During this time of year at Nantucket airport, the tarmac often hosts numerous airplanes for Thanksgiving, the annual tree lighting, stroll and throughout the holiday season, but particularly notable is it’s one of the most bustling airports in the country during the summer season. While traversing the island, it’s not uncommon to observe other aerial creatures, particularly along the shorelines, seemingly engrossed in plentiful feasting. These avian beings, resembling seagulls, bear such nourished appearances that they could be mistaken for airplanes in jest. While admittedly an exaggeration, these seagulls unquestionably constitute a prominent element of the island’s scenery. An intriguing facet to consider is that due south of Nantucket lies the Dominican Republic in terms of longitude, a place mostly devoid of seagulls. This raises the inquiry of what unique factors here incentivize these birds’ presence and the nature of their activities.
Personally, my observations have led me to believe that spotting fledglings is an infrequent occurrence. “Young gulls, or chicks, typically remain under their parents’ care for a few months, although the specific duration varies by species. For in-depth insights tailored to each species, I recommend referring to the informative resource at https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/,” shared Seth Engelbourg, the Naturalist Educator and Program Manager at the Linda Loring Nature Foundation. The chicks hatch fully covered in down and are fed by both parents. With the exception of the kittiwake, the chicks leave the nest and move to the relative safety of nearby vegetation when only a few days old. The parents look after them until they fledge after five or six weeks and for a period afterwards.
Seth was helpful in answering many questions about seagulls on Nantucket as I was presuming he receives many questions about a variety of birds, but probably rarely receives a lot of questions regarding seagulls as they might be seen as an overlooked species. He mentioned that, “First, from a scientific perspective they are just called Gulls. Some species live by the sea, some inland water bodies, and some are generalists. In the summer on Nantucket, we have two main species of gull that can be found; Herring Gull and Great Black-backed Gull with a couple of other less common species sometimes around. In the off-season, this increases to around 10 species that can be found.”
“Nantucket moments” are special moments that conjure up particular memories or an incident that could only occur on Nantucket. They occur sporadically, some involving the topic of “seagulls.” One such incident involved a friend phoning from Surfside beach that she was setting up a picnic and a seagull swooped down and nipped at her fingers as it carried her sandwich away. I recall a family member was very excited to cook a steak as a reward to a long work week only to head back to the grill seeing it whisked away by the big bird. Seagulls are known for their bold and opportunistic behavior when it comes to food, and such anecdotes capture that perfectly. According to Seth, “Gulls are very intelligent, able to adapt to a variety of habitats and conditions, and can be found pretty much worldwide.” As for what a gull’s favorite human food is, this is largely subjective and variable. In my personal experience, french fries seem to be almost universally enjoyed by them but this is not a scientific assessment. The image of a seagull swooping down to snatch a sandwich or a steak adds a comical element to these situations. And folks talk about traffic, one incident another friend remembers when there was stalled traffic and the cause was a seagull moving a pizza off of the street/sidewalk and fighting over it. The story of stalled traffic due to a seagull wrestling over a pizza is particularly entertaining. It highlights the adaptability and resourcefulness of these birds in urban environments, even if it causes some inconvenience for humans. It’s fascinating how these birds become unexpected protagonists in people’s daily lives on the island. Nantucket seems to offer a blend of natural beauty and quirky moments, with seagulls adding their own unique flair to the island’s charm. These anecdotes are the kind of stories that make a place special and create lasting memories for those who experience them. There have been some experiences, where there have been some memorable and amusing moments on Nantucket, and seagulls seem to play a prominent role in these stories! The incidents add a touch of humor to everyday situations, turning them into unique and unforgettable experiences.
Although it might sound like the plot of a drama or reality show when I discuss seagulls and their interactions with the local environment, there are genuinely fascinating facts and a wealth of knowledge about these birds from local experts. Several experts, such as Seth and Libby Buck, Conservation Science & Land Steward, have generously shared their insights on the subject.
Seth said, “In terms of population, that word means different things depending on context; breeding, wintering, year-round, etc. The Nantucket Conservation Foundation, possibly in collaboration with the Trustees or other groups has done some surveys of the breeding colonies on Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge. There is also data from the Nantucket Christmas Bird Count that may be relevant.”
Seth continued, “One interesting fact is that the Great Black-backed Gull which we have here on island, is the largest gull species in the world. There are many gull specialists and researchers.” He also mentioned Alison Black, who studied gulls on Nantucket and another is Dr. Richard (Dick) Veit, a professor at College of Staten Island: The City University of New York, who Libby and I helped band Lesser Black-backed Gulls here on the island this winter.
“The general public typically overlooks Gulls since they are scavengers, and people associate them with stealing human food at parking lots and landfills, but they are just opportunistic feeders. Advanced birders are obsessed with gulls because they can be challenging to identify since some species can look very similar with only a few key differences.”
“Yes, as an island, we do have a sense of the gull populations. Every five years, those with nesting gulls and other nesting colonial waterbirds on their property participate in a population survey mandated by Mass Fish & Wildlife. The gulls that nest on Nantucket are Herring Gulls and Great Black-Backed, and the nesting locations are mostly Coatue, Great Point, Smith’s Point, Tuckernuck, and Muskeget. We have other frequent visitors of Laughing, Bonapartes, Lesser Black-backed, Ring-billed gulls, and more in the winter: Iceland, Glaucous, and many others.”
“I agree with Seth that the gulls are very intelligent. They are just very adaptive and will do anything for food. A fun fact about gulls is that they adapted to human behavior by having a natural reaction to people throwing things; once they see the movement of a toss and the item fall, they will lounge forward and attempt to assess if they can eat it.”
“Thanks for your interest in gulls!” Her is a Link to an article Libby wrote answering the question of where the gulls migrated from: https://ncfscience.org/2017/08/18/shorebirds-migration-in-motion/