Thursday, March 26, 2015

Gulls drop clam bombs

Herring Gulls are ubiquitous fixtures along the New Jersey coast, and on my recent trip to Barnegat Light and vicinity I fired off many shots of the handsome birds. It isn't hard - the gulls often sit at near arm's length, and regard us humanoids with steely yellow gazes. The bird above is an adult Herring Gull, still in its winter plumage. They don't shift feathers much between summer and winter, but nonbreeders become dingy about the head and neck, and the colors of the bill and orbital ring around the eye become less pronounced.

Here's a bird that has transformed into breeding finery, and is loudly braying about it. Its mate is also bugling away, just facing away from the camera. Quite a racket these two made, but their loud yelping bugles are a classic sound of the sea coast, and would be greatly missed were such sounds absent.

Note how this bird - male, I believe - now has clean white feathers on the head and neck, and its bill is brilliant yellow with bright red and bold black spots. Click the pic to enlarge, and you should be able to see the orangish-red orbital ring encircling the eye.

Just about everywhere one goes, there are smashed mussels. This is a hard-packed sandy road through the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, which lies in the shadows of Atlantic City. It isn't vehicle traffic that is smashing these clams, whose shattered husks littered the refuge roadways. After all, mussels don't walk too well and would be unlikely to make their way from the water and up on the dikes. I placed an intact mussel by one of its vanquished mates for this shot. I don't know what species this is, but perhaps some reader will and can tip us to the ID.

This is what is smashing all of the mussels to oblivion - Herring Gulls! The clever feathered beasts are quite adept at ferreting mussels out from the shallows, seizing them, and flying skyward. What a fate for the hapless clam. These rocklike animals mind their own business, usefully filtering particulate matter from the water. Alas, a good many are fated to be pulled unceremoniously from the drink, and in the blink of an eye given an unwanted flight high overhead.

Bombs away! A clam in freefall, a fraction of a second after being released high over the aforementioned sandy lane. The gull plunges rapidly to earth on the heels of the mussel, to see if its trick cracked open the hard-shelled critter, and to ward off other gulls who would swiftly materialize to pirate the prize.

Oftentimes, the first (or 2nd or 3rd) attempt fails, in which case the gull grabs the prey and quickly swoops aloft to try again.

Even the young gulls quickly master the art of clam-smashing. This is a young Herring Gull and it is every bit as adept at the art of mussel fishing and the subsequent clam-cracking as are the adults.

While this may seem like a lot of work, the reward makes the toils well worthwhile. The gooey, slimy body that is normally well protected within the hard shell is rich in fat and protein.

This clever behavior is just one of numerous examples of the wiliness and street smarts of gulls. The large species in the genus Larus, at least, are opportunistic survivors who will no doubt be plying their trade long after we are no longer around the marvel at their intelligence.

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