Well....a few of us braved the AAS Barnaget Field Trip this Sunday, March 1st.... For once, the weathermen was right for it snowed about the time they said, wow....someone buy them dinner! Gees, they are sure super, aren't they?
Lets see...... Common Loons were 'common' , and in quite a few cases they were dressed in breeding plumange decked with their white checkering on back. We also saw 'up close'....Horned Grebes without horns, Common Golden Eyes afar, Brandts, Black Scoters, and Red Breasted Mergansers (one of whom is the object of this 'murder').
When I taught 3rd grade....and would have the kids walk down the hall from PE or Music back to my classroom, unless I wanted to take 30 minutes and walk backwards--slowly, there were always going to be stragglers....you know, usually boys. Well in this case, our little AAS group of 8-10 folks just kind of staggered along the jetty. Some were more up front, others forego'ed the jetty altogether and walked the sand, but to everyone's credit....no one fell in between the jetty rocks. I saw no hands flaying wildly as they poked from the crevices.
Yet the snow continued to fall...... and as the flakes mounted, the group slowly went AWOL. Some made it all the way down the jetty and were pleased to see a few Harlequins, great looking birds. Yet the snow continued and then there was just one left. I met up with a group that Tom Gleason was working with and at the jetty end, in the ocean we saw one Iceland Gull, a King Eider, tons of Common Eiders and a White Winged Scoter. A treat....but no Snow Buntings. Ah, no no no Snow Buntings....
Now an interesting thing about the Iceland Gull is that it is almost identical to the Thayer's Gull and are often thought of as being the same species. When I lived in the Pacific Northwest, we would see the Thayer's Gull off the coast of Oregon. Experts would tell me that the only way you could really tell the difference was on 'what coast they were found''. If on the Pacific Coast, they were Thayers' and if on Atlantic coast, they are Iceland. I always had to chuckle when someone on the West coast would say they saw an Iceland Gull. Yeah right....I would have a tough time believing their birding ID skills even if they found an American Robin ( IN FACT: The British Ornithologists Union as well as the British Birds Rarities Committee still treat thayeri (Thayer Gull) as a subspecies of Iceland Gull Larus glaucoides ).
Okay....now to the murder. It happened around 12:15pm, just on the long side of noon. The location was 50+ yards from the Light House itself, in full sight of anyone who was watching. It occurred on the water. Now, I have seen an attempted murder of the exact same individuals (or I should say species) while driving the drive at Forsythe. The victim was a hapless Red Breasted Merganser; female. In my previous siting of this attempted murder, it was also a Red Breasted Merganser but it escaped. The guilty bird ....was the Great Black-backed Gull.
You see what happens is that the Great Black-backed Gull will swoop down and mount the back of the Merganser and attempt to takes it life by pecking away at the head and neck. This is fairly common and here is a YOU TUBE of a 'like' event which took place in 2008. They are predators and according to Pat and Clay Sutton from Cape May, they have witnessed them kill Black Skimmers, Ruddy Ducks, Buffleheads, Coots, Grebes etc... This has been reported in research dating back to the 1920's, so my seeing a killing of a Red-breasted Merganser, and an attempt at another last year, is not unusual. These large gulls are predators and while they do not kill other birds as a primary food source, this does occur. One would think that a Great Black-backed Gull coming in at 30" and weighing 3.6 pounds VS. the Red-breasted Merganser coming in at a size of 23" and a weight of 2.3 pounds might not be enough of an advantage. But the key you see is stealth.
The Gull will pounce on the Merganser from behind.....catching the Gull by surprise. But what interests me is why do Mergansers, or other ducks, grebes etc...who could possibly be potential victims of the Great Black-backed Gull not be more leery of the presence of those Gulls? If a Bald Eagle approaches, the ducks will warn each other of their presence and fly, or dive or whatever. The point being they are aware of the predator when the predator is an Eagle, or a Peregrine, but not a Gull....why?
Nature is seemingly cruel but it is 'nature' and survival.