|Kurt Plinke, Artist and Naturalist
Between the Waters
life, Art and The Nature of things Between the Atlantic and the Chesapeake
They laugh at us from the clouds ...and from the fields, and from the parking lots and the Boardwalk. It's as though the heavens constantly mock and tease us, practically wherever we are on the Eastern Shore.
This is a blog on one level that is about wildlife on the Shore. On another level, it highlights the subject of June's workshop in the studio. But it goes deeper than that, beyond some words describing a species of bird called the Laughing Gull. These birds and their echoing calls are so much a part of what life on the Eastern Shore is about that it would be hard to imagine what this place would be like without them. Their call sort of seeps into everyone here, a constant reminder that while many are farmers or spend every day in a building and not on a boat, we are never far from water... just to the East the Atlantic, just to the West the Chesapeake.
I remember moving to the Shore from Ohio a few decades ago, and being in a state of constant amazement at the clouds of bright gray and white noisy birds with the black heads, dancing high overhead. They always seemed to be there. Other times, as a disk or plow turned the ground in some field, I watched as gulls followed the tractor like billowing fluffs of dust, all the while drowning out the motor with constant stuttering laughter. Coming from Ohio, where we called them all "Seagulls," (as opposed to "Gulls") seeing clouds of Laughing Gulls out in a farm field was a cultural and locational shock.
Even at the big box stores or fast food places in Denton, Easton or Dover, walking from your car to the door can sometimes seem like an obstacle course as gulls loiter nearby or run around near your feet, hoping that something edible is dropped. They hang around in little gangs, like street toughs, looking to accost anyone who looks sideways at them.
Of course, Ocean City and the surrounding beaches are filled with Laughing Gulls all Summer long. If you are brave enough to buy some Thrasher's french fries up on the boardwalk, you are surrounded by them, laughingly demanding that you toss a fry into the air. Seeing their insistent begging, every child has to try to feed a gull. Only once, though. They innocently and happily throw a piece of hotdog bun or a fry upwards, and then the mayhem begins. first two, then four, then hundreds of gulls flap in a mass around the child, each one loudly demanding to be fed. The scene is straight out of a Hitchcock movie. Eventually, the cloud of gulls melts away, two or three at a time to go back to their regular stations in the sand, while the now-wiser child stands on the boardwalk, just a teensy bit fearful of the ubiquitous black-headed beach birds.
What would really frighten a child, however, would be a stroll through a Laughing Gull rookery. These birds, along with Ring-billed Gulls, Herring Gulls, Skimmers, Terns and a few other communally-nesting species gather on isolated small sand spits in the Chesapeake Bay and in the back bay between Atlantic barrier islands and the mainland. On these islands thousands of birds nest, packed together beak-to-tail. Their constant flitting and flapping and their deafening calls make the island seem almost like a living being, settled low to the water. Once eggs have hatched, the young birds cover the sand as parents ferry small fish, crabs and scraps from the beaches to their hungry youngsters. Soon the new gulls are able to fly, and head to the beaches, fields and parking lots, looking for food on their own.
In the Fall, Laughing Gulls lose their high-contrast headgear as they molt their Summer feathers for more drab winter dress. The once-dapper flocks then leave the Eastern Shore for warmer weather. Some settle in Florida, while others go farther, sometimes all the way to northern Central America. It's strange to suddenly no have laughter echoing from the sky. They leave at about the same time other calls begin. Canada Geese, Snow Geese, and Tundra Swans all have distinctive calls, each dong their part to fill the void left by the absence of the Laughing Gull.
For me, the honking of geese just can't replace the raucous laughter that drifts from the clouds of Summer. Farmers in the fields notice the absence, the large blacktopped lots seem just a little barren, and the beach is a lonelier place without them. Laughing Gulls are one of the things that Make the Eastern Shore it's own place. Their echoing laughter and cackling from high overhead tell us where we are... and in a sense, who we are. Without them, we might as well be in Ohio, or Kansas, or Oklahoma, where the tractors just raise clouds of dust, and children who drop a bit of sandwich in a parking lot don't feel the amazement as a flock of black, gray and white creatures swoop down to boisterously bicker over the sudden treat.
"Painting a Summer Gull" This month, if you participate in the watercolor workshop at Sewell Mills Studio on June 28th, you'll get a good idea of how to paint a Laughing Gull, taking home a representation of an icon of the Eastern Shore heritage and way of life. During the workshop, we'll all paint a Summer Laughing Gull, perched on a post. The clean white and gray feathering will present an interesting challenge; how to add subtle texture to the virtually smooth birds. The challenge is not insurmountable. In fact, people new to watercolors will quickly see that a bit of layering will give their paintings a feeling of volume and form, all the while giving their gull just the right amount of "feather feel." I hope to see you there.
Summer Plein Air: Over June and July, I'll be taking part in several plein air painting competitions. I plan to post daily blogs during these events; what I've painted and what I've seen. It should be an interesting Summer.
Kurt Plinke: About Life, Art and the Nature of Things on the Eastern Shore
I write about things I've noticed, places I've been, plans I've made and paintings I've finished or am thinking about.
See recent naturalist observations I have posted on iNaturalist: