Earth Journal

 Vol. 11, No. 1

January 2-8, 2003

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Who’s Here? Seagulls Soaring
by Dick Wilson

From my house on the water at Chesapeake Beach, I see a rock jetty jutting out into the Bay. The jetty is the sometime home of many different bird species, but the ones who really own the place are the seagulls. They let everyone — man, woman, beast and bird — within hearing range know that they run things on the jetty and will accept no arguments to the contrary.

Mostly, however, seagulls just sit (“just sitting on the jutting jetty” is what that’s called). For no obvious reason, on certain days, they take to the air. On these special days, which must be windy (wind usually from the north and cold, in my experience), the entire flock takes to the air, some of them giving voice as they rise. Some people might say the birds are squawking, but we here in the Beaches choose to use more sophisticated language.

As they rise, fewer and fewer gulls cry out, as if they have one by one completed all the necessary arrangements for the flight. They seem to have some kind of internal discipline that establishes which birds will occupy which part of the airborne territory, for it takes a few minutes of freewheeling to get all the individuals into place. A few oddballs allow themselves to be taken away downwind, but most stay right where they are; they occupy their allotted space, never colliding with one another, and just hang. They hover, and that’s what’s fascinating.

Maybe that’s what some of the noise-making is about: seagulls on a wintry, windy day, hanging in space as they tell gravity to buzz off.

They point slightly off the wind, so they glide sideways. From the viewpoint of an observer on the ground, they appear to stop: no forward movement, just a wing sometimes tipping as if on a fulcrum, to maintain balance. No fluttering wings for them as they hover.

Then an individual will go into a gentle bank and — wheeoo! — it shoots downwind and loses some altitude as the lift supplied by the headwind dissipates. Gotta get that lift back or the bird will go into the water. Have you ever seen a gull have a flying accident? I haven’t. Now it flaps those wings, gaining airspeed as it flies back over the jetty to the hovering flock. Returned to its assigned space over the jetty, the gull resumes hovering.

Seagulls know more about flying than we do. But why do they fly in this manner on these particular days? Science would tell us that birds and animals behave in ways that increase their chances of survival. But how does hovering on a windy day increase those chances?

Maybe they are practicing, but they are so good at what they do that it doesn’t appear they need practice. Furthermore, such days don’t occur regularly, so they can’t schedule their practice sessions. I believe they do it for fun. They’re having fun, and so am I as I watch from the jutting jetty.

Copyright 2003
Bay Weekly