There are days when the seagulls sit on the rocks and water in the bay in their hundreds. In our family we call it a seagull conference, as though they’re there to discuss their business and prepare a plan for the future. I don’t know what they’re doing. In the summer I don’t like to swim on conference days as their feathers end up floating on the water and I have a conviction that gulls are dirty. Just as people call pigeons ‘rats of the sky’, I’ve been told that seagulls are scavengers and my mind repeats an alarming phrase when I see those floating feathers and dung-covered rocks—avian flu.

On this day, when I hope I’m recovering from tonsillitis, too sick to walk very far or fast, but plain tired of my sick bed, I sit and watch the gulls. They sit on the rocks or in the water facing out to sea and they fill the space of a large oblong paddock.

They don’t seem to be doing much, not that I can see at first. Every now and then a group will set up a call, Yaw-Yaw-Yaw, which gets passed around to another group—a circling acknowledgement determining who is here. I think of it like the phone tree we used to use at Playcentre to remind people of meetings in the days when not everyone had email or used texts. Not all groups respond, but enough for the Yaw-Yaw-Yaw to sound to my human ear as if the sound is being kicked round the paddock like a rugby ball.

Then a different noise begins in front of me, a higher pitched, agitated and agitating trill. A small gull is annoyed at another gull who has landed close to where it’s sitting. It trills and juts its head at the intruder, its beak opens as if to bite it. This goes on for a minute then the intruder flies to a rock close by, where its neighbours pay it little attention until the trilling gull flies over to continue agitating. This small gull then proceeds to agitate most of the gulls on that rock until they trill and bite back, forcing it to move to a different rock.

What is the point of all of this trilling and jutting and pecking? Who is bullying whom? I don’t think the bullying is that clear cut, I think they’re taking turns dominating each other, establishing territories. But I’m only thinking this—it’s not a fact and I’m no twitcher.

The next day I see Michael, a friend of ours who is a long-time twitcher. It’s Michael who a couple of years ago told us that the tarāpunga (red-billed gull), and tarāpuka, (black-billed gulls) were native and endangered. I’d never thought of gulls as being of Aotearoa or in trouble before.

Michael cycles the coast with binoculars around his neck. He’s out to look for birds. We regularly have shags drying their wings on the rocks, last week he saw an albatross amongst a group of sea birds when a sudden southerly current pushed them closer to the coast than you’d normally see them. We’ve also had pods of dolphins playing in the bay a lot the last few weeks. We comment on the person who’s been taking their jet ski out to ride around the dolphins.

‘What makes people think they can do that?’ I ask Michael and David.

We make the judgment that anyone who owns a jet ski is someone for whom everything around them tells them they’re right. I ask Michael what the seagulls are doing, grouped there.

‘Not much,’ he shrugs. ‘They’re just doing what they’ve done for years, sitting.’

This response is disappointing to me. I want the seagulls to be communing, to be sharing information gathered out at sea, some ancient seagull wisdom. And maybe they are.

Or maybe they’re just doing what Michael says they’re doing—hanging out.

 


Note to readers:

I’ve had a long break from this blog. I stopped doing interviews with workers because the interviewing and transcribing was taking up any other fiction writing time I had. Now that my book is out (it’s called Tess and you can buy it in the shops!) I’m hoping to have some space to write here again. I’m going to stick to my bay, my coastline—there’s always interesting stuff going on, and it’s a good discipline for me to watch the birds and sea and remember how fortunate I am to live here. Sometimes I’ll post photos because I have them and I want to, but mainly I intend to write without pictures, which is so early-20th century of me, I know. I remain firmly of the conviction that words paint a thousand pictures.

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