My story might strike you as sentimental or trivial but if you love animals and nature you might understand. My story concerns a pair of gulls that I encountered in Cornwall some years ago.
I was staying in a holiday cottage in one of Cornwall’s picturesque and beautiful coves. The steep beach is full of boats and fishing paraphernalia. Out in the bay is a rock which is never covered by the tide though when the weather is rough the waves wash over it.
Hanging on the wall of the cottage I found a pair of powerful binoculars and I naturally used these to examine the beach, the cliffs, the sea and the boats and ships that passed by. One day I noticed a herring gull on the rock. He had a grey patch on his left wing which made him immediately recognizable. In the days to come, I spent many hours watching this gull and his mate.
The gulls seemed to have adopted the rock in the cove as a special place where they came to preen, rest or hunt for food among the rocks at low tide. The male was particularly active in this and I would see him hopping among the boulders pecking and tugging at things, possibly shell fish. In the evening they would fly away, where to I have no idea. They would also be absent during the day, doing whatever it is that gulls do with their time, no doubt feeding, squabbling and socializing, as I have seen them do.
Then, suddenly, the male would arrive, swooping down to land with precision on the rock. Gulls are superb flyers and I love to watch them in flight, hanging almost motionless in air currents or wheeling and diving at speed, landing gently and precisely on a spot. He would settle his wings, shuffling them alternately as gulls do, and then emit a cry. In response, the female would appear, gliding down from the cliff to land near her mate. She would usually spend some time preening and would then settle down on the rock to rest and doze.
While his mate rested, the male would remain alert. Sometimes he would preen and then, if the tide was low, go in search of food. Then he would return to the rock and stand or settle near his mate.
On one occasion a black-backed gull came down to join them. They are rather larger than the herring gulls and don’t hesitate to bully them. For a while he sized up the two herring gulls and then started harassing them. I expected the herring gulls to fly away but they didn’t. The male stood up to the black-backed. He made no aggressive moves but his demeanour plainly said “Don’t you come here throwing your weight around. We’ve as much right as you to be here and here we stay.” The black-backed ran at him a couple of times and he dodged but otherwise held his ground. At last the bigger bird flew away. “Yes!” I heard myself shout, “we win!”
I became very fond of the gulls and spent much of my time watching them. I suddenly realized with a jolt that the holiday was drawing to an end and that I was soon to be separated from the gulls. The pangs this caused surprised me: I hadn’t realized how much they had come to mean to me. I tried photographing them on their rock so as to have a memento to take back to London. The rock was so far out that in the photos all you can see is two white dots. It’s hard to see that they are even birds.
Back in London I felt quite bereft, as if I had been separated from a close friend. These feelings lasted several days before they gradually faded but I never forgot “my” gulls, as you can see.
On a recent visit to Cornwall, Tigger and I managed to get to that cove. Everything was as I remembered it, the cottages, the boats on the beach, the rock in the sea. I stood looking at the rock. The gulls were not there. I had entertained a wild hope that I might see them, despite knowing how unlikely that was. Herring gulls live for 20 years or so and it is quite possible that as I stood there, my pair were busy somewhere else and would return to the rock later. Our time was limited and I had to drag myself away. “We can come back another time,” said Tigger consolingly.
Just as my first cat (an extraordinary animal – no, person) taught me to understand and love cats, so these gulls taught me to admire and love gulls. I watch them with fascination wherever I encounter them. In the back of my mind, always, is an image of the rock and the two gulls upon it. I expect – and hope – I will carry that image with me forever.