West of Woolwich: There's no such thing as a 'sea gull'

Posted Wednesday, August 1, 2012 in Features

West of Woolwich: There's no such thing as a 'sea gull'

By Fred Kahrl

I never met my father-in-law, Ed Bloor, but some of his legacy as an avid bird-watcher lives on in an enthusiasm for “birding” found in his younger daughter (Barb) and in her son and daughter-in-law.

By “avid”, I mean that Ed would routinely get up at 2:30 a.m. to drive down to the Jersey Shore because a rare bird may have been sighted there that he could add to his list of Life Birds. I also meant that many of his vacations were bird-oriented cruises to distant parts of the free world where he would be taken ashore on grueling treks into sucking bogs, through gnarly forests and up precarious precipices to further enrich his “List”.

His long-suffering wife, Julie, usually took the sightseeing tour option … preferably in a bus … or did some landscape painting. Or stayed on the boat and read. Ed missed meals … Julie didn’t.

In passing on, Ed left an impressive library of bird books … many of them coffee table monsters with photos and lithographs from the great masters. They were also heavy … I know, because I had to carry them out after Julie passed on.

There was also a ponderous collection of color slides … almost all lovingly organized into Kodak Carousel® slide trays. I think they are now collecting dust in Barb’s cellar … she does all her bird photos in digital, of course.

But one thing NOT collecting dust is Ed’s resounding pronouncement: “There is no such thing as a SEAgull!”

Even my sweet wife, who is almost “bird neutral”, will abruptly stop whatever she is doing when she hears that profane non-ornithological term, and pounce on the errant utterer with Ed’s withering reprimand.

Ed’s point, of course … which I have come to appreciate since marrying his daughter … is that the unmentionable word cannot be found in any serious bird book. Certainly, it is missing from both the books in my library, including the Birders’ Bible: “A field Guide to the Birds” by none other than Roger Tory Peterson, patron saint of all American naturalists.

My summers on the Coast of Maine began soon after the end of WW II, and every one of those summers was punctuated by the varied calls and cries of the … well, there’s that word again. We lived at the head of a long bay where, at every phase of the tide I would … and did … observe what the Gulls (there, that will have to do) were doing.

Our relationship gained a deeper intimacy because Mother would have me (and my brothers before me) take all the organic garbage out to a special spot on the mudflats at low tide and “feed the ___gulls”. The ritual was so well understood by the gulls, that as soon as I stepped off the front lawn and into the Spartina Grass wreathing the flats at the head of the bay, I could see gulls lifting off the flats more than half a mile away to dash toward me and my galvanized bucket. If we had entertained guests the night before with lobsters and steamed clams, the birds’ excitement was uproarious.

It was a very satisfying way to dispose of the garbage.

Somewhere along the line … before my age rose into the double numbers … I learned that these ubiquitous, noisy seabirds were formally called Herring Gulls. In the course of learning their proper taxonomic identity, I also learned another important fact about gulls: many people didn’t know their proper names.

Herring Gulls


This included my surrogate father, Jim Oliver, who I lobstered with for several summers. One of the innumerable bits a Maine Coast lore he passed along to me on those fine days in the Jane Carol was that the “Herring Gulls” came back to nest on North Sugarloaf Island  (at the mouth of the Kennebec River) within 48 hours of the same date each Spring.

What he was actually referring to were the Common Terns, who do go South for the Winter. I never corrected him on this quaint localism … the real Herring Gulls are not a migrating species, and their numbers are often significantly reduced if there is a particularly hard winter.