Where the River Ends, a Gull Bath

I headed to the bluff on the east side of the San Lorenzo River. This is where the river ends into Monterey Bay.

On my left was the Monterey Bay and beyond was the Municipal Wharf (sight of great fork-tailed storm-petrel sightings last year) and to my right was Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, now in winter dormancy. I knew that any time a large river entered the ocean, where fresh water meets salt, there would be bathing gulls. Lots of gulls.

Down below, there were hundreds of gulls. This multi age and many specied gathering contained mainly California, herring, mew, and western. I scanned the gathering and found no rarities. But it did give me an opportunity to observe the dynamics of gull bathing and preening.

The mighty San Lorenzo River is a major winter gull bathing and resting location on Monterey Bay. The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is on the west side. The Logger’s Revenge to the right and my favorite roller coaster, the Big Dipper, is on the left.

Using my not-so-secret powers of observation I noted two areas that the gulls used: river and sand. The river is used for washing and the sand for preening, resting and playing.

The gulls used the river right in front of the railway trestle which was featured in the 80’s vampire flick Lost Boys. The birds were doing their indelible flappy wing dance followed by a head plunge and a wiggle. Yes very scientific I know.

The gulls on the sand spit where resting or preening. I noticed a few juvenile gulls playing with slicks on the spit point. They would carry a stick around and then drop it and pick it up. Repeat. I can only guess that they are practicing their eye-beak coordination.

The spread I sketched was a not-to-scale gull’s eye view of the river mouth. I love to make my own maps, using my own names for the land. This map contains my own: Seaweed Island, the “Wash”, Stick-Grab-Point, Gull’s Rest Spit, North Spit, and the “Stump”. Most of these land and watermarks are ephemeral, changing and disappearing with the tides and the winter rain, washing down from the Santa Cruz Mountains.


Gather of Gulls

Flying Rats. Parking Lot Bird. Beach Pigeons. A Health Hazard. A Nuissance.

There are many epithets given to the unpopular group of birds collectively known as “seagulls”. These birds are often overlooked, even by birders. 

Gulls are found in most coastal urban areas including parking lots, school yards or perched on the roof of fast food chains, often chasing other birds and sometimes even small children. While the rising human population harms many species of animals, gulls seem to prosper with our desrtruction and altering of the earth’s landscapes.

From a birder’s perspective, gulls all seem to look alike and can be devilishly difficult to identify. Some first year birds look like a Dickensian chimney sweep, covered from head to tail in dark-gray soot. Or you have adult birds that all seem to have the same proportion of white and grey. It’s easy to understand why many birders ignore them altogether. With gulls, the devil is truly in the details.

So it was that on a Sunday morning that Dickissel and I came to be on a bluff above Pilarcitos Creek to observe details.

From our perspective, the creek was directly below us and beyond the water was Venice Beach and further down slope was Half Moon Bay. Directly in front of us were gulls bathing and preening in Pilarcitos Creek while up on the beach there where other gulls that were preening or resting on the sands. In total, the mixed gull flock included about 150 individuals.

This flock  was truly mixed. It included common gulls at different plumages on their three to fourth year journey to adulthood. And none of them resembled each other, hence the importance of observing details (and a scope helps).

The first gulls that stood out were the five adult and one juvenile black-legged kittiwakes, enthusiastically bathing in the creek. 2017 has been a fantastic year for this normally scarce species on the coast. For whatever reason, this winter, these petite pelagic gulls were abundant on beaches and off shore rocks. The kittiwakes kept their distance from the larger gulls in the communal bath that is Pilarcitos Creek.

One juvenile kittiwake would vigorously preen and bath at the base of the main flock and slowly float downstream just below our perch where we could observe it’s bold “M” stretched across it’s wing span and it’s black rimmed tail. Dickcissel christened the young one our “Homie”.

Our “Homie”, the juvenile black-legged kittiwake,  flying upstream to preen in the waters of Pilarcitos Creek. 

Aside from the kittiwakes, the most common gull present were westerns, followed by California, mew, ring-billed, and two glaucous-winged gulls. But we were searching for a large white Artic gem. This would be the largest and whitest gull around, a gull that cohabitants with polar bears and its foragaging portfolio includes predation, this gull was the glaucous gull (Larus  hyerboreus).

A large white gull with a pied bill of black and bubblegum pink appeared amoung the gulls washing in the creek. This gull really stood out. It washed and preened for a good 15 minutes allowing close study thought the scope. After it’s bath, the glaucous flew up to the beach to continue to preen.

A digiscope photo taken by Dicksissel of the 1st winter glaucous gull, bathing in the creek. All other gulls are giving this menacing youngster a wide berth.

What I noticed about the glaucous is that all the western gulls surrounding on the beach, it gave it a wide berth as if they knew the glaucous was different. Bigger, more aggressive, and menacing. All the other gulls stayed outside of pecking distance.

Some beach walkers flushed the gull flock, they took to the air, circled around and eventually returned to the creek and beach. I scanned the flock and refound the glaucous. I then noticed a bird at the upper edge of the flock that stood out. It stood out for a few reasons: first is was standing apart from the flock, as if it didn’t belong, second it’s bill shape was very different from the others, and lastly it’s dark eyes was framed in a broken white circle. This was a rare west coaster, a laughing gull (Leucophaeus artricilla).

A birder on the bluff looking for that needle in the haystack.