by Frank Keim
Of all the gray-and-white, pink-legged “seagulls” found in the YK Delta, the Herring gull is the huskiest in size and shape. Although they aren’t as numerous on the Delta as their cousin, the Glaucous-winged gull, you still might see them spiraling above you during fishing season while you haul in your catch both from your nets on land and from your boat on rivers and the open sea. They are also very loud and aggressive toward other gulls as they feed.
During their first four years they have a variety of plumages, which makes their identification tricky. But as I watched different gulls fly over me while living on the Yukon River I found my bird book very useful in telling Herring gulls apart from other species. Now I find my phone bird app even handier for doing this.
As they return to the lower YK Delta in early spring, these gulls first fly in scattered flocks to the ice-free shores and tidal mud flats of the Bering Sea and Kuskokwim Bay and to the open water shorelines of rivers, sloughs and lakes. There they soar like hawks above the water, then spiral down to pluck edible food from the surface or to shallow plunge-dive to pick up food prey from below the surface.
I’ve also watched them land on the water and dip with their beaks just below the surface to take small prey. They prefer invertebrates, including small crustaceans, insects, and worms, which they gobble down whole, but they will also eat minnows, and, if they find small shellfish along the shore they’ll fly up with them in their mouth and drop them on rocks to break them open.
Herring gulls begin to pair up in their fourth year. During courtship, the male feeds the female, and although they mate for life, which can be for more than 20 years, this ritual will be repeated every year when the pair returns to their nesting territory. After the male first establishes a breeding territory, both male and female defend it with aggressive body postures, warning calls, and chase-attacks in the air and on the ground. They return to the same territory every year and share all the work, from picking the nest site through incubation and three months of chick raising.
Several days before egg-laying, the pair hollows out up to four depressions 8-15 inches wide and about 1½ inches deep in soft soil, sand, or short vegetation next to a log, rock, or bush, to protect them from winds and hide them from predators and any neighbors. They line each nest with grass, feathers and other materials. After the pair decides on which nest to use, the female lays her eggs. During the month-long incubation period the pair will continue to add grass to their nest.
Usually three large, brownish green eggs with dark splotches are laid. A month later, the chicks hatch, covered in thick gray downy feathers with black spots. Shortly after hatching, their eyes are alert and they are able to move freely around the nesting area. Both parents feed them for up to three months, but one parent always remains with them, splitting shifts to offer the first two chicks up to half a pound of food a day as they near fledging, which is about two months after hatching. Since any other chicks in the clutch hatch a day or two later, they are smaller, get less food, grow more slowly, and may not survive.
As for their various names, in Hooper Bay and Scammon Bay I was told one of their Yup’ik names was Arliaq, which apparently comes from the generic Aleut word for gull, Agligax. It’s also referred to as Naruyaq in the YK Delta, a generic Yup’ik name that loosely translates as “friendly sea bird willing to share food from your hand.” The scientific name for the gull, Larus argentatus, means “silver-colored gull.” In other lands, their Spanish name, Gaviota argéntea, and their French name, Goéland argenté both mean the same, “silver-colored gull.”
Among many of the fascinating things I learned about these gulls was that while incubating their eggs on hot days they cool off by orienting their bodies to keep their dark wingtip feathers out of the direct sun. By opening their mouths, they also shed heat. And when taking a break from the nest, they may stand in cool water.
In some of the research on this gull, an observer mentioned watching an adult Herring gull “bait-fishing.” It floated bits of bread on the surface of a pond and caught the small fish that tried to feed on the bread. Since it ate none of the bread itself, it was evidence the gull had used the bread as a tool.
Another thing I learned was that, while Arliaq prefers drinking freshwater, it will drink seawater if it needs to. Special glands over their eyes allow them to excrete the salt that would dehydrate most other animals, including us. If you see one perched on a sand island on the Bering Sea, look closely through your binoculars, and you might see the salty excretion dripping from its nostrils and off the end of its bill.