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Sketches of the Wild Sports & Natural History of the Highlands
Chapter XXVII

Different kinds of Gulls: Large Collections of Breeding-places Islands on a Loch Eggs of Gulls Young Birds Food and Voracity of Large Gulls: Salmon-fry killed by Boatswain-Gull - Manner of procuring Food.

As great a variety of the gull tribe frequents the Findhorn Bay and. the Moray Firth as perhaps is to be seen in any one locality in Great Britain. To the uninterested passer-by a gull is a gull, and nothing more, whether the race is represented at the moment by that splendid bird, the great black-backed gull, Larus marinus, or by the small but elegant black-headed gull, Larus ridibundus of Linnaeus, or as Buffon, alluding also to its laugh-like cry, calls it, la Mouette rieuse. Yet, if closely observed, every kind of gull has its own peculiar ways and habits, all of which are worthy of note, and adapted to its own manner of feeding and providing for its wants. During March and April the black-headed gull, which has been absent during the winter, returns in innumerable flocks. After sunset they hold long consultations on the sands of the bay, and when the night is calm I can hear them from my windows at the distance of nearly two miles chattering and clamouring for hours together. In the daytime they frequent the fields, and wherever a plough is at work there are the black-headed gulls in thousands, hovering over the ploughman's head, and keeping up such a continual screaming, that I have seen both man and horses fairly bewildered by the noise. A man left his plough and came to me the other day, as I was passing in the next field, to beg me to fire a shot or two at these noisy and uninvited followers. As fast as a worm or grub is turned up by the plough, down drop two or three gulls to scramble for it. In this manner they soon get the necessary supply of food, and return to join the assembly on the sands, where, having drunk and bathed, they remain for the rest of the day. After passing a fortnight or more in this manner, they betake themselves to their breeding-place, which is generally either some rushy and quiet pool or island on some mountain lake, where they can breed and rear their young unmolested. There are several lochs in this neighbourhood where they breed. One they chiefly resort to is a small piece of water in the forest of Darnaway, where they are not allowed to be annoyed or disturbed during the time of incubation. In these places their nests are placed as close as possible to each other, and from the constant noise and flying backwards and forwards of the birds, one would suppose that the greatest confusion must prevail amongst their crowded commonwealth, but every bird knows and attends to her own nest, and though their cries sound angry and harsh, the greatest amity and the strictest peace are preserved. Though crossing and jostling each other in all directions, they never appear to quarrel or fight. On the contrary, the birds all unite and make common cause against any enemy, man or beast, that approaches them, or whose presence seems to threaten danger. I once took a boat to a mountain lake in Inverness-shire, where thousands of these birds bred on some small islands which dot the surface of the water. The gulls, though not exactly attacking me, dashed unceasingly so close to my head that I felt the wind of their wings, and I sometimes really feared some one more venturous than the rest might drive his bill into my eyes. They had probably never had a visitor to their islands before. The shepherds, having a kind of superstitious dread of the place, from its being supposed to be haunted ground, never attempt to cross to the islands by swimming or wading.

The greater part of the largest island was absolutely covered with eggs, laid in small hollows scraped by the birds, with little pretensions to any other kind of nest. I could scarcely walk without treading on them. Close to the edge of the water, indeed, so near that the nest was always wet, was the domicile of a pair of black-throated divers, or loon, with a couple of long greenish-coloured eggs. The old birds swam out to a short distance, and watched me with great interest, uttering their strange hollow call. There were several smaller islands, or points of rock, appearing above the water, on each of which a pair of black-backed gulls had made their nest, constructed with more care and skill than those of their black-headed cousins. These large birds allowed none of the others to approach them, and each couple kept undisputed possession of their own particular kingdom, not joining in the same sociable kind of society as other gulls. When I approached the black-backed gulls' nest, they did not dash round me like the smaller kind, but flew in circles at some height, uttering a loud warlike kind of shout, much like the voice of 'a human being. The eggs of the black-headed gulls are exactly like those of the common lapwing, and are equally good eating; so I took home a great number, selecting them from the nests that had only one or two eggs, knowing that the owners of these would not have commenced sitting. I returned in a week, and found every nest with its full number in it. I was walking along the shore of the lake some weeks afterwards, when the birds had hatched, and whole fleets of young gulls of a dark grey colour were swimming about. A young retriever I had with me swam into the water after them. He had scarcely got twenty yards from the shore when the whole community of gulls attacked him, and not content with harmless threats, struck down on the dog with right good will; and I am convinced that his life was only saved by my keeping up a constant fire on the large black-headed gulls, which, in defence of their young, made common cause with the others, and, from their great weight and strength, were most dangerous assailants.

