In the great gull hunt all roads lead to McDonald’s and the other fast-food outlets dotted around the Derwent.
I had signed up for the annual count of gulls that BirdLife Tasmania organises each winter and had been assigned good gull country between the Tasman and Bridgewater bridges.
Tasmania has three gull species and I knew where to look for the smallest, and most common of these, the silver gull. Any place where humans gathered to eat fast food would do. For the other, bigger species – the kelp and pacific gulls – I’d have to look a little further afield.
The extent of my ornithological study largely involves the interaction between people and birds and there can be no greater connection than that occurring at the fish punts in the Hobart docks, or at McDonald’s and KFC in other parts of the city.
Studies in the past have shown that Hobart’s silver gulls are not only addicted to fast food, like many people, but also suffer from the same ill-effects that a diet with too much fat and sugar can bring on.
The silver gulls of the city have high levels of cholesterol, when compared with gulls on the Bass Strait islands. It is not just fast-food that blights the gulls, but feeding at the Hobart tip and in this regard another gull is affected, the kelp gull. The third gull found in Tasmania, the pacific gull, tends to be a marine species and generally relies on a healthy diet of molluscs, crustaceans and fish washed up on our shores.
The purpose of the gull count each year is to monitor gull numbers, to determine whether they may be declining or increasing.
Gulls might appear common in our cities but along the coast they are subject to all the pressures of human development and beach use that is affecting the numbers of shorebirds throughout Australia.
The kelp gull – which arrived in Australia from New Zealand in the 1950s – has learned to exploit the man-made environment, like the silver gull, but the pacific gull is declining in number, possibly because of competition from the relative new arrival.
A gull census each year can give some indication of population numbers of all three species, and pinpoint reasons for increase or decrease.
Setting off on my leg of the survey – which covered both banks of the Derwent– I was armed with a form on which I had to list not only the species observed at each location but whether they were brown juvenile or adult birds. This would give an indication of breeding trends in the last season.
As I drove towards the TasmanBridge through the city – the church bells of St David’s Cathedral ringing out across Macquarie St – my thoughts drifted back to the last gull survey I had done, along the banks of the East River in New York City when I lived in Manhattan many years ago.
I was very athletic in those days – running five kilometres each morning in Central Park – and this is probably why I was chosen for the most dangerous section of the gull count along a stretch of river bordering a dodgy neighbourhood not so far from the notorious South Bronx – either that or the New York birders spotted a mug in their ranks who was yet to learn the dangers of the city. (It was still another couple of weeks before I got mugged for the first time in Central Park).
I’m happy to report that the tranquil, bucolic banks of the Derwent posed no such mugging threat. And mid-way through the survey, instead of heading into Spanish Harlem for lunch as I had done all those years ago in New York, I made for McDonald’s at Bridgewater.
My checklist recorded 19 silver gulls in the car park but made no mention of the Big Mac, super-sized, I had for lunch.