Friday, January 25, 2013

Gulls make a pit stop at SML en route north

Ring-billed gulls are common at SML during winter; come spring, they typically migrate north to nesting areas around the Great Lakes.

Photo submitted by Melvin Oakes

Ring-billed gulls are common at SML during winter; come spring, they typically migrate north to nesting areas around the Great Lakes.

When Union Hall resident Melvin Oakes emailed pictures to Laker Weekly recently, he captioned them "Seagulls vacationing at Contentment Island and Land's End on Dec. 31, 2012."

In the photos, there looked to be hundreds of the white-and-gray birds. One photo showed the birds lounging on a large floating dock, while another featured dozens perched on the rooftop of a communal, covered boat dock. A third photo captured the birds in mid-flight.

Wanting to know more about the birds, Oakes emailed his pictures to Steven Wickstrom, a chief warrant officer of the U.S. Coast Guard who's stationed in Virginia and author of the children's book, "The Seagull Who Was Afraid to Fly."

"It looks like you got invaded by a flock [of] ring-billed gulls," Wickstrom wrote in an email to Oakes. "They're probably migrating down to the Gulf of Mexico to lay eggs and hatch the young. In late spring, they'll be on their way back north with their younglings in tow."

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology's website, AllAboutBirds.org, described the ring-billed gull as one that bird-watchers would most likely see at the lake, at the beach and pretty much everywhere in between.

"In fact, most ring-billed gulls nest in the interior of the continent, near freshwater," according to the website. "While the species is common on coastal beaches, particularly during winter, many ring-billed gulls lead inland lives never setting eyes on the sea."

In addition to ring-billed gulls, Dan Lovelace, a biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, said folks at the lake also are likely to see herring gulls, great black-backed gulls and laughing gulls.

"The ring-billed gull is very common around our inland areas of Virginia, particularly near lakes and rivers during the winter months," Lovelace wrote in an email. "During March through April, the ring-billed gull will migrate northward from Virginia to nesting areas around the Great Lakes."

AllAboutBirds.org described herring gulls as larger than their ring-billed cousins, while laughing gulls are a darker shade of gray. Ring-billed gulls are identified by black bands that circle their yellow bills, hence their name.

Ring-billed gulls are not afraid of humans and don't seem to have discriminating tastes when it comes to food. According to the website, "Look for these gulls in parking lots, at sporting events, and around sewage ponds and garbage dumps. You may see them foraging for insects and worms in newly plowed fields, or perching atop light poles near shopping malls and fast-food restaurants. They also frequent reservoirs, lakes, marshes, mudflats and beaches."

Ring-billed gulls are creatures of habit, too.

"Many, if not most, ring-billed gulls return to breed at the colony where they hatched. Once they have bred, they are likely to return to the same breeding spot each year, often nesting within a few meters of the last year's nest site," stated AllAboutBirds.org.

The website also indicated that the gulls are not picky eaters and will feed on whatever strikes their fancy - from fish and earthworms to grain and garbage.

"Flocks of gulls can be very annoying. They are always looking for food. The best deterrent is to NOT feed them," said Lovelace.

If the gulls are being pests, lake homeowners can check the Internet for anti-perching/anti-roosting devices, said Lovelace.

"There are many devices listed for bird control on the Internet," he said. "Usually some type of wire system, spikes or netting."

Whether people find them entertaining or annoying, there are resources for learning more about the seagulls at the lake including www.allaboutbirds.org and Wickstrom's website,www.spwickstrom.com.