It’s Seagull vs. Eel on Long Wharf

If you want to get out on the water without leaving the land, the Long Wharf in Sag Harbor is your easy answer. Just a few cars wide and 100 yards long, it’s an asphalt peninsula sticking out into the salty waters of Sag Harbor. Pointing pretty much north, your view to the east goes on for miles of water, to the Cedar Point Light House, while the western water view seems close enough to reach out and touch land, if you swung the Long Wharf 90 degrees west.

While surrounded by scoters and swans and many different diving ducks, depending on the season, the Wharf’s year-round resident, and maintenance bird is the gull, mostly herring gulls (25” tall), bullied about by your great black-backed gulls (30” tall). His textbook definition is “klepto-parisitic, opportunistic omnivore,” a dark disposition only a mother would nurture: he spends more time trying to steal from other birds than looking for food of his own.

I’ve seen them knock out red breasted-mergansers while trying to steal the small fish the mergansers have retrieved from the bay bottom the gulls can’t reach. The knock-out of the merganser is a not so rare, “collateral damage,” but what follows is not for the faint at heart.

The black-backed then proceeds to eat the unconscious duck alive, without the proper tools a raptor would have, i.e. talons and/or a razor–sharp bill made for the job. Sometimes nature isn’t pretty, but these birds are obeying their DNA. They can’t help it. As Mark Twain would remind us, “Man is the only animal that blushes, or needs to.”

One late summer afternoon, while in my truck watching the water and the air, a cormorant popped up in the waters at the end of the municipal docks on the west side of the Long Wharf. He had an enormous eel in his gob, and he looked like he had a death grip on more than he could kill, as the three-foot-long eel wriggled and wrestled to get free.

Atop the last piling of the dock sat a very interested black-backed gull who soon dropped in to help him out, by landing on his back and relieving him of his eel. He grabbed the eel midships firmly and took a few steps and flaps forward, but he could not get airborne due to the size and weight of the still–wriggling eel whipping around his head.

The gull decided paddling alongside the pier was his best shot, and he waddled in the water the full 70 yards from the piling to the beach in front of the windmill, at the foot of the North Haven bridge. With all that “gull paddling,” you would have thought he’d be completely tuckered out, but this sucker just flipped the eel down on the beach, whacked that eel a few in the skull and upended him into his maw, then down to his craw and gobble, gobble, gobbled, until it was gone.

When I told that story to a friend’s son he immediately replied, “Yeah, but now he
can’t fly.”

Later, I thought on that—he doesn’t have any natural predators, and if later threatened by a stray fox or dog, he could probably get enough flight to get out of harm’s way.

I spoke with Larry Penny, the retired director of the East Hampton Natural Resources Department, about this and we agreed that without the eel wriggling the center of gravity would change, and the “flight or fight” energy from a predator threat would ensure enough getaway flight.

That would not have been a problem for very long, considering the cast-iron constitution of any gull’s stomach, which allows them to clean up all kinds of organic garbage for us all around our little fishing village.

Just think of these gulls as our fine-feathered Organic Recyclers.

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