I wake up in the morning and I say Ahh! Today’s the day for a song!
~Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys
I went on a rambling road trip last week to search for some migrating waterfowl and shoot a few images of something other than the weird bugs and fungi I have photographed recently (not that there’s anything wrong with that:) I started my quest at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia. I drove out next to the beach at sunset and found several gulls resting in the late afternoon sunshine. One immature gull was perched on a sign post next to the parking lot.
As I pulled up, the bird gave me the… well, an apparent opinion on my presence, or was it? It opened its beak wide, closed it, and repeated. Another car came by and my friend flew off leaving me wondering about this behavior. I have seen it before, especially in gulls…a repeated opening and closing of the beak while seemingly resting on the beach.
I found another group of gulls just down the beach that were enjoying a late afternoon bath in a freshwater pool in the sand. I shot a few pictures out the window, and then…
…another gape. So, is it me? Am I that boring? Is it a yawn? An online search that evening yielded little in terms of an explanation. When searching about birds using the term, “gape”, which to me means to open wide, the discussion was instead on the technical term relating to a part of a bird’s anatomy. The gape is the interior of the open mouth of a bird. It is common for the young of many species of birds to have brightly colored gapes which is believed to induce feeding by parent birds. When I googled gulls opening and closing their beak rapidly, I got things like threat displays of some birds, begging for food by young (and, in some species, females that are being wooed by a male), and the possibility of something being stuck in the throat of the bird with mouth ajar. There is even a parasitic nematode that irritates the trachea of an infected bird causing a disease known as “the gapes”. But, it seems like that is more prevalent in young poultry and pheasants.
So, I guess I am still unclear as to why the gulls are doing this. The light was fading, and as I started to head back to the hotel I noticed a Royal Tern sitting atop a low dune.
As I pulled up…yup, he gave me the gape. Maybe I am overthinking this, and it really is just a sigh of relief, or a yawn, after a long hard day. If I check, they are probably doing the same thing on Monday mornings. I think I remember seeing that in some of my human counterparts back at the museum.