Craig Johnson photo — A glaucous-winged gull with a crab snack wades along the shoreline.

Whidbey gulls flock during crab season

The minute crabbing season opens, I begin to notice our gulls.

My husband and I spend more time at the beach untangling the crab pot line, making sure the trap is weighted so it won’t drift away with the currents, baiting the trap and rowing the dingy nearly out to the drop off. We paddle around a bit looking for the perfect spot to drop our pot. Then we leisurely row back to shore.

If the trip out is successful and crabs are scraping at the inside of our bucket, the gulls reach the shore before we do. They know any leftover crab bait will be tossed their way and later, after the crabs are cleaned, they’ll consume a gooey feast.

When crab season opens around the first of July, the most common gull around Whidbey is the glaucous-winged gull. It’s our typical gray and white, yellow-billed, pink legged, Ivar’s fish-and-chips gull. They hang around our ferry docks and any place where food is waiting to be scavenged.

A couple of these gulls usually nest on top of the dolphins (those pilings that direct the ferries into the loading docks) at both Clinton and Keystone. Scampering up to the passenger deck at the end closest to the dock and looking down on the pilings before the boat departs may offer a bird’s eye view of the nests.

Glaucous-winged gulls also like to lay their eggs on the flat roofs of buildings near the water. They create a simple nest of dried grass or seaweed.

By the end of July, the young begin leaving their nests. These milky-brownish feathered gulls are the same size as their parents but still depend on them for food. The juveniles emit a high-pitched plea for attention from their parents, or any other gull-like bird on the beach. They will beg for food into the fall, but eventually learn to scavenge on their own.

And scavenge they do! These gulls frequent garbage dumps, will eat carrion, fish, invertebrates and seaweed. They might even grab a rabbit or pigeon as well as other birds’ chicks.

If you’ve spent any time on one of our beaches, you’ve seen a glaucous-winged gull take a clam or barnacle in its beak, fly high above a hard surface and drop the food item to break it open. The bird swoops down quickly to consume the prize, knowing that other gulls are waiting to dart in and snatch the snack.

By the time crabbing season closes around Labor Day, several more gull species will have joined the glaucous-winged gulls on our beaches. Smaller, black-headed Bonaparte gulls likely will arrive first. They’re followed by the distinctive Heerman’s gull with a darkish body, white head and red bill. Also, mew, California and ring-billed gulls will gather. And fewer herring and thayer’s gulls will mix into the flocks.

Gull identification is a bird watchers challenge or nightmare, depending on the experience of the birder. The adult birds have only subtle differences and the young molt through several phases of coloring before attaining adult plumage. And to confuse the identification process even more, some species crossbreed to create a hybrid.

Another gull-looking bird to watch for is the elegant Caspian tern, the largest tern in North America. A stark black head cap and a large, red-orange, carrot-like bill identify these long-winged, white-bodied birds. Caspian terns patrol the water off our beaches searching for fish. In a dramatic change of direction, they plunge-dive into the water to catch prey.

By fall, up to nine species create a mélange of gulls and terns sailing over our beaches, gathering at fresh water outfalls, topping pilings and settling on docks, boats and decks.

Craig Johnson photo — Three glaucous-winged gulls perch on a rock.

More in Life

Freeland artist not just dabbling in lots of dots

Renee Boyce rocks the trendy mandala market

Gathering to praise the peacemakers

Freeland event to celebrate Martin Luther King

Rose Rydeen and David Gregor (Photo provided)
Exploring love’s mystery and memory

Late-life romance subject of David Gregor’s latest book

Making dolls to make a difference in Mexico

Sewing bee focuses on moms, infants in rural Chiapas

Farmer and Vine offers more than wine

The hosts of a new wine bar on Whidbey invite guests to… Continue reading

New owner buys Freeland’s popular Whidbey Art Escape

Do-it-yourself craft spot bids good-bye to Tina Beard

‘Bearing’ it for New Year’s Day tradition

Polar Bear Plunge attracts hundreds on sunny day

Art & About gallery shows for January 2019

FIRST SATURDAY Langley Art Walk is 5-7 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 5.… Continue reading

LeRoy Bell plays at Whidbey Center for the Arts Jan. 19. (Photo provided)
LeRoy Bell back on Whidbey Jan. 19

Popular performer at festivals takes to WICA stage

Sound Waters University set for Feb. 2 in Langley

Registration begins Dec. 28 for all-day classes on Salish Sea

‘King of prime rib’ wins state honor

South Whidbey Legion Post chef is named Volunteer of the Year

Watch out for polar bear plunging Tuesday

Double Bluff tradition dives into 2019