Amazing Gulls: Acrobats of the Sky and Sea

Amazing Gulls: Acrobats of the Sky and Sea

by Marlin Bree


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781892147196
Publisher: Marlor Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 04/01/2011
Pages: 96
Product dimensions: 9.00(w) x 5.90(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Marlin Bree is an award-winning marine journalist and a two-time winner of the Boating Writers International Grand Prize Writing Award. He is a former magazine editor for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, a past president of the Minnesota Press Club, and a contributor to publications such as Cruising World, DIY Boat Owner, the Ensign, Good Old Boat, and Lakeland Boating. He is the author of several boating books, including In the Teeth of the Northeaster and Wake of the Green Storm. He lives in Shoreview, Minnesota.

Read an Excerpt

Amazing Gulls

Acrobats of the Sea and Sky

By Marlin Bree

Marlor Press, Inc.

Copyright © 2011 Marlin Bree
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-892147-25-7



Elegant wings, acrobatic flights

They fly beautifully on their long, elegant wings, serene and imperturbable. But they are not just soaring birds, for gulls are also acrobats of the air.

Seeing a bit of food on the water, they can swoop down quickly — and the choice morsel goes to the fastest gull. Gulls can stop as if they had hit an invisible air brake and seemingly hover in place to snatch their bit of food and ascend in seconds.

If you watch them carefully, you'll see that they have an incredible sense of the air. They can come within inches of the water's surface and seem to be buoyed up by a sort of updraft and glide easily as if suspended by some invisible magic. Then, suddenly, they will wheel heavenward with just a few majestic movements of their white wings. It is an aerial ballet that gulls watchers never tire of.

The Red Baron and the] GULLS of MADELINE ISLAND

After I had sailed Persistence to Madeline Island, off Lake Superior's Wisconsin coast, the amiable patrolman invited me to accompany him on a routine patrol. We were heading down the island's wooded eastern shore when I suddenly saw what looked like the tail of a small airplane sticking out from a bush.

As the patrol car drew nearer, I could see the wings, topped with an American flag flying proudly in the breeze. It looked to me like a World War I airplane that had crashed in the shrubbery.

"Oh, that," the patrolman said with a nonchalant gesture of his thumb. "That's the Red Baron's plane."

It was an ultralight aircraft with fabric on its wings and tail, with the fuselage, constructed of exposed aluminum tubing. The wing was high and on its top was a strut with wires, much like old-fashioned biplane bracing. The engine was in back and was a modified snowmobile motor; in front of the wing, nearly on the ground, was the pilot's seat.

The Baron likes to fly with the gulls, the patrolman said. "But hurry," he warned. "He likes to take chances."

In person, the Baron was an intense man in his late twenties and, despite Superior's chill air, he wore a light shirt, jeans and tattered sneakers. He seemed constantly to be moving about, his dark eyes darting everywhere. Yes, he was fan of gulls, he told me, and his favorite book was Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

He sniffed the air like a sailor, then felt it on his face. "It's a little breezy today, gusting up to about 35 knots, but I was brought up with winds 45 to 50 knots. If you want to fly, you fly."

I told him I heard stories of his flying with the gulls.

"Someone's been talking," the Baron said suspiciously. "It's true that I catch seagulls," he admitted, then explained:

"Ducks are much too fast and so are cormorants. But seagulls fly at about 45 miles per hour, and, that's about right for me and Beaufort T." This was the name of his ultra light aircraft.

"You come up from behind them as they fly along. When you get within 50 feet, they'll start getting nervous and turn their heads, and, you'll see these black eyes on you wondering what you are going to do. Oh, they'll try a fake maneuver trying to throw you off, because they're smart birds. But once they discover you're as smart as they are the duel begins in earnest. "

He stretched his arms out wide to imitate flight patterns of the seagulls as he explained:

"So they'll keep turning their heads around, watching you, because they figure you're another bird. So when they see you lift one wing they'll figure you're going one way and they'll immediately head the other way. "

With his arms upswept, the Baron swung down and around. "So what you do is you fake them out with a quick little wing lift," he said, lifting his arms. When they turn the other way, you turn with them on the inside — then you've got them."

