March 26, 2020
If old enough, the perfunctory annual statement received from the Social Security Administration dutifully lists one’s work history, dates and employers, from the point one needed to have “working papers.” So maybe it’s embarrassing just how many years have passed, but the bureaucratic statement helps keep memory alive. “Seagull” was an older guy who showed up with the younger crowd of us “warehouse pickers,” who loaded tractor trailers 4 pm to midnight for a big city grocery store chain, one of those first employers of mine listed on the Social Security statement. Seagull had tall thin legs like Big Bird that rose from his work boots all the way up to the ballooning shorts he wore to keep cool. The contour of his legs did not alter but for the knucklelike appearance of his bare knees. He worked comfortably and enjoyed the bit of attention his stature and nickname “Seagull” brought him.
The 1970s book “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” by Richard Bach, on the other hand, told a captivating story by giving a human-like identity to a seagull growing up. Such is part of the nuanced background upon which a few of my real but later-in-life seagull encounters occur. Officially there are only gulls. Seagull is a misnomer. Even though we take gulls and the good that they do for granted because of their everyday presence, they were one of the first of birds protected by law, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, for instance. I’ve had too many encounters with gulls to count, including one which my brother and I once came upon whose legs were hopelessly entangled with fishing line but was cut free while it was hooded and quieted in a teeshirt. Of my three favorite gull stories, two take place in Vermont.
But first, years ago as young parents with a family of our own, we were in the big city to visit the folks. And usually we had to get out of the house so the kids could get fresh air and stretch their legs, even if off season. It was worth a drive to the beach for a few hours outdoors. Here we would walk a stretch of empty beach along the water where the shore birds would skedaddle or fly off ahead as we progressed. One of the boys noticed one gull had a honker of a live clam clamped over its beak. Unlike a dramatic struggle of bucks locked in horns, this stand-off between gull and clam must have been a quiet status quo for days as the gull was weak and barely managed to fly a few yards away to set down again in shallow water. The water was no refuge either as the weight of the clam tended to pull the gull’s head underwater. I wadded into the water, wrapped the gull in a shirt, cut the bivalve’s two abductor muscles with the car key, which sacrificed the clam but set the gull free.
Approaching the latest end of my employment record now on January 23, 2015, I took my usual walk at noon on Burlington’s Bike Path, on the section currently under reconstruction and detoured, and will be so for the remainder of 2020. The Bike Path was essentially clear of other pedestrians but I met Paul from Hinesburg on the north side of Roundhouse Point. I actually met his dog first on the south side. I hadn’t seen Paul in years, and knew he was a tree guy. So I was surprised to bump into him shivering and standing next to a spotting scope on a tripod out of the wind. More than a dozen species of gull can be seen in Vermont. You often see a flock following tractors turning hay in the fields as they do fishing boats on the sea. I also take gulls for granted, too many to know and identify at once. While catching up with Paul I was curious about his birding quarry – gulls. Somewhat distant in calmed waters on the bay side of the breakwater was an aggregate of gulls bunched together facing the wind on ice so thin it undulated with the slight heave of the water’s surface.
Sometimes one has to see a bird on the wing, too, to accurately identify it, but not this day. Hunkered down among the Laughing and Great Black gulls, Paul pointed out Icelandic and Glaucous gulls with the scope, the latter two being new to my life bird list.
But my favorite gull story of all time has a New England town, municipality edge to it that began on April 16, 2013, on a previous lunch break walk. At Perkins Pier I spotted a gull close and tagged. I don’t mean banded, it was tagged on both wings with bright orange square synthetic fabric flags. It was walking around as if saddled with a miniature sandwich board. I short circuited for a moment. I didn’t know if I was looking at a variant of Redwing, a gull, or a totally new species. The gull was perfectly fine, however, without binoculars I couldn’t read what was on the tags. For the next two weeks I carried binoculars on lunch break in my hat in my hand so not to look as if I was watching for submarine periscopes in the lake or for an aircraft passing overhead to others on the Bike Path.
On April 29, I spotted the same gull again at the Blodgett pocket beach and could now make out the alpha-numeric tag “A/1004” on the flags with the binoculars. Searching the internet I found a site called “SEANET” and reported the sighting. Using the tag number the database indicated the bird to be female and a Ring-billed gull captured and tagged at a Stop & Shop Store parking lot in Revere, Mass. Bread was used for bait and a rocket net for capture. This program was undertaken by the Massachusetts Natural Resources Section, Water Supply Protection Division. Apparently the gulls were a problem for the drinking water reservoir in Revere and responsible people wanted to know where the gulls came from and how far afield they traveled. Gulls tagged in this program have been reported as far north as Labrador and as far south as the State of Georgia.