To Fuse Wind and Its Motion: A Meditation on the Seagull in Fourteen Parts Print E-mail

20031204(San Diego Reader December 4, 2003)

Disperse • Sunday morning, Clairemont Square Shopping Center parking lot. An asphalt expanse between Town Square Stadium 14 and Burlington Coat Factory. A few gulls perched on the edge of a roof. Fifteen more scattered on the pavement. From one, from another, a plaintive cry, that squeaky swing-set sound, an alien despondency. The 15 in tightening togetherness. Separate, too, and separating, mocking togetherness. Flocking in anti-flock. A club, every adult member identical, their grey-and-white plumage fixed. Otherwise, a few embrowned young. At first glance. Then, a sense that they are one. Their response—silence, a discontent, standing stock-still. Nobody speak, as if to say we are not one—gull, seagull, shorebird, vagrant, visitor, coastal fisher, scavenger—we possess individualities, alas, that no one can see.

I approach. Am met with indifference, then wariness. Mothball heads. Bright yellow beaks. Slate-grey mantles. Field vision whole, each sees my coming and a space to move toward. I approach closer. Stick legs and rubbery feet pick-up, put-down, pick-up, put-down. Walk-away, hurry-away, walk-back. Uncertain, curious, gregarious. Lowing at me—me, the problem. Then one, flat-footed, ruffles its wings up and out, extends its neck, flattens its back. Its beak visors open, trumpeting rage, and (no exaggeration) the bird hair-balls a squawk.

Larus californicus (California). Larus delawarensis (ring-Billed). Larus occidentalis (Western). Distinct species, cagey individuals. And yet each, at least to me, all gull.

Most Sunday mornings during winter—that is, during gull season—Jack in the Box bags and red licorice wrappers have been pecked apart by these vultures of the asphalt range. And still the gulls wait, thinking (no, trained to think) there’ll be more food. And why not. The trash also rises every Sunday, here in the peopleless remains of this and countless other oil-stained lots, cars gone, movie-night adolescents history. A homeless man with a shopping cart wheels through the gulls’ threshing floor. He chases one or two with a crazy “Aha!”; gulls oblige by hop-running off. Then return. Has food dropped in his wake? It falls here and who cares how. Hunger in their voices, the hunger of long-distant flights, hunger between seasons of breeding and migration. Wanting food, nothing more, nothing Hitchkockian. I notice them here and in a myriad of elsewheres—bay, beach, dump, slough, flapping by overhead—until their sheer numbers say more than, we are here only to eat. Surely something greater than gorging themselves on coastal waste has evolved the desire to desire this heap we call southern California over some other heap?

Long ago, the noun “gull” signified a dupe. The word morphed to a verb, “to gull,” or trick, and morphed again to the human trait, “gullible.” (Gulli-gulli chants the conjurer.) These large, arrogant birds gull with an insistence I find spell-worthy: Give us the messiness of your lives. Your rot is our boon. Don’t stop with the littered bounties of happy-meal fun-packs, half-chomped fries and burger-bun ends.

In the parking lot, I can identify one species, the Western gull, which nests on Mexico’s Islas de Los Coronados, some 15 miles off Rosarito. It is our only resident gull, which, as one local birder told me, has solved the migration urge: “Why would anyone ever want to leave San Diego?” The others are vagrants, visitors, accidentals, a set of motorcycle Marlon Brandos come here to gawk and eat and fly over and roost and postcard the beach. And here they keep coming—in winter, increasingly more in summer, by the hundreds of thousands, all 21 species.

A moment later, the gulls and I have reached a stand-off. Every step I take, each bird takes a step back. Okay. This is as close as we get. But intimacies are imaginable. Somewhere between the Western and the 20 other gull species, between our silly and spiritual depictions of them from beach logos to the ubiquitous “Free Bird,” between their ability to resist our encroachment on them and to encroach on us all they want—somewhere in-between is the gull, passing through and moving on, the apotheosis of elsewhere.


Spirit • In the spring of 1848, the year following their arrival in northern Utah, the Mormons planted 900 acres of wheat. That summer, a plague of crickets, the wingless long-horned grasshopper, descended on the fields. Though the Mormons tried to “drown, burn, and club the crickets to death,” they were out-bugged. Looking to the skies, the elders called, “God, help us! Our crops are being devoured!” Lo and behold, said the Mormons, God sent in thousands and thousands of California gulls to devour the devourers. The Mormons sank on bended knees, elated their harvest was saved by the discriminating gull. To show their gratitude, they honored the California gull as their state bird, erecting a “handsome monument to the gulls in Temple Square, Salt Lake City,” which reads, in part, “in remembrance of the mercy of God to the Mormon pioneers.” Wrote one church leader, “We believe that God had a hand in it, and it does not matter particularly whether strangers believe it or not.”

And then one day, an ornithologist points out that the gulls discovered this great food source in the fields because it was no more than an hour’s flight from their lake-island nesting grounds. A mordant observer notes that the Mormons could have been “the most sinful people in the world, the gulls still would have come and eaten all those crickets.”

