Loyal fans brave stench to watch and count them


January 24, 1993|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Staff Writer

"Turning. Turning. Moving left. Now banking. Flying away fro us. Right between the two power lines. Now flying toward us."

"Adult Thayer's gull!" declares Rick Blom, a well-known Maryland bird-watcher and gull fancier. The bird, one of the rarest of the 17 gull species seen in Maryland, breeds at Baffin Island and other high Arctic sites.

Two decades of practice enable Mr. Blom to use subtle field marks to separate the species from the swirling mass of thousands of more common ring-billed gulls, herring gulls and great black-backed gulls at Conowingo Dam in northeastern Harford County.

"See how the underwing is almost entirely white?" he says.

Gulls, which seem to be everywhere in metropolitan Baltimore during winter, also are among the most challenging birds to study.

Motivated by that challenge -- and a desire to know more about these highly mobile, unpredictable birds -- a small, growing fraternity of gull-watchers fanned out across the state yesterday.

On the second annual "Gull Day," several dozen men and women positioned themselves at some of the finer -- and smellier -- birding spots in the state: Back River Waste Water Treatment Plant in eastern Baltimore County, Alpha Ridge landfill in Howard County, Millersville landfill near Annapolis, Montgomery County landfill near Laytonsville, and elsewhere.

This year, gull-watchers in Delaware also were recording sightings yesterday, and counters were in the Norfolk, Va., area and on a boat off Virginia Beach, Va.

The Maryland count, supplemented by the Delaware and Virginia data, is the only one of its kind in the country.

The churning water below Conowingo Dam, a smorgasbord of gizzard shad, is a magnet for the birds.

In some winters, gulls come by the tens of thousands to feast on stunned and dying shad that have gone through the dam's turbines.

The birds share the feast with bald eagles, common mergansers and other ducks, great blue herons and black-crowned night herons.

Roughly 36,000 of the 100,000 gulls seen on "Gull Day 1992" were spotted at the dam.

But yesterday, only about 1,500 gulls were feeding at the dam.

"This could be the smallest number of gulls I've ever seen at Conowingo," Mr. Blom says.

He and June Vaughn, a bird instructor employed by Philadelphia Electric Co. at the dam's visitors center, theorize that heavy rains have flushed many of the shad downstream, so the gulls simply may be feeding elsewhere.

But, Mr. Blom says, with double the number of gull-watching sites this year, the statewide count will probably be comparable to last year.

The "best" gull spotted at the dam by yesterday afternoon was a common black-headed gull, which breeds regularly in Europe and in much smaller numbers in Iceland and the Canadian maritime provinces.

A member of the same species -- possibly the same bird -- has been seen periodically at the dam since last month.

Learning the field marks of the different gulls, some of which change plumage four times before reaching adulthood, "is sort of like learning a foreign language," says Claudia Wilds, who has conducted gull-identification seminars for the past decade for the Chevy Chase-based Audubon Naturalist Society.

"It gives you a sense of accomplishment and power," she says.

Ms. Wilds, an associate editor of Birding magazine, also is author the book "Finding Birds in the National Capital Area." She is working on a field guide to gulls and terns of the world.

Gulls -- scavengers that eat just about anything -- are adapting extremely well to the human world, turning man's dumping grounds into their own fast-food restaurants.

They roost on the water at night and by day they commute to feeding areas.

"The population of gulls has absolutely exploded, primarily as a result of the increase in garbage and sewage," says Mr. Blom, a Bel Air resident and consultant for the popular National Geographic Society's "Field Guide to the Birds of North America."

Remember 1990 sighting?

That explosion has sent bird-watchers scrambling to find rarities, such as the diminutive and beautiful Ross's gull, which has been seen once in the state, at the Back River sewage plant in 1990.

That bird's dalliance with Baltimore's finest sewage attracted some 2,300 people from 16 states eager to add to their "life lists" of birds they've seen.

Most people know the birds as "sea gulls," and they could no more tell them apart than they could fly.

Although gulls frequent coastal areas, they also are at home in cities farther inland, at shopping centers, in farm fields and at school ball fields.

The birds are as skilled at finding cold french fries in a McDonald's parking lot in suburbia as they are at plucking small fish from around the mouth of a gorging humpback whale at sea.

"Gulls have some endearing qualities," Mr. Blom says.

They are tough, enduring, with members of some species living more than 30 years.

They wander great distances -- sometimes far from their species' normal haunts.

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