The bird with a bad rap is of interest to many
Gulls fight for food at Petty Harbour. — Telegram file photo by Kim Taggart Craig
The gulls of St. John’s have many names: great black-backed gull, herring gull, ring-billed gull, glaucous gull … rat with wings.
However you label them, whether you are a resident or visiting bird watcher, it is a natural thing to associate the port city of St. John’s with gulls.
While many may dismiss them as a nuisance, perhaps as they tear open your garbage at the curb, they have drawn enough interest over the years for millions of dollars worth of official study and tourists from far afield.
“St. John’s is kind of famous among gull watchers around the world,” said Bruce Mactavish, a local environmental consultant and birdwatcher.
He explained large numbers of gulls gather at convenient locations around the city, like Quidi Vidi Lake, giving birdwatchers an opportunity to identify new ways of differentiating between rare species. The Iceland gull and the Thayers gull have been compared and contrasted here, for example.
The most easterly city in North America is also known to draw a visit from a unique species or two.
“For maybe eight or 10 years in a row, we had a rare gull from the Azores here. … St. John’s was the only place in North America where North American birders could see the bird,” Mactavish said, adding the yellow-legged gull has not been spotted this year.
Yet the city still has plenty of its usual characters.
The great black-backed gull is the largest common one to the St. John’s area and the most common type seen at the landfill. These gulls, along with herring gulls, account for the majority of gulls in the area.
This past week, The Telegram came across a report on the movements of gulls in and around St. John’s. It was commissioned by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers for offshore oil companies.
The author, LGL Ltd. of St. John’s, has completed multiple studies of gull activity in and around the city for clients including Transport Canada, the City of St. John’s and the St. John’s International Airport Authority.
For its latest report, the consultant reviewed 11 gull studies completed between 1995 and 2010. Some have bird counts for certain locations and times of day, while others focus on analysis of whether or not the presence of gulls is a hazard to aircraft.
With all this study, what do we know about gulls?
Gulls like open spaces for having a rest and preening during the day.
They tend to have regular travel routes and daily routines, sometimes commuting as much as 40 kilometres away to get to their favourite areas to feed.
“Consequently gulls are attracted to many land uses, including sanitary landfills, fast-food restaurants, airports and rooftops of large buildings,” states LGL Ltd.
The gull count at the landfill — a prime food source — has run more than 30,000 in individual site surveys.
“It fluctuates a little bit with the season, but the biggest variance we see is around June, July when the caplin fishery starts. So when they can find a natural food source away from here they’ll take it,” said Jason Sinyard, manager of waste management at Robin Hood Bay.
Even when the gull numbers peak, Sinyard said, the birds do not interfere with daily operations.
“There’s no particular gulls that give us any attitude,” he said.
The gulls all punch a clock — in after dawn and out at dusk.
Groups will fly in and out of the landfill during the day, on regular routes to “loafing sites” — mall rooftops, sports fields and, the birder’s paradise, Quidi Vidi Lake.
When night comes, they head for different roosting sites: on cliffs along the shoreline between St. John’s and Flatrock; locations in Conception Bay including Little Bell Island; containers, wharves and protected fences around St. John’s harbour.
“Gulls are active in St. John’s harbour at night where it is well lit by flood lights, especially around the sewage outlet at Pier 17,” the most recent gull report states.
Responding to a Twitter message from The Telegram, @NewfieSeagull offered his thoughts on living as a gull in the city.
“I’m more of a Mcdonalds parking lot kinda gull. Pier 17 really don’t do it for me. Too stinky b’y. … But to be honest, grabbing a few fries and heading back to the nest before a crow gets ’em is all I need,” he typed (we’re not sure how).
While gulls flooded into the St. John’s area with the mass closure of large fish plants in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there have been some new gull movements drawing attention.
“There are gulls at night on the Hibernia platform and we think the reason is, and we don’t get much access to this, but we think the reason is there’s so much light on the water from the platform,” said Bill Montevecchi, a biologist with Memorial University of Newfoundland.
A similar phenomenon has been marked with large drill rigs like the West Aquarius and the Henry Goodrich.
“Light on the water attracts fish and we’ve had information about gulls actually feeding on fish at night, gulls on the base of the Hibernia platform,” he said.
“It becomes a reef in a sense, like a little island in and of itself.”
It is also a point for further gull-related study.