Such paradoxes, like gulls fulfilling prophecy and filling their bellies, fascinate. Indeed, John James Audubon loved gulls (and all birds) so much that after he finished painting many of the species he had collected and chloroformed, he ate them.


Bird • An anecdote one hears regularly about legendary local birder Guy McCaskie is told by Sue Smith. In 2001, Smith, an amateur aviarist and bird illustrator, spotted the newest bird species to be recorded in San Diego county, the Northern wheatear, on the cliffs above La Jolla shores. This bird, a member of the thrush family, ranges from summer breeding in Alaska to winter stays in Asia and Africa, not North America. It was way off course. Smith spotted the wheatear a mile from where she works, walked back and phoned McCaskie at his home in Imperial Beach. When she returned to the spot, he was there. He glimpsed the bird for a moment. And then it flitted elsewhere. Only three or four people saw that bird that day, but the proof they gathered (photos, drawings, eyewitness testimony) put the bird on the state list.

McCaskie’s name is invoked by his proteges as the “father of California birding.” Now a semi-retired engineer, McCaskie can be found, when not birding, before a horseshoe-shaped desk at Trepte Construction Company in Kearny Mesa, scouring blueprints. He reminds one of an old-world, off-duty Santa Claus. Thick, hoary hair bunches on his collar. Suspenders hold up his stove-belly-big black jeans. And he speaks with zeal, a birder’s consuming excitement to hunt and see the rarity. When I ask him about a particular bird, he’s likely to say, “Oh, now that’s a pretty bird,” mixing a touch of Sylvester the Cat with Professor Henry Higgins. A true sportsman, he has often driven 500 miles, with or without dinner or friends, tipped-off about a bird he’s never seen. Like the Northern wheatear. To add another notch on the barrel.

Scotland-born and England-raised, McCaskie enrolled at San Diego State in 1957 and liked it here so much he never left. The sheer numbers of birds (not just gulls) and habitats (desert, lowlands, mountains, coasts, ocean) were twin seductions. San Diego county has more species of birds known to occur (486 and counting), he tells me, than any other county in the United States.

McCaskie scans a list of local gulls—one of hundreds of lists, tabulations, records, studies, journals he refers to regularly. For four decades he’s been the regional editor for Southern California (up to and including Kern and Inyo counties) of North American Birds. This quarterly report is the bible of regional bird identification. He gathers all observations of birds and makes taxonomic lists of the new, unusual, and accidental birds moving through.

Who names these birds? I ask. The California gull, for instance. McCaskie says it was probably named by someone who collected or verified one and did so somewhere in the state. Common names imply little, he warns. Herring gull is for the bird’s love of herring; Glaucous gull for its shade of grey; Iceland gull is seen on occasion in Iceland, though it nests in Greenland. (Greenland, we recall, takes the cake for misnomering.) Sabine’s gull was named after Sabine, a sea captain. “Most of the ornithologists name [birds] after a buddy and have the buddy name [one] after them—at least, in the old days,” McCaskie says. “But this sea captain, Sabine, wasn’t in on the loop, so he just decided to name it after himself.”


Flock • Why look at birds? Indeed, “Why look at animals?” the English writer John Berger asked in his provocative 1977 essay. Berger writes that we look because we long for an ancestral time when the secrets of life were “the secrets about animals as an intercession between man and his origin.” Animals were with us and not with us: “They belonged there and here.” But with leisure, with mechanization, with human occupation of nearly every earthly habitat, animals have been sundered from the wild, not only for food, but for pleasure, as pets, mascots, and zoo stars. That close to us they become Disneyfied, caricatures laden with anthropomorphism. Comic-strip Garfield is every spoiled cat, one of 37 million American cats, most of whom receive Christmas presents each year. Such a lot drains spiritual power from the animal. The animal loses much of its species vitality, Berger says. The animal is fitted with one of our many one-dimensionalities, the banal. Super-softened in its new “innocence,” the animal is “emptied of experience and secrets.”

One result, Berger concludes, is that “animals are always the observed. The fact that they can observe us has lost all significance. . . . What we know about them is an index of our power, and thus an index of what separates us from them. The more we know, the further away they are.” In the end, animals captured and retained for study express their marginality, “an otherwise exclusively human attitude—indifference.”

Is Berger anti-scientific? Has he over-aligned himself with ancient spirit instead of modern actuality? Does examining animals in depth push their beings further and further from us? Do animals, in becoming dependent upon us, become less animalistic? Of course, they don’t need us to represent them, though many would argue they need us to represent their interests. Their vanishing habitat may carry the ancillary means that ensures our survival.

Gulls mean enough to us to leave them be. The mascots of a local professional hockey team won’t be found in any zoo.


Scavenge • Most birds resist the zoo’s definition of “animal.” It would be painlessly easy to snatch a bird, especially the gull. So plentiful are gulls that they require none of the zoo’s protection. And yet they are captivated by the chaos (and waste) of our lives.

