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Remember that gull we rescued last week? After my husband took it to Native Animal Rescue here in Santa Cruz it was transferred up to International Bird Rescue's San Francisco Bay Area center in Fairfield. I e-mailed and asked how the gull was doing and whether I'd be able to witness its release back to the ocean. Yesterday I received this response:

Hi Allison,

This is Cheryl Reynolds, the Volunteer Coordinator for Bird Rescue. Thank you so much for rescuing the juvenile Western Gull and getting him into care at Native Animal Rescue. Hooks and fishing line can cause severe injuries but fortunately this guy is doing okay at this time. He/she had surgery yesterday to repair some of the damage the line caused to his leg and is being treated with antibiotics. He's not totally out of the woods yet but luckily gulls are pretty tough! I'm giving you his case number here at Bird Rescue #17-1887 but I will be happy to follow up with you on his progress. 
To answer your other questions.. We don't have a timeline yet on release, it depends on how he progresses. We don't usually send the birds back to Santa Cruz, we have so many young gulls we like to release as a group and in an appropriate location locally. 
If you would like to contribute to this birds care please go to our website at https://www.bird-rescue.org/. You can also sign up to receive our Photo of the Week and patient updates and also find us on Facebook. 
Thanks again for caring for this birds welfare. 
Kind regards,
Cheryl
We hadn't realized that the fishing line wrapped around the bird's leg had caused damage that would require surgery. This makes me doubly glad that we were able to rescue it from the surface of Monterey Bay before the injuries became more severe. It sounds like the prognosis is good for this juvenile western gull, and I hope it and several of its cohort can be returned to the skies and sea very soon.

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This is the time of year when whales visit Monterey Bay and often come quite close to shore. Humpbacks, in particular, are commonly seen from beaches in the fall. Earlier in the summer they are out over the Monterey Canyon feeding on krill. In the late summer and early fall they switch to feeding on anchovies, which school in shallower water over the continental shelf. Last week they were putting on a show, to the delight of whale watchers who pay for whale watching trips out of Moss Landing and Santa Cruz.

Yesterday evening my husband and I borrowed a friend's little boat and went out looking for whales. A humpback had been seen from the beach around the cement ship at Seacliff State Beach, lunge-feeding and breaching. Even the Monterey Bay is a big body of water, and I'd rated our chance of finding a whale at about 50%. We did eventually find one swimming parallel to the shore. And I have pictures to prove it!

Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) near Aptos, CA
17 August 2017
© Allison J. Gong
Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) near Aptos, CA
17 August 2017
© Allison J. Gong

The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 prohibits humans from approaching any marine mammals, so we kept our distance. The whale undoubtedly knew we were there and it did get a little closer than this, right around the time that we noticed a flock of ~25 pelicans fly overhead and start circling over an area a short distance away. It was starting to get dark and we had to turn around and head back, and on our way we ended up where the pelicans were hanging out.

As we approached we could see a bird flapping about on the surface of the water, but unable to get airborne. It didn't take long for us to see that it was somehow tied up with a dead common murre and a piece of kelp. We were able to pull the kelp toward the boat and grab the live bird. It appeared to be a juvenile gull.

Here's the dead murre:

Dead common murre (Uria aalge) tangled in fishing line
17 August 2017
© Alex Johnson

And here's the gull:

Injured juvenile gull tangled in fishing line
17 August 2017
© Alex Johnson

It had a hook in its right nostril and a hook in each foot. The hook in its beak was attached to line that went around its body, making the bird unable to raise its head. Fortunately Alex was able to cut the line while I held the bird. We didn't have the tools to try removing the hooks, so we decided to head back in. We wrapped the bird loosely in a towel to keep it from flailing around and held onto it for the long, wet ride back to the harbor.

