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Tuesday, February 28, 2017

You Go, Gulls...

The other day a small flock of  Valley seagulls circled gracefully around Tony Broers' house, then swooped to a landing on the ridge peak where each assumed that stoic gull stance, seemingly as comfortable as if it were standing sentinel on a pier or jetty. "Not a sight you see every day," I thought. (Many a crow, yes, but never a gull.)

Our Valley boasts a healthy population of gulls, "sea"gulls, that is, which makes one wonder why these classic seabirds have strayed so far from their namesake saline seas to pasture lands and cornfields. It seems seagulls would be uncomfortable "landlubbers" as their principal habitat is large body of salt or fresh water which provides abundant food and rocky coastlines ideal for breeding grounds, both, excepting the seasonal flooding, the Valley lacks. Seagulls, however, are fixtures among the Valley's diverse and abundant avian population: Gladys and I see them nearly every outing.

While I wouldn't dare presume to be an avid birder, I can readily identify most of our Valley's avian species. Not so with gulls, which for me are all lumped into that category. My Birds of Washington field guide lists five species of seagulls, none of which I've checked off  my backyard bird list. Even if one happened to alight on the property, I wouldn't know which of the five paid me a visit.

When I'm afoot in the Valley, my mind tends to wander, and today it's led astray by those stately seabirds perched as if sculpted on my neighbor Tony's rooftop. To my surprise I realize over the years I've accumulated an inventory of seagull experiences. Tony's visitors and The Ripple are just the excuse I need to share them  (or rather unburden) myself.

Back in the early '60s when I scurried about the University of Washington campus in a freshman panic, seagulls were a part of daily life. North of Hec Edmundson Sports Pavilion, Seattle maintained the Montlake Landfill, a vast garbage dump. The landfill sustained a seagull population which must have numbered in the thousands. For post meal exercise a goodly number of these dumpster divers left the heaps and mounds of garbage and made their way to the rooftops of campus buildings where, gorged with excremental deviltry, they would perch. I had a morning humanities class in the old pink lady, Parrington Hall. When classes ended, students would pour from Parrington in a rush trying to make their next class on time. The resulting commotion spooked the napping gulls, all of which rose in alarm, issuing a deluge of whitewash that had all the undergrads bobbing and rushing for cover. (I've always maintained this gull behavior inspired a new style, at least for men: the white trenchcoat.) Those days seagulls were so much a part of UW daily life that The Daily, UW's  newspaper, featured the cartoon character Spencer the Seagull. In each Daily cartoon Spencer posed, stentorian beak foremost, in his goggles and leather aviator's cap, human figures tallied on its side, the latest victims of his scatological bombardment.

Over the years I've watched these inland seabirds go about their Valley business, the strangest of which is the gulls' occasional vortex behavior. I'll notice a whirlwind of a hundred or so spiraling upwards like extras in the cyclone scene in The Wizard of Oz. They whirl upwards in a drifting cone, spin for a while, and then break formation. Why they do this I have no idea. Their grossest behavior: foraging in the green mist of the poo-poo sprinklers, feasting on dairy by-product tidbits, happy as if they were gourmet diners. I've noted, as well, gulls presage imminent Valley storms, their numbers increasing as the incoming storm drives them inland. On one of my walks I was spectator to an act of gull bullying. For no other reason than he could, a bald eagle singled out a gull and harried its poor victim across a cornfield. The gull knew enough about raptor behavior not to let the eagle take the high ground. Pursuer and the pursued continued on across the open field until I lost sight of them in the trees along the river.

Last spring some birder reported sighting a rare gull in the Valley. A black-headed gull (Chroicocephelus ridibundus), an east coast resident, had allegedly been seen in the company of resident Valley gulls. Birders eager to notch another sighting on their life lists rushed to the Valley hoping for a glimpse of this east coast "exotic." On one of my Valley strolls I happened upon a birder friend of mine parked by Swiss Hall, "bird" oculars pressed to his eyes: the object of his surveillance...the black-headed gull. Sandy Frohning told me caravans of birders ("gullibles?") streamed by her house hoping for a glimpse of the vagrant seabird.

Other gull trivia. One of my five-year old grandson's favorite bedtime stories features an old salt named Burt Dow (Burt Dow, Deep-Water Man). Burt's companion on shore or the high seas is the "Giggling Gull," a happy-go-lucky seabird that expresses its levity in three syllables: "Tee-hee-hee" regardless of the seriousness of the matter at hand.

In my days as a struggling undergrad at the UW, to access an afternoon class I parked my used 1957 four-door Bel Aire sedan in a metered slot on 45th Ave (in the day when there were a few parking spaces left in Seattle). It so happened that often that empty space was in front of a Mercedes Benz 300 SL, fire engine red, spotless and shiny as a newly minted penny. The 300 was the first automobile to feature "gull-wing" doors which, when opened, gave the illusion of a seagull in flight. If  I was early to class, I would circle the SL two or three times and dream....

And  Beryl Markham, the first aviatrix to fly transatlantic from east to west made the historic crossing in an aircraft she named the "Vega Gull."

Finally, one of my favorite puns concerns a gull relative. Birders, this one's for you:

Sailor to shipmate: "Why do you have a leash on that seagull?"

Shipmate: "I'm just taking a tern around the deck."

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