No one knows this better than Paul Lozano, who’s been working dumps for three decades, and now manages the Otay Landfill for Allied Waste. Congenial and relaxed, Lozano, who says he loves his job, in part, because his wife April is his secretary, has driven me out and stopped on one of the terraced roads, overlooking the days’ trash piling. Below three huge Caterpillar tractors are spreading and compacting the waste from Chula Vista dump trucks. The Cats slip-slide over the grunge pile as though they’re maneuvering on basketballs. About 50 yards away is a spotter, who signals in-coming rigs where to go. He also watches for gulls. If he sees any approaching, he fires off a gun that shoots a bird-whistler into the air. The idea is to keep them from landing. Lozano says they will land but “only if we turn our backs. They’re sneaky.”

In the old days, Lozano says, thousands roosted here. “I remember driving a piece of equipment and the bird would be gliding next to me, outside, so close and so beautiful. They are very beautiful, and big.” Where once the landfill bosses merely tolerated the gulls, today they manage them. “We don’t want them landing, eating the trash, getting sick, or taking diseased food out of here.” He says it’s a health concern. The company can’t be 100 percent sure of what people dump in the landfill—from coffee grounds to hypodermic needles. No one, he says, wants these gulls carting off plastic bags and dropping their contents in someone’s back yard. To the south we can see the Chula Vista water park, Coors Amphitheater, new Levittowns rising on the far ridges.

The sound of the bird-whistler is like the squeal of air escaping a balloon’s neck. When the whistler is propelled by the hammer-punch of the gun, the rush up through the air bends the noise a bit, making a high-pitched, annoying, and soon-over whine. “We don’t want to hurt them,” Lozano says. “We just want them to move on.”

There’s probably a flock we can check out on the mesa above us. Often the gulls perch on the edges of the layer-cake hills where, Lozano says, “they’re thinking, ‘maybe those guys won’t look at me and I’ll fly in and grab something real quick.’” Cool, windless days, like today, the gulls stick around; hot days they’ll get the gun’s message and head for the ocean, five miles off. Arriving, we find a hundred of them, a grey-and-white phalanx ready to play scaredy-gull. Lozano loads his gun. He aims it out the window, and the flock takes wing. They’re all coming at us. “Opps,” he says, “they saw me pointing the gun.” He fires. The alarmed flock turns chaotically, flaps hurriedly to gain altitude. Lozano loads and fires. They startle again, zig and zag,. Once more he fires. Their array is jumbled now—messy not elegant. They’re unsure where they are. Soon they regroup and head south. Ten minutes later, they’re back.

Not only do the Cat operators cover the trash with mulch every night; Saturday evenings, they stretch huge tarps on top of that mulch. Even so, the gulls land and peck, their nostrils ablaze with the stench of ripening waste. “They seldom break through,” Lozano says.


Portray • Among the most original American stylists writing short stories today is H. E. Francis. In “A Disturbance of Gulls,” a man returns to the seaside cabin in which his reclusive grandfather has just died. He arrives to sort through the old man’s belongings but he senses the soul of his grandfather has remained behind. He wants to help the soul pass and suspects a gull may provide the means. Far out on the pilings of a dock, he watches one gull, among many, on its perch, “immobile and lifeless it seemed, clean white with the clean gray wings, black tail-feathers, and something proud in the head with the hard yellow eye, the authoritative yellow bill. Seen out of the corner of his eye, the post with the still gull stood on the sand like a presence staring out to sea; and if the gull moved its head, so like a cap, it startled.”

After speaking with the doctor and staff who cared for his grandfather during his final days, the man returns to the cabin and naps on his grandfather’s bed. He is jolted awake from a dream: A dazed gull, having flown through an open window and struck the wall, has settled beside him. “Even in the dark its eye glittered. The gull’s body hung heavy, the feet dangled like dead hands, the neck lay back over his arm, the head hung contrite.” Reviving the gull from its near-dead state, he releases it. The bird returns to the flock that inhabits the seaside pilings. Later, the man tries to draw physically close to one gull—the one he nursed? But to no avail. “Abruptly it spread wings and fluttered, the awkward feet dangling, and then, the legs bending back, rose in a slow graceful arc. How it rose! How it fused wind and its motion. He felt himself rise with that flight into the great eye which spread blue around him, enclosing, drawing green and water and all earth into the flowing around.” And then—as it must—the gull “winged higher and higher. The sound resounding within him, he went back to the house.”

The story works throughout with this mystical quality in which gulls carry the taciturnity and aloneness of the grandfather. His passage to spirit is experienced in the metaphor of the gull’s flight. Something intrinsic about the “disturbance of gulls” allows us to feel the freedom that death brings, the going and the letting go.


Nest and Mew • As children we all daubed onto our idyllic seaside paintings the \ / flecks of gulls flying over. So powerfully mundane were those strokes that the commercial world employs them still. Realty signs with setting sun, waves, a whale’s tail, crown-rounded trees, and a single \ /’d gull. City banners in blue with egret, leaping dolphin, pier, surfboard, and three gulls, wings arching in soaring flight. Ye Olde Plank Inn driftwood sign with palm trees, A-frame, island, sailboat, and a bevy of gulls. Double-garage doors with leaning palms over a purple-pink sunset and dozens of gulls passing or arriving. A mosaic welcome sign for Imperial Beach on a grassy boulevard island: Most Southwesterly City in Continental U.S.—islands, sunset, sailboat, gulls by the dozen. Gulls illustrate ☞ walkway signs on Mission Beach Boulevard, directions to sand-covered paths hustled over by early morning surfers.

