Friday, May 09, 2008



Monday evening I stopped to watch a bunch of seagulls clustered together out on the last bit of floating "rotten" ice out on the lake, but they were too far out to actually see what they were doing.

Then, yesterday afternoon as I waited to pick up Z from his guitar lesson I watched a pair of seagulls working on a plastic baggie containing half a sandwich left behind in the parking lot at school. They bickered over who got to approach it first, and then as one grabbed the bag and tossed it back and forth, the other one watched from a safe/respectful distance. When the sandwich finally fell out of the bag, they squabbled over the pieces, each trying to swallow as much as possible. When a car or person approached, they'd fly off in a huff for a few moments before cautiously circling the area to land and continue their eating frenzy. Finally all that was left was a small scrap of lettuce - both of them tasted it several times but then spit it back out.

Z and I have always enjoyed watching seagulls. When we lived in Argentina, our house had an immense (8x12) picture window that looked out onto our remote little beach in the far-off South Atlantic. The huge tides washed the beach twice a day before retreating out as much as half a mile at extreme low tides. Between the high tides, hundreds of seagulls would gather on the hard-packed sand to sort through the detritus left behind.

On rainy, cold, or windy weekends, we'd spend hours sitting together at our window gazing out at the ocean. When the gulls wandered into our view we'd watch "Seagull-TV", observing their little societies and their complex interactions. We'd identify the bosses - usually a gang - that would quickly arrive and take control of any new or interesting discovery. The others would grudgingly move off a short distance, occasionally attempting to dart in and grab a bite - only to be repulsed in a flurry of feathers and wing flaps by one or more of the bullies. Then there were the outcasts, who flew around a lot and made a lot of noise, but seldom dared approach any of the group on foot; but they always stayed nearby.

On nice days (those rare days when the winds didn't howl) we'd go out onto the beach and try to sit on the sand near a group of gulls. At first they'd scatter off somewhere else, but after a time - as long as we kept still - they'd gradually make their way back to whatever treasure they'd been investigating nearby, and then the entertainment would begin. We'd assign them nicknames based on their appearance or quirks in their actions. We got pretty good at predicting their behavior: which ones would back off in a confrontation, which ones would fly off first if a larger bird appeared or a person would stroll by, and which ones would fly off last - or even stand their ground.

Our favorite for many months was "Pegleg" a one-legged gull. He was neither dominant nor submissive; amazingly he was just another gull, accepted in the group despite his obvious impairment. We could easily spot him in a crowd because he hopped up and down, while the others scooted along with their strange gait - their bodies waddling back and forth with each step, while their heads and eyes seemed to stay quite even and level. If you watched only their faces, you'd think they were somehow floating over the sand towards you. Their faces straight-on have this odd triangular shape - the eyes forming the top corners and the tip of their beak the lower angle. After a while we got to where we thought we could recognize differences between them. We'd ascribe certain personalities to the more comical of them and dream up stories about their lives and their activities.

These gaviotas were not the only species parading up and down our beach, only the most common, and also the noisiest and the most aggressive. Another favorite of ours was a flock of sandpipers that often worked their way along the water's edge - dancing along the breaking waves and darting into the receding water for tidbits. There were many other exotic seabirds on our beach, some possibly native only to the region, that we'd watch even though we couldn't identify them. Once we saw a penguin waddle up onto the beach, obviously lost and tired. He eventually wound up in settling our front yard to rest until we called a local rescue group which took it to the penguin reserve a few hundred kilometers up the coast.

My tyrannical boss in Argentina used to contemptuously dismiss the engineers in our group as a flock of gaviotas for the way they perched on the corners of their desks in their large common work area, sipping from their ever-present gourds of mate, and gossiping as they whiled away the afternoons instead of actually doing anything productive.

When I first began to play the Gavotte in Suzuki 3, I couldn't help but think about both the literal and figurative gaviotas that I came to know so well in that other life on the other side of the world.

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