Friday, May 23, 2014

Gulls and Guano

An abstract what?
[Courtesy Google.]

Have you ever lived in the middle of an all-night drunken party? The kind where stupid drunks laugh at stupid jokes and think everything, simply everything, is hilarious. Where laughter becomes the medium of what passes for communication? Where every single guy is convinced that the most attractive women are waiting for him to make a pass? Sober, you stand against the wall near the door for a quick exit, but like rubbernecking at the proverbial train wreck, you cannot disconnect yourself from the cacophonous insanity. In the face of utterly infantile behavior, you cannot stop watching and listening.

That sort of captures my fascination with the recent plague of Laughing Gulls that overwhelmed the marina for the better part of a month. As best I could tell, it was all about sex. Males seeking females, females looking for the right nest builder. I assume there were little gull eggs created as a result of the celebration, but all I could see was that it produced prodigious quantities of guano, useless and messy. And do not find yourself downwind of a flying gull when it makes its deposit.

Okay, guano has been historically valued for fertilizer and remains so today. As widespread as the guano is here at the marina, it is insufficient for commercial mining. On the other hand, Peru, in the nineteenth century, discovered such a lucrative market for its offshore island of guano that it bet its national wealth on the riches the guano would generate, floating huge amounts of debt to support public works projects of questionable value. As with all speculative bubbles, it burst and the country choked on its debt, having created its own surplus of supply that drove prices down. Greed can kick you hard.

How much guano can six million seabirds produce over decades or centuries?
Peruvian guano mountain during the Guano Boom.
See the men standing against the mountain.
[Courtesy Google.]

Apparently, Laughing Gulls are monogamous, at least for the mating season. Sounds like many a modern couple. It is not clear to me how the males attract a given female, but there is lots of screeching and craning of necks and emphatic waddling down the dock followed by a spreading of wings and joint mounting of the pilings. Perched together on the pilings, the couples are the picture of nervous teens before a prom dance.

The male and female make nests together unless a male is struggling to attract a female, in which case the male may begin a nest on his own, hoping to tempt a female with his construction prowess. Where these nests are locally I have no idea. I never noticed the gulls attending or flying to, any one spot along the shore. Perhaps the gulls find a more permanent place to make their nests low to the ground or on the ground, hidden if at all in the marsh grasses near the water.

Another male strategy is the offering of a fish. At the height of the chaos, we would find small menhaden on the dock or floating in the water. The odd thing about the fish was that only one bite (max two) had been taken. Gulls of all sorts are notorious for diving on any possible food in the water. They steal from pelicans (the few pelicans we saw early on departed when endlessly harassed by gulls that would not fish for themselves) and from each other. These are greedy little scavengers, so why had they not consumed the menhaden? It was all show, a bribe for the intended female. Of course, we have no idea how often it succeeded.

As for food, I never saw them fishing. Hundreds of gulls must be hungry though I know some species ignore food when enthralled with the mating season. Once I noticed some gulls swooping over the water near sunset. Bugs. They were eating insects.

Last week, a front pushed through slowly, drenching the coast with more than two inches of rain. When it had passed, the gulls and guano were gone. Where? I suppose, like many of the boats heading up the ICW, they headed north to escape our heat and to feast on the rich garbage dumps of Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. I marvel at their attraction to garbage; at the county landfill outside Asheville, 400 miles inland, the ground would be spotted with dozens of gulls.

I prefer fresh seafood myself. But then I cannot fly.

Several days ago, we dropped our crab traps in the water. Baited with some ripe croaker (from the drum family) that Butch had caught at Cape Lookout and some ripening old chicken scraps that we needed to toss, we waited to count the catch. I had visited Keith at Endurance Seafood (“so fresh it bites”) last week. He had nothing to sell. Late last year, he told me that the blue crab catch had been the worst anyone from Texas to New England could remember in the last forty years. This year looks to be even worse.

Nevertheless, early returns are okay here on the dock. I have caught ten keepers in less than a week. The first three I ate were the sweetest I can recall.

Summer is settling in with hotter days, warmer nights and variable winds. And hurricane season is just around the corner.

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