As if the gull had a wing in wanting all that!

How often a pair of gulls is depicted on cedar-shake coast cottages for honeymoon or tryst. How often a single gull appears as icon, left or leaving on its own. In its guises, this little Napoleon of lake and shore has chosen San Diego to beach and bay, just as San Diegans have. The gull drew us here, for the bird lives what it represents.

Look to Ocean Beach as its symbolic hub. There it’s found, posted in the rear windows of “guy” pick-ups, carved onto warping wooden signs—a wing-ruffled gull gawking over the town’s initials, O B. So charged with drama is the depiction that one cannot tell whether the gull is alighting or embarking. The point is, it’s wildness is blessing O B, a wildness that stubbornly abides what Richard Louv once characterized as “the far end of America.”

Yet, for some reason, San Diego’s gurus of tourism have not embraced OB’s gull. Instead they’ve enthroned the cuter, captured species, Shamu and Hua Mei. The San Diego Zoo, always stumping for more visitors and more conservancy, uses panda and panda image to create chamber-of-commerce creatures. One birder tells me that pandas are adored because they seem childlike and huggable, whereas birds, even in cages, weigh nothing on the adorability scale. Birds stimulate more our sense of awe and abstraction, less our catch-and-keep enslavement.

The gull fascinates because it resists the bars and tanks of captivity. It is as much uncaged as uncageable. It has no cuddlesomeness and performs no tricks. And, like most non-natives and new arrivals to San Diego, the gull is divided between this and other locales. To fly in and out of San Diego is to manifest several passages at once—migratory, homing, pelagic, shorebound. This mirrors America’s westerliness. “A literature of motion, not of place,” Wallace Stegner said, describing that which most characterizes western writers.

For me the coming-and-going motion of the gull represents the wildness we’ve suppressed in the caged panda and the trained whale.


Wing • Gulls’ wings are midway between the short, pointed wings of the swallow and the long, narrow wings of the albatross. But on the wing, gulls accomplish acrobatic feats—dive, swoop, halt, reverse—often as they engage in kleptoparasitism, the mid-air stealing of food from other birds, like taking fish from a raptor’s talons. They also use great columns of air and changes in air pressure that take them places, at times whether they want to or not.

Soaring is, perhaps, the most efficient means of long-distance travel ever devised by any creature. Gulls soar not by flapping into the columns of air, though flapping-flight does take place first, to get the gull up. Aloft, the bird maintains altitude by transferring from one tier of air to another. As one observer put it, the gull “circles into the air column that is rising faster than the bird is descending.”

The soaring of gulls was memorably described by A. H. Woodcock in a 1940 article in the magazine Auk. “It is amusing to note that, failing to reach the roosting place on the first trial, the birds will return to the region of the up-flow (while they still have enough altitude for a quick down-wind glide), rather than flap their wings for the last few hundred feet of the flight. Apparently several minutes of extra soaring time are preferable to a few seconds of flapping.”


List • Most gulls, Guy McCaskie says, are seen along the ocean shores of the world’s continents. The “sea” gull comes from Europe, the proximity of the gull to the sea is like the fisherman’s proximity to the ocean. Gulls are found on all continents, with a few stragglers in Antarctica. Most land-bird families are confined to one or two continents, while the gull is a “coastal thing.” Gulls are not a worldwide bird. They are rare visitors to Hawaii. Some faraway islands have their own species; Darwin noted one on the Galapagos. Gulls inhabit the tips of South Africa and South America, Australia and New Zealand. Gulls go incredible distances but not regularly.

“Gulls have a habit of turning up far, far from where they’re supposed to be,” McCaskie says. An Ivory gull, which lives in the Arctic, is circumpolar, and likes the pack ice, turned up a few years back at Doheny Beach, just north of San Diego county. For a bird that likes dead walruses, “There’s a good reason for it not to be down here.”

McCaskie has seen the 21 species of gulls in San Diego county. What makes this such an impressive record is, 99 percent of the gulls seen locally are four species: Western, California, ring-billed, and Heermann’s. McCaskie’s had a direct hand in verifying those 17 other species, which make up only one percent of local gull sightings. The largest wintering gull population in San Diego is the Western, followed by the California. The smaller ring-billed gull arrives in late summer, having finished foraging in Utah and Canada where it nests. The glaucous-winged gull and the mew gull move south from coastal Canada and are spotty visitors here, at the south end of their winter range. Bonaparte’s gull, like Ross’s gull, winters on the Pacific Coast and summers in the Canadian tundra. The bird likes feeding on the ocean but near the coast. They can be seen off La Jolla sometimes in flocks of two thousand or more. Heermann’s gull, black with a white head, is a Mexican bird and, after it nests, will fly north to the California coast for its food.

