorm – you cannot see dolphins that are a mere few metres ahead, even if you are positively sure they are present.
Science knows gulls to be intelligent birds. Yet, whenever I’ve seen them with other animals around, they have seemed quite the clowns in the lot, sometimes making utter fools of themselves.
On one of my earliest boat-based surveys off Karwar, we came across an almost unbelievable sight. An immature lesser black-backed gull was trying to stand on a floating log. The log, being cylindrical, kept rolling at the water’s surface. So the gull was jogging on the rolling log, wings held out to maintain balance – it was actually effectively using the log as a treadmill. Whether this is a sign of intelligence or, well, a lack of it, I don’t know. The way this ended points to the latter possibility – the log progressively rolled faster and faster, until the gull couldn’t keep up and fell in on its backside.
As I mentioned earlier, gulls are real schemers when they want to get food, but at times, they also seem to be phenomenally bad at it – at least when they have to catch their own fish. Large gulls sometimes attempt to chase terns to make them drop their catch, but the gulls are nowhere near as good as certain other seabirds when it comes to this strategy, and their half-hearted chases usually end in failure. Even more interesting (and amusing) is the way they simply let go of opportunities. Once they spot a fish near the water’s surface, gulls (sometimes two or three of them together) often seem to hover above their prey, looking intently at it, as if trying really hard to decide whether to grab it or not. And more often than not, an instinctively smarter tern zooms in on the scene from between the pondering gulls, plunges in, grabs the fish, and flies off, leaving the half-bewildered, half-angry gulls squawking and cawing in protest.
Even prey fish seem to put a gull’s reputation to shame sometimes. Gulls do sometimes attempt to dive for fish, but they seem to plan it rather badly. Sardines, a favourite prey species of most gulls, swim along the water’s surface in a straight line with intermittent leaps when startled by a net or boat. This is when the fish is most visible and easiest to target for a bird on the wing – an easy buffet for kites, terns, and an assortment of other seabirds that dive in or pluck the fish off the surface. Gulls, however, with their awfully mistimed dives, often end up landing a foot or two ahead of the fish, sometimes giving it enough of a warning to change course.
However, behind every unsuccessful gull, there are several other gulls, and at least one of them gets the fish.
Getting to know dolphins
It sometimes seems as though all kinds of sea creatures are keen to make fun of gulls. At least one of these, I feel, is actually capable of intentionally doing it – dolphins. Gulls, unlike any other seabird I have seen, always seem very fascinated by dolphins. There are many seabirds that gather around dolphins to feed in association with them, but gulls seem to do it just out of curiosity. I have often seen small flocks of gulls following travelling dolphins. When the dolphins start to leap out and perform somersaults, the gulls go absolutely nuts, squawking wildly and flying about in a frenzy while still following the dolphins.
I did, however, once notice something that made me question the dolphins’ appreciation of gulls as their audience. I was observing dolphin activity and movements around a stationary fishing boat. A number of gulls had settled on the water around the boat. One of the dolphins, whose movements I was tracking, was surfacing at short intervals in a straight line; I then noticed that this line would soon lead exactly to the spot where a gull was sitting. As the dolphin moved closer, the gull started to paddle and look around nervously in all directions (gulls seem to do this when approached slowly). When the dolphin was about ten feet away from the gull, it took a breath and dove deeper, moving straight towards the gull from what I could see. The next thing I saw was the gull leaping up with a squawk, and then the dolphin popping up exactly where the gull was. I have no idea what the dolphin did, but it looked like it must have done something!
Mingling with natives
The most special gull I have seen so far cannot possibly be left out of this collection – and it deserves some credit, for it didn’t fail to win itself a mention here. This was a white-eyed gull, the first and so far the only one recorded in India. It had somehow made its way to Karwar, Karnataka, from its home grounds in the distant Middle East, and was finding its way with the local birds – a mix of terns. On day one of my observations, it was shying away from the other birds. By day two, it had started mixing with the terns and harassing some of them for food, playing what I perceived to be the role of an intruding bully. By day three, the terns seemed to be shunning it, it seemed to have cowed down a little, and at one point a pair of mating great crested terns got so boisterous that they unknowingly knocked it down from its perch, into the water. By day four, it was on its own again, and the local kites seemed to have decided that it was a bird worth targeting – they seemed to chase and harass it even when it wasn’t doing anything. Over just four afternoons, it looked like I had witnessed the quick rise and fall of this uninvited guest in the local seabird society.
Despite all the above accounts illustrating their apparent inability to be on top of things, gulls do seem to always be, well, on top of things. On top of every feeding frenzy at sea, on top of dolphins going on their way. Thanks to their adaptability, they have found a way to make a living wherever they may go – and in the process, they also seem to be, undeniably, on top of the bird scene at sea. Barring the fact that they still are a nightmare to identify, these birds have managed to pique my interest and irreversibly grab my attention (even as a not-so-obsessive birder). Gull power!