I was startled. "You catch them?"

"Oh, no! Nothing like that. That might hurt the bird," the Baron said. "What you do is you touch wings with them. Doesn't hurt them at all, except for one thing.

The Baron paused to smile.

"Their tail feathers go out and up. It's undignified and they look silly. It hurts their pride."


"Oh, I edge off my throttle — and off they fly." He grinned.

I imagined the young flyer and his ultralight aircraft alone over the islands, flying with the gulls over Lake Superior.

I had already learned that he had many adventures and he took many chances.

"Don't you ever worry?"

The Barons' dark eyes glittered as he recounted how his fictional hero-gull, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, met many challenges.

He summed up his own philosophy:

"Anyone who tells you he isn't afraid sometimes when he's flying or sailing is either stupid or a fool. I have been afraid many times," he said.

"I don't see fear as the end of anything — it's merely a barrier to get' across."

Each GULL a little different

Some were shy at first. These were the gulls that held back when you approached or skittered nervously into the air if you came too close.

Others were bold adventurers who announced their arrival with their scree noise and then plopped themselves down nearby, cocking their head as if to say, "what've you got for me today?"

I was beginning to know them well.

With their own personalities and distinctiveness, gulls are inquisitive, shy, intelligent, resourceful and, to a degree, people loving. Sometimes, they fly away — wild birds to the core. Other times, some will hover nearby and even approach people, boldly showing off a little, to attract attention.

This sometimes gets them in trouble.

On a beautiful hilltop overlooking the port city of Duluth, for example, the gulls used to wheel in the sky, to the delight and amazement of many children.

But now there are signs warning: Do not feed the gulls.

A few gulls still are around in desultory groups, but they are dispirited gulls, I think. They once had such a fine group of humans coming around, usually from further south on their way to Lake Superior to feed and in fact, to pay homage to them with some small scraps of bread or food.

I've seen other signs, too, trying to keep gulls away from people. A battle, of sorts, erupted when a waterfront foodshop complained that the gulls were a nuisance.

I was disheartened. At this waterfront, gulls and children had played here for years and they seemed to enjoy each other. A child would throw up a morsel of food and the gulls merrily would fly in and snatch the morsel in the air, to the child's delight.

To my delight as well. I fondly remember one time when I drove into the parking lot beside the Duluth canal entryway and ambled out of my old four-by-four with the canvas top to an outdoor waterfront food shop. Before I made it back to my vehicle, my friends the gulls were wheeling cheerfully in the air and I saw one perch atop my vehicle's canvas top. Waiting, expectantly.

I did not mind sharing and here it was not illegal, but there have been complaints. The gulls of Superior are threatened by banishment — or at least have their snacks curtailed, if certain parties had their way. It's not that unusual, either, since wildlife and people sometimes come into conflict. In other parts of the country, people have come to be annoyed by the gulls' antics and have complained they were nuisances. Gulls apparently flew noisily around picnic and beach areas, sometimes harassing people by flying closely to them looking for something to eat. Sometimes gulls even swiped food from picnic tables.

An acquaintance who works at the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center in Duluth and who is an old hand at the ways of the watery world, had a different view about wildlife. "There is an ambiance with the gulls," said Thorm Holden. "It wouldn't be the same here without them." I agree.

Good GULL tricks

Look at a gull, and, if you are lucky, a gull will look back at you. There is intelligence in those eyes, as well as a certain curiosity.

Diligently observe your feathered friends and you'll soon discover that gulls have a remarkable sense of humor. They invent and play gull games among themselves and also as they interact with their humans.

