Spring is in full swing and everything seems to be alive and on the move around New York Harbor. Birds are everywhere and many are getting ready to breed.
No matter how annoying you might think they are, gulls are a big part of the bird life around the harbor. In any kind of weather, wind or temperature, you can always find at least a few stoic gulls inhabiting the edge of the estuary, relaxing or soaring with their stretched-out wings searching for a bit of food. They are really extraordinary birds to observe.
Although quite a few people think all gulls are the same, a gull is a gull. In fact, each gull is different. The term gull refers to members of a group of 23 North American bird species that belong to the family Laridae. Around New York Harbor, I have spotted around 10 different species of gulls including Great black-backed gulls, Lesser black-backed gulls, Herring gulls, Bonaparte's gulls, Glaucous gulls, Ring-billed gulls, Iceland gulls, Franklin's gulls, and recently Black-headed Gulls. All amazing sea birds and fine-feathered friends to admire for their hardiness, adventuress, and acrobatic flying skills.
One of my favorite gull species to study is the Laughing gull, a mostly warm-weather resident. It just wouldn’t be summer without the gaudy raucous calls of Laughing gulls at beaches, piers, and parking lots. It’s a bold nasal sound of a small feathered creature laughing at you. Certainly a well-named bird. Combine this call with a beautiful head of crisp black feathers and a reddish bill, and the bird provides entertaining sounds and sights around New York Harbor.
Over the past several weeks, many Laughing gulls have been migrating northward from wintering areas around the Gulf Mexico and as far south as northern South America. They are moving onward seeking a safe place to raise a family, the next generation of Laughing gulls.
Come early May around New York Harbor, a lot of Laughing gulls are establishing nesting colonies, mostly on remote islands around Jamaica Bay or on sandy secluded beaches near the tip of Sandy Hook. The gulls prefer to nest in large colonies with other gulls and also other species of water birds including terns, Black Skimmers, and American Oystercatchers.
By the end of May, Laughing gulls have usually laid two or three eggs in a ground nest built from nothing more than dried vegetation, grass, and a few sticks or shells. It doesn’t look like much, but it’s home.
Most eggs are laid between late May and early June, although a few birds may delay reproduction until June. Both parents will incubate the eggs and defend the nest. If something gets too close to either eggs or nest, a gull will dive steeply down out of the sky to try to scare or annoy the nasty intruder away.
Of course it hasn’t been an easy life for Laughing gulls around New York Harbor. By the start of the 20th century, populations started to decline due to both eggs and feathers becoming valuable by collectors and plume hunters for the millenary trade. It didn’t take long for this bird to become extirpated from New York Harbor.
As populations started to rebound in the 1980s, the New York Natural Heritage Program tells us, “control measures at John F. Kennedy airport” were put into place to control Laughing gulls, as there were “over 7500 pairs nesting…in Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. The largest of the colonies nested near the end of a runway at the airport. Over 63,000 Laughing Gulls were killed or removed from areas near the runways between 1991 and 2003, causing a 60 percent drop in the nesting population at Jamaica Bay.”
Today, threats still exist around New York Harbor. In addition to the on-going gull management program at John F. Kennedy International Airport, there is relentless beach erosion at Sandy Hook and island erosion and tidal flooding of salt marshes in Jamaica Bay. There are also pollutants in local waters that can make birds or their babies sick.
Moreover, predation by owls and Black-crowned Night-Herons can limit the population and competition with larger gulls, including Black-back gulls, can cause a decline in numbers. Feeding competition between Laughing gulls and the larger and more abundant Herring gull is also showing signs of weakening the Laughing gull population.
Yet, the bird goes on. Laughing gulls are finding ways to survive in this urban jungle, at least for now. Wildlife biologists, Brian Washburn, Martin Lowney, and Allen Gosser in their 2012 article, “Historical and current status of Laughing gulls breeding in New York State,” published in The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, suggest Jamaica Bay, in the Joco Marsh island complex, has the largest breeding area for Laughing gulls in New York State. Over 99.9% of the Laughing Gulls nesting in New York was associated with the nesting colony in Jamaica Bay during 1978–2007.
Total populations of Laughing gulls have increased between 1966 and 2015, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. This increase reflects the species' recovery from severe hunting in the late nineteenth century for their eggs and for plumes for the hat trade. The North American Waterbird Conservation Plan estimates a continental population of 528,000-538,000 breeding birds.
Back in New York Harbor, it’s business as usual. By late July and early August, young Laughing gulls, which hatched in June or July, will be eager to fly on their own. Soon the young gulls will be foraging for small fish, crustaceans, earthworms or snails, and of course an occasional bit of trash or a beachgoer’s tasty sandwich.
By fall, most Laughing gulls will have left New York Harbor, on their way down south to spend the winter. These black-headed birds will not be seen or heard again in mass until another summer season returns.
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the oldest known Laughing Gull was at least 22 years old when it was killed in Maine in 2009, the same state where it had been banded in 1987