When lounging, gun in hand, on the sea-shore here, or lying in wait for seals, I have frequent opportunities of watching unobserved the proceedings of the gulls of different kinds. The large black-backed gull soars slowly along the edge of the receding tide, with his sharp eye fixed on the beach, and turning his head and neck to observe every object that may be left by the tide. If anything is seen which his omnivorous appetite covets, down he pitches on it, and with his powerful bill soon tears up and swallows it. The sand-eel or small fish is swallowed whole. If a floating prize presents itself, such as the remains of a large fish or dead bird, it is soon discovered by one of the large gulls, who is not allowed, however, to enjoy his prize alone ; for every one of his fellows within sight joins in tearing it to pieces. When I have winged a duck, and it has escaped and gone out to sea, I have frequently seen it attacked and devoured almost alive by these birds. If a dead fish is left on the shore they alight a few feet from it, and, having reconnoitred carefully, fall to and devour it. It is interesting to see these strong birds battling against a high wind, always working to windward, and taking advantage of every headland and cliff for a moment's shelter. When going to windward in their search for food (indeed, they never fly down wind if they can help it), and perceiving something edible, they keep on a short distance beyond it, and then drifting back with the wind, drop down upon it. I saw a seal last week (April) who had caught a salmon, and was eating it above the water. A number of large gulls had collected round him, and seemed inclined to dispute his prize, darting down at it with clamorous cries. The large grey gull, or wagel, hunts the shore in much the same manner; but is still more voracious than the black-backed gull. Nothing comes amiss to this greedy bird. I have seen a dozen of them feeding on a dead and putrid horse, digging it out with their powerful bills like so many ravens. I have no doubt a dead human being would be considered a fair and lawful prize also. While I am lying esconced on the shore for seals, this bird frequently comes hovering over me, as if well inclined to pounce down. If wounded, he does good battle against my retriever, aiming (like a heron) at the eyes. When shot, he often disgorges a great quantity of food, generally small fish; and on one occasion a wounded wagel brought up, amongst a variety of undigested food, a well-sized young kitten, which he had somewhere made prize of. The grey gull, though frequently feeding in the fields, seems very seldom to take to fresh-water lakes. The next-sized gull which is common here is the blue-back, a beautiful, clean-looking bird, though, as far as fish is concerned, as great a glutton as the two last-named kinds. This bird is particularly conspicuous in its attacks on the salmon-fry as they descend the river in May. Thousands of them fish in the shallow pools at low-water in the bay; and every bird seems to feed wholly on these silvery little creatures as long as they are to be had. The quantity that they disgorge when shot is perfectly astonishing, and they must be one of the most destructive enemies that the salmon has. Besides these larger kinds of gulls there are several smaller species, who hover constantly about the shore and sandbanks, drifting to and fro, and beating against the wind in search of any prey, and darting fearlessly into the very foam of the breakers to obtain it, or floating as buoyantly as corks at a respectful distance from the larger gulls, who may be engaged in tearing to pieces any cast-up carcass, and being content to catch at the smaller morsels which are detached unperceived by the rightful owners of the prize.

I was much amused the other day by the proceedings of a pair of the black-toed gull, or boatswain. These two birds were sitting quietly on an elevated ridge of sand, near which a number of other gulls of different kinds were fishing and hovering about in search of what the waves might cast up. Every bird, indeed, was busy and employed, excepting these two black robbers, who seemed to be quietly resting, quite unconcerned. When, however, a gull had picked up a prize, these birds seemed instinctively to know it, and darting off with the rapidity of a hawk (which bird they much resemble in their manner of flight), they attacked the unfortunate gull in the air, and, in spite of his screams and attempts to escape, they pursued and beat him till he disgorged the fish or whatever he had swallowed, when one of them darted down and caught the substance before it could reach the water. The two then returned quietly back to their sandbank, where they waited patiently to repeat the robbery, should an opportunity occur. As the flock of gulls moved on with the flow of the tide, the boatswains moved on also, hovering on their flank like a pair of plundering freebooters. I observed that in chasing a gull they seemed perfectly to understand each other as to who should get the spoil; and in their attacks on the largest gulls (against whom they waged the most fearless warfare) they evidently acted so as to aid each other. If another pair of boatswains intruded on their hunting-ground, they immediately seemed to send them farther off, not so much by actual battle as by a noisy and screaming argument, which they continued most vigorously till the new comers left the neighbourhood.

I never saw these birds hunt for their own living in any other way than by robbing the other gulls. Though not nearly so large as some of the birds which they attack, their hawk-like swoops and great courage seem to enable them to fight their way most successfully. They are neatly and powerfully made; their colour a kind of sooty dull black, with very little gloss or shining tints on their feathers. The boatswains seldom appear here excepting during April and May. All the gull tribe during their first year are of a dingy and mottled colour, very unlike the neat and elegant combination of colours they afterwards acquire.

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