When we back on land I called the Marine Mammal Center because: (a) I had the number programmed into my phone; and (b) I knew they'd have a live person to answer the phone, who would be able to tell me who to call about this bird. The person I talked to transferred me to Pacific Wildlife Care in Morro Bay. The recorded message told me to place the bird in a box or pet carrier on a towel and leave it in a warm, dark place until we could bring it in the morning. We weren't about to make a 2.5-hr drive to Morro Bay, but fortunately there is an organization right here in Santa Cruz that we've taken animals to before: Native Animal Rescue. We got home, dug out the kitty carrier, and tucked the bird in for the night. The only warm place we could think of that the cats couldn't get to was the pantry, so the bird spent the night there.

Injured gull
17 August 2017
© Allison J. Gong

I had a school meeting this morning, so Alex took the bird to Native Animal Rescue. The woman who met him said the bird was a juvenile western gull (Larus occidentalis)--another WEGU. She took the bird out, wrapped it in a towel, and calmed it by simulating a hood on its head.

17 August 2017
© Alex Johnson
17 August 2017
© Alex Johnson

Poor bird. Fortunately the hooks went through the webbing in the feet, so there wasn't any damage to bones or soft tissue.

Fishing hooks in the feet of a juvenile western gull (Larus occidentalis)
17 August 2017
© Alex Johnson

The woman pulled the hook out of the nostril pretty easily. To remove the hooks from the feet she had to first cut the barbs and then pull them back out. Alex said the whole thing took about 5 minutes. The bird seems otherwise uninjured. The folks at Native Animal Rescue will keep an eye on it for a few days and then release it back to the wild. I think I'll give them a call tomorrow and see if we can be there when the bird is released.

Update Sunday 20 August: We called Native Animal Rescue this morning and were told that the bird had been transferred to a wildlife care facility up in Fairfield. All of the seabirds that come into Native Animal Rescue get sent up there. So we won't get to see "our" gull be released back into the wild.

Earlier this week I accidentally came upon a baby bird. I was on my way out to the cliff at the marine lab to dispose of a corpse (a fish that died of natural causes) when I noticed a western gull perched on the fence railing and allowing me to get unusually close. It was wary, though, and very alert. When I stopped to listen and watch for a while I heard a high-pitched "cheep-cheep-cheep" coming from beyond the shrubs on the other side of the fence. To get to the point where I could throw the dead fish off the cliff I had to pass closer than I wanted to the chick, which I could then see standing among the ground cover.

Western gull (Larus occidentalis) adult and chick at Terrace Point
2 August 2017
© Allison J. Gong

The western gull (Larus occidentalis), or WEGU in birders' parlance, is a California Current endemic species. It is a bird of the Pacific coast of North America, and is rarely found more than a few miles inland. So if you don't live right on the coast and have problems with gulls in landfills or parks, you cannot pin the blame on a WEGU. Western gulls are present year-round, feeding on whatever they can get. Like many gulls they are quite efficient scavengers and have a varied diet that often includes human refuse. They have become quite adapted to human presence, and have taken advantage of the fact that we tend to leave our garbage all over the place.

Western gull (Larus occidentalis) adult and chick at Terrace Point
5 August 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Yesterday the chick was in the same area, only a little more visible from directly above. I'd seen as many as five adults hanging around the chick, with no idea who the actual parents are. The chick is big and feathered enough to thermoregulate on its own but is still entirely dependent on its parents (and other cooperative adults) for food.

Being a gull, it is very vocal. It doesn't sound like a gull, though. The calls sound like they're coming from a much smaller bird. It cheeped continuously during the 20 minutes or so I was watching it, even with its parents standing right next to it. When this chick fledges, the only direction it can go is out over the water. Unless it can steer its flight well enough to land on one of the intertidal benches to the left of its present location, it'll end up in the water. I imagine it will be able to swim just fine, but the next thing it will have to learn is how to get up in the air from the water.

Western gulls do not migrate and, garbage notwithstanding, depend on the California Current for most of their food. And while it may seem that there are gulls all over the place with plenty to burn, the WEGU's restricted range makes this species vulnerable to perturbations in the ecology of the coastal ocean. Not only might their food supply be interrupted as prey species' distributions change, but their nesting sites on cliffs may be inundated as sea level rises due to climate change.