The Herring gull of the Atlantic seaboard is less common here, though it can be abundant at the Salton Sea. Thayer’s gull comes from Baffin Island in northeastern Canada in small groups every year. It flies across the continent for its winter respite. Laughing Gull wanders from the eastern United States to the Imperial County; a few stray to the coast. Franklin’s gull, a “nice, delicate black-headed thing,” McCaskie says, nests in the prairie states and, a long-distance flyer, winters on the west coast of South America. Fanklin’s gull is even known to make a Kon-Tiki-like voyage across the south Pacific to Australia. Birders report about one Franklin’s gull in the county each year. Some of the smaller gulls, like Sabine’s gull, also show up here but they are much smaller, flit faster, and squawk softer, like their cousins, the terns.

Controversy visited the sighting of a single Belcher’s gull, a South American species, at the Tijuana River estuary several years ago. It stayed for about five months, and local birders as well as international aviarists came to see it. Its occurrence was disputed because there’s no precedent for a Belcher’s being anywhere near this part of the globe. Did someone plant it? Maybe. Did it hitch a ride by ship, which is rare for gulls? Unlikely. Was it an escaped caged bird from Tijuana where many exotic birds are allowed, unlike in the United States? Doubtful. The consensus was, a “legitimate vagrant.”

Exposed mud flats at low tide will attract thousands of gulls. They seek the stranded things—crab, clam, flea, mussel, sow bug, limpets, periwinkles, chitons, dogwinkles—creatures which, one bird book says, “must cope with periods of exposure and immersion.” Gulls are fish-eaters: Love that offal. In betwixt feeds, gulls loaf. You’ll find them inspecting a wrack line or a tidal flotsam. One of the finest sights when gulls group is the number of different species, congregating like a multi-cultural choir. Gulls mix in these wintering flocks; if they mix at the breeding colonies, they may hybridize.


Spirit • Bird links heaven and earth. Once people knew gods to inhabit the bodies of birds, revealing the lightness of God. His burden is light, the Bible famously puns. The bird allowed the soul a place to escape to, to soar on, rising above this lot, leaving and yet returning, to remind us that the beyond may include a round-trip ticket. As soon as people knew that the soul needed a body with which to migrate, the soul could then, says one writer, take “its final flight to the nest where it is safe from the perils of transmigration.” So strong was the bird-force that the Egyptians recognized the phoenix, a bird that lived for 500 years, consumed itself in a fiery end, then rose from its ashes to live again.

Ancient animal knowledge—rocked by intellectual doubt and the pressure of scientific observation that challenged humankind’s initial cosmology of birds—barely exists anymore. The bird has been demystified, no more than an amulet or charm. The bird’s symbolic energy is drained of its complexity. In the end, the bird, once used to send messages between warring states, now grasps a spring of nest material in its beak and delivers the flying-by hope of peace. The bird’s status these days can be found at Dove-of-Peace products (, featuring logos on magnets, greeting cards, calendars, frisbees, postcards, and more.

Despite the bird’s commercialization, birding still mystifies. One birder told me of the spell of birding, the senses enlivened, transfixed. “In a way, time stops,” she says. “You’re so focused into the moment. Your ears catch everything. You’re listening to all the different calls. You’re eliminating all the common calls to see if you can hear anything slightly unusual. Your eyes are looking for the slightest movement that might be a rare migrant warbler. It’s an exercise for the brain and the reflexes.” Though birders appreciate caged birds, she says, birding itself is the opposite. “The uplifting part of it is seeing birds in their natural habitat—free.”

The sensuous aspect of birding is paralleled by the mystery of migration. At bottom, a food base controls migration: The bird follows the bugs or rodents, fish kills and spring thaws. In fact, four Ice Ages have pushed birds south. Birds also move because wherever they’ve evolved, so have their predators. (The gulls’ predators are few—great horned owls, peregrine falcons, and coyotes who get onto nesting grounds.) Birds migrate for safety. But what impulse gets them to go and keeps them on target? Is it sight, sense, a built-in magnetic homing mechanism, some kind of celestial navigation (star bright, star light), an avion gene?

There’s no simple answer. Birds migrate at night. Birds get lost in fog. Birds are drawn by lights at night and sometimes strike radio towers. Birds move by light’s duration. As daylight lessens, birds move south. As days get longer, birds move north.

The modern shaman may have become (by necessity) the habitat preserver—part fey mystic, part lawyering environmentalist. In fact, Fish and Wildlife Service personnel, in hopes of documenting the gulls’ use of migratory reserves, have been banding the legs of fledgling gulls in their breeding colonies for years. But finding those bands has proven nearly impossible. Gulls scatter from their nests in the northern United States and Canada to all parts of the Pacific coast. They migrate in groups but they disperse constantly, join other groups, and head where the group is going. Very few gulls, experts say, are site-specific. They are not in one place one summer, one place one winter, then back in the same spot next season, as my parents used to go back and forth to gulf-coast Florida. Such adaptation to only one spot is dangerous to the gull: What if it gets lost and can’t find its summer or winter home? Frustrated searching will make it vulnerable to a predator. Gull migration is the puzzle. They reappear in the same spots each year but the gulls themselves are almost all different. Somehow, though, the birds know how to get to where they’ve never been.