For example, one day, I was on the waterfront with a bag of several day-old-bread scraps that I had gotten from a local bakery. It was stale, somewhat hardened bread — not the s oft, fresh kind — but my friends the gulls couldn't get enough of it.

I began tossing some of the scraps into the air, one piece at a time, and the fluttering of many gull wings rewarded me. They had been watching, obviously. A quick toss; a gull would swoop down out of nowhere, and, in mid-air, catch the bread in its beak.

Wonderful stuff. Amazing acrobatics!

I had put my bag of scraps beside me on the dock railing when suddenly, I heard a fluttering of wings, and felt a wave of air.

As I looked about, I saw that the dock railing looked a little odd. It was bare.

My bag of bread was ... gone.'

"That gull got it," my wife laughed. "It was watching you very intently, then it just dived in and snatched it away."

Wow. That was a good gull trick, I decided. I also decided to keep my loot under closer watch. That gull was very good at his thievery, executed in full flight and at speed. A highspeed snatch!

I've discovered that if you're alert, you can see some good gull tricks — not only the ones they play on humans, but the ones that they play on one another.

King of the Hill: This is the same game that kids play. Only with a gull, it involves a high places, such as a lamp post. One gulls sits serenely, displaying a imperturbable lack of interest. A flying gull, seeing the insolent gull atop the post, will dive bomb the gull. At the last moment, the gull atop the post will fly away. The gull bomber then takes its position atop the post. I've seen this game repeated for many times and it looks very enjoyable — for gulls.

The Soaring Game: A gull will look for a vortex of air between large boulders. It will dive down into this blast of air — and positioning its wings and feathers just so — it will hold its soaring position for minutes at a time. The gull will move up or down slightly and not very much back or forth. Pleased with its success, the gull will then flap its wings and fly off again, only to repeat the game a few minutes later. Apparently the game is a self-test to see how long it can stay motionless and aloft in the air currents.

The Food Squabble: Gulls love to find something to squabble about, such as a morsel of food or even an empty paper cup. The game is to get the object away from your opponent and run or fly off with it.

The Bread Swipe: A human holds up a piece of bread in his or her fingers for a gull to drop out of the sky to snatch up on the wing. This happens if the gull trusts the human and the gull is really hungry.

But sometimes humans play with gulls too roughly and then gulls get hurt. An exuberant child may rush a flock of gulls and accidentally hit one, causing a gull to have a broken wing. In that case, the gull has to be taken to a veterinarian or a bird rescue shelter.

The Dive Bomb : When I was aboard a commercial fishing boat, I noticed flocks of gulls dive in the wake of the vessel's wake, looking for some fish scraps that were being tossed overboard. They'd hover, then one after another, dive into the water using their momentum to get under the surface. Happily, they'd fly off.

Gulls are fascinating to watch.


I often wondered how gulls survived savage winds and storms until one day I unexpectedly got to learn their methods. I was on Lake Superior cruising alone in my sailboat, Persistence, when dark shadows clustered over the nearby Sawtooth Mountains. The clouds were moving swiftly — too swiftly. Storm clouds!

Any old port in a storm, I told myself as we swung into a tiny harbor, guarded only by a low, sandy island that was little more than a beach. Large granite rocks knifed out of the water in a sort of break wall.

Not much protection, but better than nothing. I hastily dropped my two Danforth anchors and secured the sails. I looked around one last time: we were as storm ready as we were going to get and just in time, too. The sky and the water were getting black as the storm came rushing in.

I dashed below, put in my hatch board covers and slammed the heavy mahogany hatch shut. It sealed with a reassuring thump. Sitting with my knees up on the bunk, I looked out a port light at the jagged rock-strewn shoreline not far away.

Gulls had come down to the water's edge and were looking curiously back at me. I realized too late that I was in closer to the shore than I really wanted to be, but there was no time to reset the anchors. I had made my decision; now I could only await the storm.

Whump! I braced myself as I felt the fist unstable gusts slam into us. Persistence tipped to one side a little, and then righted herself. Not bad at all.

