Buoyed by Gulls

Connecticut sea gulls are magnificent flyers. I know. I've watched them a lot. But California gulls aren't pikers, believe me. I found this out when I was vacationing in southern California and my morning got off to a bad start.

I took out the French bread I'd bought the day before and was about to cut nice, fat slices for toast when I noticed the freckles. Freckles of mold.

What to do? Take the bread back for a refund, of course. But the store was 50 miles away. Scratch that. Then inspiration struck. I'll eat cornflakes, I thought, and feed the bread to the gulls. Just the way I do back home.

I have this nice Sunday-morning routine. I drive out to Saybrook Point, right where the Connecticut River slips into Long Island Sound. My gulls are waiting.

Notice, we've reached that stage: my gulls. There are 10 or 15 of them. There's one perched on each piling of the dock, each one still, facing the wind. Not one looks at me. But they know I'm there.

I know they know.

The others are off flying over the river, scouting a finny morsel.

Though I'm being ignored, I break off a bit of bread and fling it up. Up - that's important. Then the action explodes. The whole squadron is aloft and around me, flying in a frenzy. I toss up another piece, and a big white fellow swoops down and snatches it in midair. Another piece, and another zooms in, sideswiping a buddy to get it.

MORE gulls have arrived. From where, I don't know. There are 30 now. And what a show they put on. Amazing how they can change course, climb, dive, speed up, put on the brakes, and hover, all so swiftly. Yes, hover, sometimes just two feet above me, waiting, begging, for a bite.

Helicopters, you know, are just giant mechanical imitations of hovering sea gulls.

One brazen fellow wings in so close I'm sure he'll swipe the bread right out of my fingers. The whoosh of those flailing wings is powerful. And those beaks! I have to be careful. I take a step back and pause.

Then I fling more bread. The show dashes on. There's a whirlwind of gulls, and I'm the hub. Finally, the bread is gone. Not a bite left. They know. Instantly, as if by signal, they settle on the pilings or fly off. I'm abandoned. I'm a nobody again. I get the message. "It's all over, buddy. Come back next Sunday. And don't forget the bread."

But what a performance! Just as exciting as watching the Blue Angels!

Now, the big question: Are California gulls as good as Connecticut's?

Moldy bread in hand, I drive to the Newport Pier. Up and down its coast, California has these wonderful public piers sticking out into the sea, perfect for strolling, fishing, watching the sea, the sunset.

I walk out on the pier. There are a hundred gulls on the beach below, strutting, sunning, snoozing, all indifferent to me.

I begin my routine. Up I toss a piece. Four, five gulls take wing. The show is on. The piece falls to the ground before a bird grabs it. The next piece, every other piece, is snapped up as it falls. If one gull misses it, another succeeds. The flying is wonderful. Fantastic. Unbelievable. People come closer to watch. They're excited, too. What talented birds, these gulls. They're full of split-second stunts and derring-do.

To fly like that!

Above the sea and the land. To always rest on the highest point - the chimney, the flagpole, the piling - and to take off and look down on everything and everyone below.

The bread is nearly gone. I make the pieces smaller. Now, look: Here's a little guy right above me. And he's hovering! As beautifully as one of my pals in Connecticut.

I toss up the last tiny piece, and he nabs it. The gulls notice it's the last, and they take off. The show is over. We've completed our bargain, the gulls and I.

I walk back to my car. I wish I could find a way to tell my gulls at Saybrook Point about their California cousins.

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