“When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else. Most people in the city rush around so, they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not.”~ Artist Georgia O’Keeffe
Gulls are among the birds I call “gateway birds.” They’re common and accessible. They are also visible, vocal, insistent and interactive, which makes them living portals between the wild world and the city life.
Like Georgia O’Keeffe’s flower, the gull, along with many urban birds, is overlooked and pushed aside, sometimes literally under foot on crowded sidewalks. Also like O’Keeffe’s flower, when you take the time to really look at that gull and embrace the wholeness of her — her yellow bill, her gray coverts, her ear spots or orbital rings, the white tips of her stretched wings — she becomes your world not just for the moment, but in perpetuity.
She invites you into the realm of the other … the feathered and winged other. It’s a place with a distinct language, a code of conduct, familial love, fascinating behavior, and an existence that springs miraculous from a broken eggshell on a hotel rooftop.
That’s precisely where I found myself on a recent Saturday, perched (with coffee cup) above a hotel roof in downtown Seattle — watching balls of fluff known as gull chicks, explore their urban playground.
In a connection forged through this blog, a kind and thoughtful person contacted me to say she lived above a gull nesting site. She asked if I would enjoy coming by in the morning to take few photos of the growing chicks. In her words, “we have nests scattered among the air conditioning units and duct work … just across the alley, and on the roof directly alongside us, each roof with three nests. The nests range from one to three chicks, and they are amazingly adorable.”
To paraphrase Don Corleone, this generous bird watcher made me an offer I simply couldn’t refuse.
Here’s one of those amazingly adorable chicks, in a full yawn.
My gull ID is so spotty that even after paging repeatedly through Peterson’s Gulls of the Americas I wasn’t 100 percent sure these chicks were full-blooded Glaucous-winged Gulls. You know how complex gulls can be with their age variations and hybridized plumage. But, as the Magic 8 Ball would say, “all signs point to yes” on Glaucous-winged. One of the grown up gulls on this rooftop looked to be a “third-cycle” gull, similar in every way to an adult, but lacking the distinct white primary feather tips which stick out above the tail (primary projection).
According to the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST) …
… Glaucous-winged Gulls are stocky, regal-looking birds with light grey backs and wings complementing a bright white head, breast and belly. Adult birds even sport flashes of color with their red-spotted yellow bills, pink feet, and dark eyes with pink eye-rings.
No such luck identifying juvenile glaucous-wings. Unless you are a gull expert, first year and sub-adult gulls are nearly impossible to distinguish at the species level. Therefore, COASST lumps all of these mottled brown adolescents into one category, the LIGU (Large Immature GUlls).
That means that once these cute, fluffy chicks fledge and grow into their various cycles of plumage, they’ll be similarly lumped as LIGUs until they develop their distinct, stocky and regal ID marks.
Glaucous-winged Gulls are highly adaptable which allows them to survive on a variety of forage and foodstuffs. They’ll eat fish and shellfish, some carrion, and also human food scraps. On the rooftop, one parent regurgitated food for her young which looked to be mussels.
Another parent had what looked like a marine worm. And there was also a discarded chicken bone which I’m assuming came from a fast food score.
The colors and textures of the chicks blended so well with their industrial backdrop, you’d almost have to know they were there to actually spot them. I couldn’t have asked for a setting that better matched my urban wildlife aesthetic.
The gulls incubate 28 days or so before hatching these spotted chicks who are semi-precocial — able to walk within a day or two after leaving their eggshells behind.
Both parents feed the chicks as they grow into their juvenile plumage and flight feathers, at which point they’ll practice flapping and hopping and getting lift, using the flat rooftop expanse as a runway. They’ll properly fledge 50 to 60 days after their hatch date, joining the festival of LIGUs loafing on the Seattle shoreline.
When Georgia O’Keeffe says about her flower, “I want them to see it whether they want to or not,” she describes my sentiments about urban wildlife: I want people to see them, whether they want to or not. I want people who normally walk by or shoo them or call them “rats with wings,” to really look at these winged marvels — to bear witness to their inherent value — to their unique entitlement on this planet as gulls, or crows or pigeons.
When I photograph urban wild animals, I hope to freeze some of that marvelousness inside a frame that illuminates for others their right to coexistence, kindness and consideration. I feel this especially for the urban ones since they are survivors in our blight — the stalwart emissaries for their kind. They are the birds who promise a gateway from the frazzled detachment that overtakes urban existence, to genuine connectivity between humans and their nature … all in the context of pavement, car horns, soot and air conditioning vents.
==> Thank you, L & S, for this privileged view into the world of Seattle’s rooftop gulls!
Gull chicks photographed in Seattle with my Olympus OM-D + Lumix 100-300mm. Most images were shot at ISO800 — until a bit later in the morning when the sun peered through overcast.