Whoom! Whoom! Whoom!

The next gusts hit in bursts of power, driving us backward. The velocity of the winds was more than I had expected.

My throat started to tighten up.

With a blast that thoroughly shook Persistence, the gale began showing its strength.

I heard a terrible shrieking in the rigging and I felt the bow straining at the anchor. We were beginning to vibrate and rattle as well. Rain pounded down like hail on the cabin roof.

Suddenly, we tipped sideways. The gale was now shoving us from side to side.

As the boat righted, I stole a glance out my port light. We had another problem:

The gulls had become much larger. I realized what was happening: I was now much closer to them and the shore.

I could see their eyes very clearly. There was a flock of them in this little cove, all standing nearby in the sand at the water's edge. How could they survive?

I became fascinated by how they managed to keep from being blown away. They ducked their heads and their tails rose up high.

I got it.

They were using their bodies as airfoils to make the wind press their tiny feet down on the sand.

But even they were having trouble in this wind: I saw a couple of them get hit by a hard blast and wobble a little, only to regain their balance

None moved; none flew away. They stood their ground, true little soldiers.

I felt like a yo-yo, with the wind clawing at the mast and the boat, shoving us back and down, rattling and vibrating, twisting from side to side and up and down.

We'd get within feet of the shore and the bemused gulls, and then we'd zip forward again on the nylon anchor line.

We somehow bonded out there, the gulls and this funny wooden chip that moved back and forth, with its nervous passenger inside looking out.

The storm abated as abruptly as it had begun; the warm orb of the sun came out again from blue skies.

I threw open the hatch and reentered the day, blinking in the bright light.

My storm friends throughout the ordeal, the gulls, flew off.

I was alone on this deserted spit of land and I realized how much I missed them and their companionship.

The almost disappearing GULL

At one time, gulls were in danger of extinction. Sometime around the 1800s, people started taking over their habitats and began hunting them for their feathers, usually to ornament women's hats. Often a special bit of millinery would sport an entire gull's wing.

Native Americans and the early voyageurs and travelers also ate gull eggs. One account in 1792 of canoe travel along the northernmost arc of Lake Superior told of finding in a gull's nest "a quantity of sea gulls eggs, which were as large as those of turkeys and which, when fried in the pan with some pork, made an excellent supper, with a dish of aromatic tea."

Another early explorer, Pierre Radisson referred to them as "goilants." During his explorations of Lake Superior during the 1660s, he came to write about gulls with a particular passion. He wrote of areas "white with gulls."

"Gulls were there aplenty, riding the air currents up and down shore and screaming whenever they spied food or thought that some boat was turning toward shore with possibilities of refuse for them."

"Soundless passage and grace of their long bodies," he continued "merely swell the contentment of the observer"

Legislation at the turn of the last century protected gulls and they began a comeback. Today gulls are everywhere on the waterfront and they have many fans who take long drives to see them fly and do their acrobatics over the water.


Excerpted from Amazing Gulls by Marlin Bree. Copyright © 2011 Marlin Bree. Excerpted by permission of Marlor Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


The Wonderful World of Gulls,
Elegant wings, acrobatic flights,
The Red Baron & the gulls of Madeline Island,
Each a little different,
Good gull tricks,
Storm gulls,
The almost disappearing gull,
Those haunting gulls,
Parts of a gull,
Gull stats,
Fascinating features,
Wings of wonder,
The totally remarkable gull,
Many kinds of gulls,
Where they live,
Our gull-winged beauties,
Taking a dive,
Secrets of flight,
Our fine-feathered friends,
Time out for a good preen,
The remarkable family of gulls,
South for the winter,
Gull smarts,
Gull photo gallery,
Legends of the gulls,
The legend of the White Gull,
The Grey Gull Poem,
Section 4 EPILOGUE,
Other amazing seabirds,
About the author,

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