Molt • In the Imperial Valley, driving south from Calpatria on California highway 111, my partner Suzanna and I are nearing Ramer Lake, the evening home to thousands of gulls and egrets and ibis. Above us, suddenly, a flock of gulls. Paralleling the highway, the birds slow. Driving, I do the same. Highways out here always feel deserted, so it’s nothing to creep along at 15 miles per hour, lean head out the window to watch one of many evening avian migrations. The sun is very low though still on the horizon and the birds’ flapping has picked up the tawny orange of the day’s last light. The color is radiant in what appears to be a near-unison flap of three dozen gulls. The sun reflects off their up-flap, which alternates with the dark of their down-flap. The effect is strobe-like, a film whose sprocket stalls and trips along with mechanical grace. A flickering, a shuttering of gull wings in and against a desert sundown sky. For a long moment the pattern holds. Then a shake, long enough for me to shout, “God, would you look at that!” Then the flock veers away in tangled unison, flashing one final surge of orange.

Next morning, driving the long straight ditch-hugging roads of the Imperial Valley, looking for birds, we spot flocks of thousands of ibis and gulls and egrets, mixing, intermingling, in shifting phalanxes of motion over a newly irrigated field. Sudden water has pushed insects to the surface, where the birds feed. But they are also roused to the air, where the flocks intersect. There are geometric planes of motion that slice into other planes, one giant flock optically dancing with another flock, moire slicing moire. The front edge of the combined flocks turns back upon itself, entangling the totality. Other times, the flock seems to lose gravity and drop, swayback fall which, in turn, causes an undulation of the whole. To our eyes, a sudden seasickness, topsy-turveydom. All this observed from a soundless half-mile away.


I.D. • At the end of a dry winter, I meet birders Sue Smith and David Blue at the Soledad Creek estuary, in Torrey Pines State Reserve, to watch them practice gull identification. More than 100 gulls have obliged, at 6:15 a.m. Gray skies, a gentle tide, lots of muddy bars and banks on which the gulls, having slept with heads tucked on their backs, are now preening themselves in the creek’s freshwater. Our vision steadies on the gulls but every so often one or the other heralds, with breathless glee, “there’s a white-faced ibis” or “look, that’s a savannah sparrow,” a rare bird in most of North America but not in coastal California salt marshes.

Smith and Blue set up high-powered telescopes. Big eyes on tripods bring the gulls to us with an almost scarily clear, bird-in-a-book resolution. Such sighting is, anymore, expected for birders; but it’s a requisite for discerning gulls.

Blue is a zealous amateur with steely grey eyes and a rail frame, who “birds every day, in or out of the car.” In his scope he and I take turns identifying the white-headed adults—Western, California, Ring-Billed—then spot two Heermann’s gulls whose chocolate-brown plumage is unmistakable. An immature pair, they won’t be leaving for another few years to breed in Mexico. They’re stay here or they’ll wander.

The array of juvenile-gull identities is maddeningly varied. These identities include the eye’s relative darkness and coloring; the beak’s length and shape; the beak’s blunt or pointy end; the beak’s black or red or black-and-red spots; the bird’s yellow or pink legs; the bird’s body shape—compact, bulky, robust, long, slim; and the bird’s plumages, not just overall color but the primary feathers’ length and markings on the tips. Recognizing plumages is the linchpin of gull identification: No less than nine plumages exist, four years of winter and summer feathers plus the juvenile or just-born plumage. It’s important to note, Blue reminds us, that these plumages are never bird-book exact; the variations between first-winter and second-summer plumage are very close. Even when the “high breeding plumage” ensues, various colors will become, well, more colorful—very white, very grey—“like getting dressed up for a date,” Blue says.

Smith, wearing a white sweatshirt and black sweatpants and the ever-present binoculars around her neck, starts limning a pair of “all sooty” gulls. The bird in the scope is “a smudgy gull,” a brownish grey, she says.

“Keep in mind,” Blue says, as we grow more keenly detailed in identification, that “the relative abundance of gulls”—the hard-to-know young ones—“goes down each year. They get eaten.” The idea is intriguing. From 0 to 3 years, mortality factors increase. Theoretically any pair of gulls can mate for ten years and have a clutch of six every year. If all those gulls lived, the balance of bird populations (and several other ones) would change radically. “Every fall,” Blue continues, “there are twice as many birds in the northern hemisphere as there were in the previous spring. But by the next spring the numbers are just about back to the same.” In other words, most young gulls die. There are a lesser number of first-year and lesser, by half, of second-year gulls. “Our smallest population is the third-year gull,” Blue says. “You’d think every year there’d be less and less of the four-year age. And that’s true but beyond four years they all look the same. They’re all adult gulls to us.” Of those who make it to adulthood, they can live to age 15.