Western gull (L. occidentalis) in adult breeding plumage
5 August 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Gulls have a reputation as trash birds, but the adult WEGU really is beautiful. Their large-ish body size, pure white head and front, and pink legs/feet are pretty distinctive. WEGUs are the only gulls that I feel at all comfortable IDing in the field, and that's only when the birds are in adult plumage. This species, and many other gull species, takes four years to attain the adult coloration. The juveniles of many species all look very similar, which makes field identification a hazardous exercise. To make things even more complicated, western gulls are known to hybridize with the glaucous-winged gull (Larus glaucescens); fortunately for California birders, the hybridization zone is further north in Washington State.

Seabirds of all types depend on their feathers for insulation. Small-bodied endotherms like birds have an unfavorable surface area:volume ratio and would be unable to maintain their body temperature in cold water if they didn't have insulation. One of the adaptations that enables a life in cold water is a preen gland near the base of the tail. This gland secretes an oily substance that the bird spreads over its feathers as a waterproof coating, very effectively shielding the body from the cold water. Feathers themselves have water-shedding properties of their own, but augmenting this feature with oil is sheer genius. You've heard the phrase "like water off a duck's back"? We can say that because ducks and other water fowl have preen glands.

Feathers must be clean and lie properly for a bird to fly and thermoregulate, and birds at rest spend a lot of time grooming. All birds preen, but for aquatic birds this activity is especially crucial. Watching a bird preen is like watching a cat take a bath: the sequence of actions appears to be haphazard, but eventually the whole body gets attention.

The red-tailed hawk parents across the canyon are being kept busy by their hungry chicks. This year they have a trio of youngsters to feed--last year they successfully fledged two chicks--but apparently they've not had any trouble finding enough food for all three of them. If I had the luxury of staying home all day to watch hawks I'd probably get to see several feedings throughout the day. As it is, most days this week I've been able to watch a late afternoon feeding when I come home.

The chicks are now big enough to thermoregulate on their own, and quite often will be left in the nest alone for extended periods. The other day when I was home for lunch I happened to see the mama hawk fly up the canyon and alight in a pine tree close to my house. A quick check of the nest showed that the chicks were sleeping (I didn't see any fuzzy lumps above the rim of the nest) so I concentrated on the mom and was able to take this photo:

Female red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), taking a break from nest duties. 13 April 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Female red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), taking a mid-day break from nest duties.
13 April 2016
© Allison J. Gong

All told she was away from the nest for about 15 minutes. She basked in the sun, did a bit of preening, and spent quite a lot of time looking down (I assume for prey on the ground). A raven and a pair of Anna's hummingbirds tried to engage her in some extracurricular activity, but she ignored them.

This afternoon I got home at about 17:30 and went out back to check on the nest. Turns out I made it home just in time to view the evening feeding. One of the parents, I couldn't tell which, was feeding the chicks long bloody strips of some mammal that had gray fur. All three chicks were fed. Here, see for yourself:

The chicks are growing real feathers now and look like awkward pre-adolescents. They've lost the cuteness of the fluffy baby stage and haven't yet attained the badassness of their parents. In fact, right now they're downright ugly. In the next couple of weeks they'll start looking like punky teenagers as their feathers continue to come in. They'll also spend more time walking around the nest.

Oh, and by the way, the nest is attracting flies now. Good thing birds don't have a keen sense of smell, because it's gotta be pretty stinky up there, what with all the bird poop and rotting bits of previous meals. Also good (for the humans in the neighborhood) that the nest is about 100 feet above the ground.

Our nesting red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) across the canyon have THREE chicks! Last year they successfully fledged two. This year we weren't sure how many chicks were in the nest until I saw three white fuzzy heads today. The proof is in the pudding, as they say. Or more precisely, in this video:

The parents have a lot of work to do in the next few weeks. For us human observers on the ground, it'll be fun watching the chicks get bigger, grow feathers, and hopefully take their first flights. Stay tuned!

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