Originally published in Facts & Arguments on Monday, April 16, 2001.
There is no such thing as a seagull. Most people don't believe me when I tell them this, but it's true. If you look in bird books, you will find that there are all sorts of gulls, such as Glaucous gulls or ivory gulls, but no Sea gulls. I've always had a bit of a problem with letting people call schoolyard gulls sea gulls, so in primary school I became a bit of a nag to all my classmates who used the erroneous term. I think I got some of them to just call them gulls, but not many. I don't mind poetic licence, but in Toronto they are usually Ring-billed gulls. But how did the misnaming of gulls become my cause célèbre?
My parents are bird watchers. They take my brother and me out of school for a week every year in May so that we can go birdwatching at Point Pelee, Ont. Point Pelee is the southernmost point of Canada, jutting out into Lake Erie, and it is a prime stop-off point for migrating birds. The spring migration is at its peak during May, around Mother's Day, when thousands of birds pass through the park. Whenever my parents tell anyone that they are taking my brother and me out of school to watch birds, their listeners believe that this is a valuable experience for us. Family bonding and appreciation of nature are often the reasons cited by others why going birding is more important than a week of school.
My parents don't mention that we get up around 6 in the morning and walk for most of the day. But my brother and I know what to expect at Point Pelee and when talking about it at school, there are often friends who are envious of our missing school and classmates who mock our interest in birds, even though they have never been birding themselves. They are the sort of kids who used to insist on saying "seagull" whenever I was around to see how many times I would correct them before giving up in frustration.
At Point Pelee, there are many people we see every year, year after year, and only at Pelee. I have been going there since I was two months old, so these people have known me all my life. Although they see me annually, they insist on comparing my present size with my baby size. Luckily, my grandmother instituted a rule that every time someone says "My how you've grown!" (or an equivalent, to my brother or me) my parents have to pay us $0.25. We usually get at least $3 in a week.
The people who come to Point Pelee are amazing. Their eccentricities are very amusing, especially to those of us who don't really care about the name of that little brown bird that just hid in the bush. One of my parents' friends always carries a dictaphone with him, and documents his whole experience with it, mumbling along the path: who he saw, what he saw and any other anecdotes. The theory is that when he gets back home he will transcribe the tapes, but so far, he tells us, he only has stacks of tapes.
Then there is the man who used to be a ranger at Algonquin Park, who will explain the field markings of a rare shorebird to you at length while you look at it, but once satisfied that you have seen it, will rush off to where another rare bird has reportedly been seen. He's like all "twitchers," a term given to birders who won't stay in the same place for more than a few minutes before rushing after the latest rumour.
There is a couple we know who named their daughter Kestrel. My brother is consequently very glad that he avoided being called Peregrine, which my parents did seriously consider.
Every morning we take the tram from the visitors' centre to the tip of the point. The gulls congregate there in the morning. The density of other birds is supposed to be higher there in the morning because that's where they first hit land after flying over the lake. I'm not sure if it is true that the birds in the morning are best, but by now it's a tradition and you have to have some sort of routine for the morning. On the way to the tip, everyone discusses things like yesterday's best bird or famous birds of the past. However, the most entertaining event of last year happened one morning when we were on the tram with a bunch of elderly men. It was like being part of the scene in The Music Man when the salesmen are discussing the man who "doesn't know the territory" while riding the train. One of them was complaining about all the mosquitoes when another started:
"Yes, well down at Rondeau there are ticks and there are chiggers. Don't ever camp at Rondeau. You gotta sit on the picnic tables to stay away from the chiggers, (yes, there are chiggers)."
My mom and I got off at the tip, laughing.
But it's not all fun. On a good day, you're on your feet from 7 a.m. until 10 pm., but you see a lot of birds. On a bad day, you're on your feet from 7 in the morning until 9 at night in the rain (or wind or Scotch mist) and the cold, with no birds and only a wet lunch to look forward to. There's a saying -- when there are no birds there's always lunch.
I'm not a morning person, and by the end of the day my knees and legs hurt. Last year, especially, there were a lot of mosquitoes, rain for about four of seven days and no birds. Rain with birds is pardonable, but rain without birds is unforgivable. Yet in a strange way I enjoy birding. A streak of red is very uplifting on a grey day. I enjoy being able to identify the birds at our backyard feeder.
And I am proud to know that there is no such thing as a seagull.