Smith finds an adult Western in her scope but again it’s another “smudgy bird,” the back of its head mottled “with oil marks.” This adult, Blue says, has already lost its winter plumage. Next we find a young bird that is clearly molting, looking quite ragged.

“What is that?”

“It’s smudgy all-over.”

“It’s really bleached out.”

“It’s so ugly,” Blue says, “I don’t even want to look at it.” But quickly he reconsiders. “This bird looks different. What’s going on here? My first impression is that this is a dark smudgy thing, so it must be a Western. And yet the tail feathers are very brown. Almost too brown for a Western. So now we go, ‘Oh, what is this?’ And then I’m thinking, ‘It’s possible we may never know what this is.’”

Smith, less experienced with gulls than Blue, says, “You’ve got to tell us. If you know.”

“Look at the head shape.” He’s got us going now. “Is this a more gentle-looking bird? Is this a fierce-looking bird? To me this has a more rounded head. But not completely rounded.” He ticks off the possibilities. A young Ring-Billed is very light colored; the young California doesn’t have this petite a bill. Maybe it’s a Glaucous-Winged gull or a Thayer’s gull, both relatively uncommon. Smith and Blue confer. Swapping descriptions like taxidermists, savoring the details, “It looks like it hasn’t molted in a year, what with its bleached out feathers—and it’s definitely smaller than a Western because it was standing right next to one and we could see it,” and then the bird takes off.

Blue mutters “Thank you” to know one in particular, and then he and Smith have binoculars on it, looking for the one clear marking that flight shows, the color of the wing tips. Both watch until it’s out of sight, crossing over the coast highway. Blue thinks it has hints of Thayer’s gull; not as big or light enough for the Herring; but close to the Western, though not as big, either; a bird moving from its first winter into its first summer. One way out is for Blue to hustle back to the car for his stash of bird books.

While he’s gone, Smith gets out her sketch pad. The fine nibbed pencil arrows beak, curves head, shapes body, draws complex lateral wing lines. This is fundamental to birding: Had this been a rare bird, which it still may be, then the pair would have been taking extensive notes and calling others to come and look. “A rare bird would have brought 400 people out here tomorrow,” Blue says later. What’s important in either case, though, is that Smith and Blue discuss with some exactitude what they’ve seen. It’s a plus that Smith draws the bird and makes notes before they look in the bird book. The bird in memory must retain its difference from the bird in the book, which is, after all, another specimen, a variation of the one we have just seen. How many people have looked in the book and said, “Yeah, that’s the bird I saw. I think. Yeah, that’s it.” The bird-book artist can only illustrate a single plumage, albeit typical and exact, but single.

Meanwhile the gulls have been roused into the air by a squealing flock of elegant terns that have disrupted our clutch. Suddenly the sky is alive with crying and flapping, that kleew-kleew sound of the beach.

Soon Blue returns with his rucksack and declaims as he walks up, “Let me quote you from the master.” He’s palming The Sibley Guide to Birds by David Allen Sibley. “Gull identification represents one of the most challenging and subjective puzzles in birding and should be approached only with patient and methodical study. A casual or impatient approach will not be rewarded.” Another bird book I consult later agrees: “Do not feel defeated if you cannot name every gull you see.”

The books tell us that it may not have been a Thayer’s because the Thayer’s seems darker. But still it could have been a lighter Thayer’s, or a smaller Western; it might have been a Herring (which, incidentally, was once called Thayer’s before Mr. Thayer named it as a separate species); it might have been a Western and glaucous-winged cross. “Now you see the problem of gull identification,” Blue says to me. “They do this just to aggravate us.”

Smith admits that 20 minutes ago she had it in her mind that with a pair of knowledgeable birders who are consulting the texts in the field, then our gull (the one we saw, not the ones we are seeing in the book) could be “definitely I.D.’d. But now, I think, it really can’t be.” Not every gull can be identified. Don’t feel defeated. Each of us is musing on this fact, when our bird flies to a sandbar no more than twenty feet away. The scope swivelled, then trained, Smith says, “It’s not a Herring. I’m thinking now it’s a worn Western.” Blue, again, ticks off what we should be looking for: “Look at the bill, look at the feathers, look at the wing-tips, look at the . . . .”


Endure • In 1895 the Russian doctor and writer Anton Chekhov visited his friend, the impressionist painter Isaac Levitan, who was staying on an estate in an area near Melikhovo. Because Levitan’s love of a woman was unreturned, he attempted suicide; Chekhov was helping nurse him back to physical and emotional health. The incident and the locale—“about two hundred miles from the Finnish Gulf” and near “a large lake with a number of seagulls”—inspired his renowned play.

