top of page

Gull Island, Skull Island: In The Field with Tori

Figure 1: Beaver skull on Goose Island.

If you've ever walked across a field of skeletons you are familiar with a certain satisfying crunch. Through hiking boots -however unseemly- the brittle snapping of premature bird bones is something of a comfort at my current job. Now, I usually don't write about my job. The job (especially the rotary tumbler that is being a seasonal field biologist) exists in the cyclical realm of non-permanent specializations. This is my Now. Presently employed to monitor and manage a reservoir in eastern Washington, I regularly come across remnants of the fallen. Take the beaver in Figure 1 for example. While dispensing passive dissuasion on a rocky shoreline, this handsome fellow stuck out from the layers of pale grey guano with those starkly orange chompers. The beaver population in the reservoir is slight but noteworthy with a number of lodges dispersed on sandbars and shallow wading waters in the northwestern reaches of the reserve.

Figure 2: Sun-dried skull of Ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis) on Goose Island.

If you read Foxy Fossils, then you know I am fan of dead things by natural cause [Figure 2]. A fair portion of biologists are, given the development of our science was born of the acquisition and cataloging of organisms via the kill-it-first-answer-questions-later approach. The sheer volume of skulls and whole skeletons I walk over on any happenstance day of the season would put the average taxidermist to shame. These experiences act as muses to my ruminating soul. In truest and bluest presentation, my lovely readership, I shall open a vein to this blogger's heart to spill forth fresh fruitful blogging fodder found frequently festering from one end of my workplace to the other. Fixed yet temporary, the theosophy of my vocation is of the eternal and cyclical, and henceforth intended to be shared as any other creative expression of the natural world. The annual breeding activity of waterbirds certainly holds its own validity in accordance with any other rockosological* experience.

Fabulous. Righteous. Terrifying.

The company that pays my bills for the time being specializes in wildlife restoration. That company must act within the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1969 (or was it the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1968? I think it was the Act, because that's what put limits on all the absent-minded slaughtering of the time) to abhorrently avoid the disruption of migratory birds, such as the California and Ring-billed gulls I discuss here. As such, I have been sitting shotgun to the screaming chaos that is a gull breeding colony for two consecutive seasons. They come. They nest. They hatch. They stare at you accusingly and make dull chatter in the wavy desert heat [Figure 3]. Meanwhile, the rare opportunity of observing nature do its beautiful thang on a massive scale lands flat on your shoulders. Like so many -ologists before me, I often get lost in the madness (ha! checked it! Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918! Wow, half a century too late, but kudos to me for making the effort).

Figure 3: Photo credit Bristol Underwood; California gull nest with adult and chick.

First, the birds seem to mind that your team is on their colony site. They flush and rabble rouse and make a big fuss. Then it's nothing but the fuss! For months they scream and flap, wizzing by each other - "acrobats of the sky" as one field guide put it (I don't rightly know which field guide. More accurately, this is a quote from one of the badasses I work for). The nests appear slowly, thousands of little craters all scraped unevenly over the ash-and-sand bedrock mass jutting so rudely from the center of the flooded valley that is now a popular fishing locale. Almost as if the annual gathering and colony-scale breeding were a summer festival, the calling and courtship behaviors swarm around us as we deploy our passive dissuasion ropes and flags. The gulls scatter at our approach and settle not four meters from us to be startled again just moments later. Skip ahead four months and the speckled eggs are hatched, their contents rapidly developing from fluffy marshmallows [Figures 3 & 4] to the half-baked ugliness that is adolescence in every Earth species [Figure 5]. The downy babes hardly have time to shed their egg shells before the carnage sets in. I must again emphasize that the 'carnage' is entirely natural & not the result of our observance.

No birds are were, or have ever been, damaged in any way or at all negatively affected by the actions or presence of our researchers.

Figure 4: Ring-billed (Larus delawernsis) gull chick in nest.

However, birds do have a darker half. California gulls (Larus californicus) in particular are known to defend their nest territories with cruel vigor. Pecking and tearing other chicks to death before eating or feeding the mangled remains to their own young. It's horrible really. Horrible and down right fascinating to watch. True story: Once during a waterbird survey, I watched what I initially thought was a series of peculiar foraging behaviors by a California gull. Upon closer examination, it happened that the adult bird was, in fact, dropping a chick into the water from about ten meters in the air then fishing the thing off the surface (presumably before it had the good fortune to drown) only to drop it again. This went on for a devilish length of four or five minutes before the adult flew off with its victim play-thing. Sick? Perhaps. Natural? Oh, most certainly, sir. A curious thing, the behaviors of birds. One of a thousand reasons the study of aves taxonomically lassoed my heart all those years ago. This odious tale of ornithological horror brings us full-circle to the countless hours my coworkers and I spend trekking over the bird skulls and skeletons blanketing our managed island.

Allow me to sublimate the gross depravity I have inordinately flung at you in this post. As the cacophonous chatter of the gulls rages around us, there is a profound stillness that emerges from within. That place all humans have in their brains that, when heeded just so atunes us to the opening and closing of our heart valves. The straining of material through the lobes of the liver, the dull motion of winding digestive tubes, the soft dilation of our pupils to a flickering exposure. It all culminates in the acute crunch of a skull on a desert island rife with life. In a word: inspiring..

Figure 5: Adult and juvenile California gull (Larus californicus). Photo credit to Bristol Underwood.

A pair of poems that struck me during the course of this field season:

Leslie the Gull had only one leg

Leslie the Gull never did lay an egg

We would chat in the heat

From my weatherport suite

While Leslie stood on one leg.

^For context, Leslie was the agendered name I gave to a one-legged Ring-billed gull (Larus delawernsis) that roosted beside the weatherport last year.

I won't get your goat

I do drive a boat

On a body of water

Where it only gets hotter

Watching birds do their thing

Those acrobats on wing!

Well folks, that's all I have for you this time around.

See you in the field!

Victoria Kaufman

*Rockosological: adj. the state of being related to the blogtastic musings known as Rockosophy.

bottom of page