Visitor: There’s a bird just standing outside on the deck watching us.
Me: Oh, that’s Bruce.
We have a love/ hate relationship with the Black Backs; we hate that they will eat endangered Dotterel chicks. But they’re a noble and majestic bird, with character. They are magnificent fliers – Nigel watches them enviously when they soar effortlessly high in the air, not flapping a wing.
They do spend quite a bit of time on land, walking about (Nigel laments: why walk when you can soar?) Bruce usually follows me on my lunch time walk, on foot, like a dog, waiting patiently for my apple core.
Sharing an island territory means we’ve got to know Bruce and Carol’s idiosyncrasies quite well.
From their cries we knew if a hawk is flying past, from their keening if their nest is in danger, or from their ear splitting territorial call if another gull is flying past. When Bruce and Carol greet each other they almost coo.
Bruce is very much the patriarch, bossy and bolder he stands on our deck and drinks from the dogs water bowl and even ventures inside our unit while Carol waits below on the grass. He is bigger than Carol, he always eats more, he eats first and quite often he will nip Carol or chase her from his food.
He’s the boss – and at the top of the pecking order on the island; lording over all the other birds, even the Weka.
But Carol is the one who flies after and chases away other gulls.
We know when Carol is ready to lay her eggs as we’ll see Bruce regurgitating food for her. She is a diligent mother, never leaving the nest once she’s laid her eggs. (Apparently incubation is shared; but we always think it’s Carol on the nest).
Once the chick is older, though, Carol hands the feeding responsibly back to Bruce by carefully side-stepping any begging chick.
Together Bruce and Carol make a formidable couple, seeing off the local hawk, defending their territory and raising a chick or two each year. They’re always together, sometimes snuggled close – but not too close – on the bank overlooking the beach like an old married couple. Their loyalty and closeness always makes me smile. I have much respect for these two.
We throw Bruce and Carol the odd scrap – they’ll swallow a chicken leg in one gulp. Otherwise they eat shellfish like limpets, turban shells and kina. They drop the shells on the concrete jetty to break open the shell to get the snail inside; or swallow a limpet whole and then ‘throw up’ the hard shells (or bones) once their stomach juices have melted the meat away. We often see – what we call fur balls – on the jetty; round balls made up of fragments of limpet shells and similar. (The correct term for these balls is ‘pellets’).
We’ve been privy to a few of Bruce and Carol’s breeding seasons. Their favourite nesting site is ‘gull rock’ which unfortunately is a very low, narrow rock out in the sea, and with a high tide and a stormy, strong South Westerly wind, the waves wash over the top of the rock – and their nest.
One season it was heartbreaking to watch Carol fly over and over the rock calling out to her chicks as the waves crashed over the rock, eventually drowning them. We were powerless to help in the huge waves.
Their second favourite nesting site – after being washed out on Gull Rock is the end of the Island jetty; safe from crashing waves but over summer used by visiting boats, people and dogs.
One year we were able to watch up close as ‘Jeffrey’ the chick hatched, and grew up on the jetty.
The Black Backed Gulls are conscientious parents, fiercely protective of their young, regurgitating food, patiently answering their off-springs incessant begging for food, yet when It comes time to mate for another round of chicks, Bruce will turn on his almost year-old chicks with vengeance, and chase them away.
This is his turf and he is the boss. With Carol.