The Seagull is a play about the theatrical delusions of four main artist-characters who interact over the period of two years at a country estate. Arkadina, a famous actress; Treplev, her son, an aspiring playwright; Nina, a young woman who wants to act; and Trigorin, a popular novelist who, like Treplev, fancies Nina. Nina is especially captivated by this visiting Bohemian pair, Arkadina and Trigorin. She hopes to leave her lakeside family home for Moscow and the stage, but leaving is difficult for her. She seems to know that despite the country’s provinciality, she will one day “ache to return to this lake, as if I were a seagull.” The reference is not to some innocence but rather to the home as nest, particularly for the adult. Nina, tempted to leave her family and Treplev for the cagey, seductive Trigorin, infuriates Treplev. Love-sick, he rushes out and kills a seagull, later throwing it at Nina’s feet. Treplev also announces that “soon I will kill myself,” because he can have neither her love nor the estimation of his mother, who also shuns his misguided attempts at playwriting. He indeed shoots himself, but the wound is superficial.

The writer Trigorin, forever taking notes as “subjects for a short story,” sees the gull and fastens the story on Nina: “A young girl has lived her whole life on the shores of a lake. A girl like you. She loves the lake, like a seagull, and she’s as happy and free as a seagull, too. A man happens to come by, sees her, and, having nothing else to do, destroys her like that seagull there.” Nina swoons at the facility with which life becomes literature, before her very eyes. We, however, see Trigorin’s callousness at once, though, alas, Nina does not. She buys the dress without trying it on.

In Moscow, Trigorin uses then abandons Nina and, in her unhappiness, she writes often to Treplev, bemoaning but accepting her choices, signing her letters, “the seagull.” Two years pass and, along with Trigorin and Arkadina, she returns to the estate to find Treplev even more despondent than he was, though now making a name for himself as a writer. In the penultimate scene, Nina rejects Treplev once again but this time she does it in front of Treplev via a fierce self-analysis, trying to free herself of her own self-deceptions. “I am a seagull,” she says, pauses, then denies it. “No, not right. I am an actress.” She forces herself awake, insisting that the hardship of life has little to do with romance or the great pretend of the theater. She says again, “I am a seagull . . . No, not right. I am an actress.” After much hand-wringing, again in front of Treplev, she declares at last, “I’ve come to realize that in our work—it doesn’t matter whether we play roles on stage or whether we write—the important thing is neither fame nor glamor nor what I used to dream about, but it’s knowing how to endure.” The speech awakens her from her aesthetic coma, as it were, which gives her a new power to leave Treplev and her home—for good, it seems. But her flowering has the opposite effect on him. Now, when he shoots himself, he is successful.

Nina, the seagull, has represented the bird in a majesty beyond every tourist grab and commercial manifestation of the gull’s autonomy. Nina is like the gull because the gull endures by moving on, by fleeing and returning home. Like Nina, the bird is here and not here. In the end, the gull’s need to move is not a symbol of freedom; it is its means of survival.


The Urge • Birds must eat, birds must reproduce. Those two facts encapsulate the bird’s physical life. Birds are also equipped with a special physicality, flight. Flight mediates the “musts” of eating and reproducing.

At some point after four years of maturing, the urge to return to the nest springs to life. Young birds don’t go back to the breeding grounds until this hormonal reveille dutifully calls them. The urge is built-in. Birds feasting on an abundant food source in the wild will suddenly leave, the inner radar to go awakened. Caged migratory birds go batty around nesting time. The Germans have a word for this bird restlessness—Zugunruhe.

The urge takes the adults to safe places, established by traditions of colonies. For example, Islas de Los Coronados, now preserved and protected by the Mexican government, is the Western gull’s breeding grounds. The island offers rocky cliffs on which thousands of gulls build nests and congregate. In colonies, they form a coalition called predator saturation. A predator can’t eat every bird. So, like generals, the “senior” birds inhabit the center of the colony, while the young—prey-bait—populate its fringes. Once the young are raised and get web-footed out of the nest, they will not return until they reach adulthood and feel the urge to breed.

What is strange is our nomenclature for all those gulls other than the Western gull. They are called visitors. In fact, the adults spend as much as 10 months a year here while they’re nesting season elsewhere is a mere 2. And yet this visitor status dominates their existence, since nest, no matter how short your stay, means home.

And such visitor status is permanent to their definition and their survival.

When parents stop feeding chicks, the chicks, who quickly become juveniles, are on their own. “Something urges them to migrate,” Guy McCaskie says, “along with everybody else, to go hurtling south.” They move on instinct, navigating as best they can. First year, they flock south in late summer and, arriving locally, cluster on bays, inland lakes, or the Salton Sea. These young ones, who fly all over, are not necessarily lost. Rather, they’re wandering. And wandering is important to what defines them as a family. As the young gulls’ numbers steadily dwindle, they suffer, we might say, the pangs of a pre-urge sensibility. A two-year gull will sense some urge to nest and might wing northward at some point. But, without the clarion call to mate, they are easily pulled into another group. Adventure and not knowing go hand in hand. So they wander and, as they wander, they die. Separated. Sick. Lost at sea. Beaten by wind. Failing to molt. Preyed upon. Suddenly alone in a field beneath a hungry Peregrine Falcon. Unable to eat enough to fuel their wandering, they starve. And after they die, there remains for the adults an unerring course of cross-continental migratory flyways and the incendiary urge to nest that the young ones have given their lives to maintain. Isn’t that the most remarkable thing about the gull?