Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.
We recently spent a few days (pre-flood) near Lutsen on the Lake Superior shore. While birding I came across a small chunk of flat rock near shore and just below a cliff. The cliff edge offered excellent viewing of Herring Gulls nesting atop the rock.
Some birds were sitting on eggs, others were tending chicks. The chicks were about the size of chickens a week after you bought them for Easter (never a good idea). I've seen gull chicks before, in Alaska. They were gray and fuzzy, like these chicks, but two-thirds adult size.
Herring Gulls are hardly unusual birds in Minnesota, particularly along the Lake Superior shore, but in all my years of watching this was the first time I've seen nests, eggs, and chicks. The property owner, very gracious in allowing me access to her yard, told me that eagles sometimes visited the gull colony, eating eggs and/or flying away with chicks. Not to wish the gulls trouble, but I hoped to see an eagle give it a try while I stood by with camera. I made two visits the day I took the photos. On the second visit I missed the eagle action by about 30 seconds. I got to my viewing site just in time to watch four gulls hazing the eagle as it flew west down the shore.
The eagle's presence had lifted the hens off their eggs, however, giving me a chance to photograph the eggs. The birds would occasionally rise from the nest to turn the eggs, but never gave me a good look while doing so. The eggs are deeply colored and marked with random spots of camouflage, as you'd expect for birds nesting in the open. The nests I could see had three eggs each, the maximum expected. Chicks hatch after 30 days of incubation. Parents share that duty. I hoped to see the chicks fed, but was off the gull schedule -- feeding about every four hours. The chicks will be fed by parents until about 12 weeks old. Gulls are known to feed in garbage dumps. Chicks fed garbage pay a price for a bad meal, growth slowing. Adults will continue to feed their offspring for as long as 12 to 15 weeks.
Gulls look like they lead an easy life, lots of loafing and what seems to be aimless coming and going. However: The chances of eggs surviving to hatch are about 8 in 10 (Bald Eagles took eggs and chicks from this colony). Hatched chicks have five to seven chances in 10 to fledge. Fledglings are 50/50 to make it through the first four years, when breeding is possible. First-year breeders are seven to 10 to make it to the next breeding season. Herring Gulls can live in the wild until 30 years old or so, if they can make it through what seems to be a tough beginning.
Here are photos of the gull colony.
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