Gull Song - Autumn Notes by Esther Woolfson

Esther Woolfson

06 September 2013

The award-winning nature diarist Esther Woolfson heralds the signs of autumn in the third of her guest blog posts for Friends of the Earth.

The change from summer to autumn here in Aberdeen is in more than the weather. It’s in more than the sudden chills, the brisk rain, the wind that’s already whisking leaves from trees. It’s in sound too. The gull-clamour of August in a maritime city is over. Everything is - if not exactly silent - then quieter. The lovely, loud and resonant chorus of herring-gull voices at nesting-time has changed from defence to declamation.

By now, all the nests I watched during our warm and unexpected summer are empty. The one tucked high between granite wall and chimney above a line of chain stores has been vacated, the ones above the lawyers’ offices too, the one on the roof across the road. No Larus argentatus heads peer calmly down upon the scurrying human world. The city’s no longer the gull nursery it was; the wonderful, vibrant time of gull pairs re-uniting to mate, of nesting and sitting, calling and flight, of the displays of parental and infant behaviour, is over for the year. The long-legged fawn and brown infants squeaking and begging at the edge of every roof, on every pavement, have grown and are feeding themselves, or at least the ones who have survived the perils of the season.

Walking through the city a few weeks ago, I saw small feathered corpses everywhere, some smashed and flattened by traffic, some still perfect, newly killed. In a back lane, I found two infant gulls huddled dangerously on the ground in front of a garage, peeping loudly, and although I wanted to move them, I couldn’t - there wasn’t anywhere safe or accessible to put them and the watching parent wouldn’t have accepted my trying. As I passed, the gull flew after me, skimming my head with its foot.  (Might a fold-up ladder and collapsible steel helmet be handy accoutrements for gull lovers in August? Does any behaviour demonstrate better a bird’s care for its young and capacity for emotion? Would any of us not do the same?)

Now that nesting’s over, perhaps the human clamour of the season will subside, the annual complaints against the activities of  ‘seagulls’. In our usual casual, anthropocentric way, we use this one incorrect word to describe and decry one of the most complex and diverse of avian families. In complaint against their noise, their dirt, their aggression, we forget our own.

At this time of autumn migrations, I’m pleased to know that at least some of the gulls will stay, that their voices will make up for others’ silence. Somehow, there’s always a sense of comfort in knowing that whatever, as fellow-inhabitants of this city, we’re approaching winter together.

Read Esther's summer blog here.

Esther Woolfson is the author of Corvus - A Life With Birds. Her latest book, Field Notes From a Hidden City - An Urban Nature Diary, is published by Granta. Esther lives in Aberdeen with an elderly rook, a young crow and the 14 inhabitants of a dove-house in the garden.  

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