Not All That Glitters is Gulls!

Loafing about at the water’s edge is a summer time ritual. Sand, sea air, the fear of sunburn and the cancer that is its bed-fellow. These are all part of a beach holiday. Waters edge loafing, cricket on the radio and over salted fish and chips form the holy trinity of the summer holiday. They restore fathers, sons and everyone’s spirits in a way nothing else does . A tonic in an age of stress.

But sharing the water’s edge with you are birds that are normally over looked or mistaken for gulls or even worse, mistaken for seagulls! These fellow loafers are not gulls, far from it. In the flurry of beaks and legs and wings and squabbles that gulls bring, this is a forgivable oversight.
But if you look you can often find something a little different, a little less predictable. Beyond the treasures that the tide can bring, cast offs, lost goods, mystery made real by the turning of the tide, you can find something that most people don’t see. That most people don’t notice.
And you don’t always have to be at the beach either.

Last week I was sitting at Studley Park Boatshed, a riverside place, a bush-land enclave in the heart of Melbourne. It’s a gentle place, a marrying sort of place if you are of a mind to do so, and in the absence of a grander local landscape, my sort of place. And there, hidden amongst the silver gulls who have abandoned the sea, was another form of treasure.
“What’s that?” said a voice from a row boat “It’s only a seagull” came the twice wrong reply. “I don’t think it is” the first voice persisted. But then the sudden and apparently surprising arrival of a large tree in their boat distracted them. They seemed unready to take on guests and unable to repel boarders. The tree persisted, its willowy branches clutching at oars and arms and sun hats. It was not the tree that ended up weeping. They did not seem to be nautical folk! Not so much rowing as floundering.

But that first voice had been right, it was not a gull at all. It was that often overlooked treasure, a Crested Tern. Sharper in wing and voice. Pointy in all the ways that gulls are rounded. Fine in all ways gulls are robust. Generally polite in a way that their seaside cousins never seem to manage. Although this well mannered bird can be roused to considerable anger when placed under duress. Gulls are routinely ignored; terms go unnoticed in ways that is different from that. Ignoring is about choosing not to look. Terms are missed because don’t see them, even if they do look. Granted, it was unusual to see one at Studley Park, but it was there, and was noticeable if you were inclined to notice. This bird was not yet in its full summer plumage, but it was still clearly not a gull. Well it was clear to me, even if I did have walk over to check. And it had also seemed clear to one of the boaters they it was something different, but they had now switched from boating and birds, to some form of riverside tree climbing project by the looks of it.

In its breeding finery the Crested Tern has a neat black cap and the crest of its name. It looks like it’s wearing a back to front baseball cap, although it seems more interesting than those who normally wear their hats like that. And less likely to ride a skate board. Or cover the wall of my house in graffiti! Curved down bill, rather short legs, long wings. The differences accumulate to make it a bird that floats as it flies. Buoyant when it so chooses, direct when it needs to be. Although this one seemed content to sit and wait. What for? Who knows? These birds are not chip stealers or dump dwellers, although not easily spooked by humans they seemed to have retained a more natural life style than the gulls they are often seen with. They live in the suburbs of human contact, where natural is still an option. Many gulls seemed to have adopted the inner city life style, where natural is just a memory.

This bird was a loner, different, because you normally see them in flocks, in company. They sit on seaside fences, boats, nautical woodwork, at the waters’ edge in the contested ground between land and sea. They gather in angular groups and if there is one they point their bills into the wind. I once watched a group sitting on a small dingy as it moves to and fro in the wind. The birds moved with the wind, not the boat. This way, then that way. Head up wind, tail down wind. Living weather vanes. Keeping pace with the boats movements, sensitive to a change I could barely detect, let alone react to. Pinnacle of evolution – I think not!

Crested Terns were some of the first birds I watched in Australia. Only two days off the plane, marginal jet lag tugging at my sleeves, walking down the jetty at Swan Bay. Why call it Swan Bay? The place was covered in terns! They opened their wings and let air flow and lift do the rest, taking off from their seaside perches without a hint of other movement. I had just spent 18 hours in a plane, burning jet fuel as if there was no tomorrow and here on a windy summer’s day I was taught a lesson about the effortlessness of flight. Icarus may have died, but he spoke for all of us with his wings of stolen feathers and wax. What would we give for that moment of flight that the terns have garnered back through the long ages of their ancestors? Tern after tern, change after change, better and better, slow, incremental, success building on the success of the past, survival being a goal in itself. No plan, no ideal target. Taking what works and sticking with that. Did Charles see these when he was here? Did they help him sort out fact from fiction? Replace myth with a method? Did Australian terns and British terns, so similar, so different, help him see what he saw, back at home, back at Down House?

Watching these birds is generally not that difficult, once you have found them that is. And once you start looking, you can pick them out with ease, lower to the ground than gulls, pointier. They also seem far more trusting than many birds, allowing watchers and photographers closer that most species. In general they are rather cooperative. But watch them in their breeding colonies and this tolerance changes in two ways. Rather than just being tolerant of humans they seem to become crazy brave. Sitting on what passes for a nest with a stubbornness that borders on madness. But once removed any hint of polite behavior evaporates.

I have been able to see this behavior first hand when I have banded these birds – ringed for those in the UK. They nest - if the term nest can be extended to include a meager scrape in the sand with absolutely no ornamentation or padding – in sand dunes perilously close to the high tide mark. Tides pushed by winds or the cast off waves from elsewhere can spell doom for a colony. This is a strategy that put these birds at risk. Higher sea levels and more storms threaten to wipe out colonies that have existed for years. Costal development has robbed them of many alternative locations. They inhabit a shrinking band on land. They probably could do with some help.

The chicks are banded when they are still sat on the sand. They cannot run or fly, so they just sit there. Waiting, pretending to be a stone. The parent birds seem to refuse to leave the nest and at times it feels like you will have to lift the adult off the nest to gain access to the chick. When the do, inevitably, abandon their chicks to our misunderstood hands they hover over head shrieking their protests. Contact between beaks and a banders heads is not unknown, industrial deafness common place. We may not be talking rock concert loud, but these birds can hit notes that opera singers would be proud off – and they have the same intensity as some Wagnerian death scene, and are just about as comprehensible as well. Who needs the Ring Cycle (a question that seems valid to my ears!) when you can have a full blown, opening night, tern opera blasted into your ear from less than a meter away. And I do this for fun!

Seeing the birds this close is worth the pain. In their breeding plumage they are a striking bird, and to have hundreds of them calling above you, landing beside you and just plain staring you down is a remarkable thing. It is not a common thing, but we need to make sure it exists into the future. A world without the opera of terns would be a duller (if quieter) place.

If you take a close look at the terns on the seaside railing you will see that it has been banded. I find to remarkable to think that in the first week of its life, just fresh from the egg, I may have lifted it from the sand, popped a band on its leg and returned it to its parents. Maybe that’s why they seem so patient when I watch them, they are just waiting for me to turn my back so they can peck me on the head and extract revenge. It may be true, but I hope not.


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