Thursday, September 13, 2007
On the Aquarium of the Pacific’s opening day back in June of 1998, visitors were surprised as an antenna equipped seagull flew low over their heads and into the seal and sea lion exhibit, landing on the rock cliff facade at the back. I remember one guest coming up to me and complementing the Aquarium on how realistic its robotic bird was. However, the gull with the wire sticking out the back of its wings was not a radio controlled robot; it was actually a wild avian that had chosen the exhibit as its home.
“Radio Flyer” as he was nicknamed by the staff, was a wild Western gull that had a radio transmitter mounted on his back. A survivor of an oil spill, the tracking device was used to track his movements after his rehabilitation. I've always wondered how confusing it must have been for the scientist that was tracking Radio Flyer when the gull decided to nest on the artificial cliffs of the Aquarium of the Pacific’s pinniped exhibit instead of heading out to the real cliffs of the Channel Islands.
That first summer, Flyer and his mate, who we called Trixie, would raise three chicks while trainers and volunteers would feed and train the seals and sea lions on the deck below them. As all the animals of the exhibit seemed to take a live and let live attitude with them, the gull pair decided that this was a good place to call home permanently. Every summer, Radio Flyer and Trixie would build their nest and raise their brood in the exhibit. After a few weeks the chicks would eventually take their first steps out of the nest and into the exhibit itself where the staff would have to work their animals around the wanderings of the fledglings. They would also have to dodge the swoops of the parents as they instinctively protected their chicks. Live and let live did not extend to most of the humans in the exhibit while the helpless chicks were on the deck.
Because of this resident pair of seabirds, every summer after the chicks had fully fledged and flown off, the volunteers would have the joy of cleaning out the rocky area around their nest. Not only did we have to clean up after the protein rich diets of the seals and sea lions on the deck, we would also have to clean out a summer’s worth of gull droppings and nesting material on top of the rock facade. We did this with the knowledge that next year these gulls would rebuild their nest and start the process all over again.
Every now and then a chick would get into trouble where a staff member would have to intercede and physically pick them up. Most of the time this was met with the swooping upon by an angry parent gull. However, last summer I had to catch a fledgling that had somehow gotten on the wrong side of the exhibit glass where he was very vulnerable, and toss him back into the exhibit so that the parents could take care of it safely. Radio Flyer was watching me from the top of the glass as I picked up his kid so I was fully expecting to be swooped upon. The swoops never came. I guess by that time, Radio Flyer had gotten so used to me over the years and figured that I wasn’t doing any harm to his chick as he just stayed where he was until the baby gull was back in the exhibit and then flew over to feed it.
The last time I saw Radio Flyer in the exhibit was this past February. It’s a mystery on what happened to him. Rumor has it that he moved up in the world and built his new nest on top of the elevator building overlooking Shark Lagoon. I hope so.
With Flyer gone, I wasn’t expecting to see a nest in the exhibit this year, but come spring, a totally different pair of Western gulls started setting up house on the rock wall. These gulls seemed very used to people which led a few folks in the mammal and bird staff to think that they might be some of Radio Flyer’s descendants. And sure enough this summer, three Western gull chicks were hatched and fledged in the exhibit. It’s a small circle of life but one that I’ve come to enjoy every year.
While on the subject of Gulls:
Western Gulls, of which species Radio Flyer and the current nesting pair are, generally don’t harass the staff in the seal and sea lion exhibit during feeds. They mostly non-aggressively hang back during the session, waiting for fish that are accidentally dropped by the sea lions or seals. This behavior is a bit unique because in other locales, Western gulls can be quite aggressive in stealing fish from people and animals.
On the other hand, for us, Heermann's gulls can be a pain. These bold, orange beaked seabirds will dive, swoop and harass the trainers and animals to get at the fish being fed. They will even take a fish right out of the mouth of a sea lion. Thank goodness these gulls, unlike the Western gulls, are seasonal visitors so we don’t have to deal with them year-round.
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