Sunday, August 22, 2010

No Laughing Matter - Gulls Hawking Ants

"Hear me laugh! Hear me roar!" Seriously, folks: to hear me laugh, click here Laughing_Gull/sounds
"It's not sensor dust, swear to God!"
The gull on the bottom right is a Bonaparte's, also called 'Bonnies." The other three are Laughing gulls.
    When birds catch insects in midair, it's called 'hawking.' Hawks actually catch prey with their feet, not their beaks, and they take the prey back to a perch to eat it. Other birds can eat in mid air unless the insect is too big, like a moth or a Cicada. Someone back in birding history thought that the behavior resembled that of hawks. So, that's what it's called.
     In late August each year, I observe Laughing gulls and Common terns, hawking flying ants in mid air. Large colonies of the ants swarm up out of the ground quite suddenly. Born aloft on summer thermals clouds of them fill the sky, land in the swimming pool and catch in my clothing. If our dog goes outside while this is taking place, he comes back in with ant riders on his back, too. Yippee kai-oh, kai-ay!
    This event lasts  for just a few hours at our house, but occurs other places, too. Suddenly, the air is filled with strident gulls whirling around and sounding like inmates at an insane asylum. The gulls rival the acrobatics of swallows in their aerial quest. They twist, turn, spiral, dip, swoop, hover, dive and every maneuver other than curtsy while feasting on the ants. In some of these photos, you can see the flying ants. I know, I know: some of you digital photographers are going to say that those specks are dust on my sensor. Not so. You'll just have to trust me on that. I hate it when people say, "Trust me," like some kind of command. Invariably, whatever statement has bracketed that dictum rarely ever proves totally 'trustworthy.' That said, the specks really are ants. Honest. After all, this is about birding, which is very  serious. I wouldn't kid about that. I would just lie outright. Insert smiley face here. Remember that you can double click on any image on this blog to see more detail. Or, trust me. It's not a laughing matter. 
     Laughing gulls certainly don't think it's funny business, though their vocalizations sound like they are laughing constantly. You can go to the head of the class if you figured out that's where the name came from. Ants are a big part of their diet, though they are omnivorous and  will eat any garbage or other thing they can catch.  Laughing gulls are in the group of "hooded gulls." It's not because they are hoods or thieves, but from their black heads which look like they're wearing hoods. Franklin gulls, Black-headed and Bonaparte's gulls look a lot like them. Franklin and Black-headed gulls are not common here, though Bonaparte's are. And listen, Smarty-pants, Bonaparte was a famous ornithologist in the 1800s. The gulls were named after him, not after the French emperor with his hands stuck in his shirt (though they were related).  
     In Maine, Laughing gulls are migratory. They go to South America and most anywhere that's warmer than here. In other parts of the country, Laughing gulls hang around airports and get into engines of jets causing crashes. This is a big, scary problem if you are a passenger and also if you are a gull. "Measures," are taken to control the gulls' population for this reason. Eliminating the ant colonies is one of the measures. Even though the gulls laugh all the time, no matter where they are, they don't think any of this is funny. 

These are Bonaparte's gulls. "Note the extensive white in the wingtips with the narrow band of black on the trailing edge of the wingtip as opposed to the broad black area in the wingtips of the Laughing Gulls," says birder Jeff Wells. Thanks, Jeff!

"If you're not laughing with me, you're laughing at me!"
This is a Laughing gull. He's laughing because he knows I'm probably going to screw up the identifications of him and his pals.

This is an interesting research paper about Laughing gulls hawking ants and biologists shooting the gulls to check their stomach contents. The gulls were hanging around Kennedy National Airport. Can you imagine gorging yourself at an all-you-can-eat buffet only to have a scientist shoot you to examine your stomach contents? Now that's enough to make you think twice about going up to the bar for that fifth plate, isn't it!  Laughing gull guts or "Temporal Variation in Terrestrial Invertebrate Consumption by Laughing Gulls in New York" is the title. Who's laughing now?

Jeff Wells is a noted Maine birder with a nice web site. He talks about gulls hawking ants here

If you want to know more about Charles_Lucien_Bonaparte the ornithologist, click on his name.

Paul Garritty also has a nice birding site in Maine. Here's a link to his page on gulls in Maine:

Thanks to Wikipedia, and David Allen Sibley's The Sibley Guide To Birds  for some of the information.


  1. Well, Robin, I join the Laughing Gulls to laugh at this piece! It's delightful, as usual. And informative. And beautiful. Your photography replenishes my soul.

    I love gulls of any type--the laughing gulls make a home for themselves in my favorite place in the US, the Outer Banks of NC. My sister lives there all year now and my family and I used to go there for vacations. My son and I would walk for miles on the beach when he was younger and laugh with the gulls (neither of us needed much of an excuse to giggle--still don't, actually). So this brought back some lovely, happy memories. Thank you.

    Rated. D
    Yarn Over

  2. Just don't call 'em Sea Gulls! Heehee Still trying to break my wife of that habit.

    We had some ants flying around for a few hours the other day, but it was a Great-crested Flycatcher, several Catbirds, an Eastern Phoebe and a Belted Kingfisher that was devouring the insects. It was strange to see the Kingfisher eating ants! It was even stranger that my prized photography equipment was in the other car which was at least an hour from our home. I just sat by the picture window watching in amazement at the incredible action going on whilst I was camera-less.

    Great photography Robin!


  3. Ouch, John! That made me wince reading about your equipment not being at hand. I feel your pain, brother! Thanks for the compliment.

  4. That photo you have at the top is beautiful. Where is it?

  5. Thank you, MM.
    It's Seawall beach looking east from Small Point, in Phippsburg.

  6. Hi Robin,

    Love the blog!

    You’ve got some great photos there. You probably know this already but 5 of your photographs in the blog are of Bonaparte’s Gulls.

    Thanks for a great blog!


  7. Yum! For the sand lances. And especially Yum! for the photos and words! There were a LOT of takers at that buffet, huh. I know some say that anthropomorphizing animals is a sign of--something bad (I can't remember what)--but, you know, these pics and descriptions put me in mind of a place I remember in WI called The Old Country Buffet. You paid one price and grazed for as long as you want. People went there and ate. And ate. And then ate some more--wanting to get their money's worth, I suppose. I could have replaced the humans there with these birds--and that silly seal!

    Thanks for this, Robin. You've been busy lately! Rated. D
    Yarn Over
    August 24, 2010 12:12

  8. Lovely. Loved the Feeds (replishes?) my soul comment.srb

  9. Love that last shot! How cool to see the flying ants, too. Great shooting!

  10. Thanks, Mary. The Laughing gulls are are out here as I write again zooming after ants.

  11. Beautiful graceful shots, wonderful light!!

  12. Thanks you very much, Linda. Took a whole team of key grips to come up with that lighting effect. Ha! God the key grip!

  13. Now this is some serious fun! And if by chance the Entomologists don't agree we'll give 'em the "bird" alright!

  14. Like your post very much. A beautiful set of images.

  15. Great photos and I found it especially interesting that you see Common Terns 'hawking' for insects.

  16. Springmand and Fotokarusellen, Thanks a lot for viewing and commenting. Love it, Springman -"give 'em the bird," is right! Ha ha!

  17. I don't know much about birds, but I am extremely imposed by all of you guys who are using all your time for birds-watching and shooting such beautiful pictures. This particular bird I know, but it is really nice captured by you.