Wednesday, March 11, 2015
Flash Frozen Fish
I don't have to tell anyone east of the Mississippi that it has been a tough winter. I was glad I lived in the mid-Atlantic where it was abnormally cold rather than New England where they experienced record-breaking snowfalls as well as intense cold. Not only has it been tough on humans, but also on wildlife.
My goal going into this winter was to film puddle ducks but, when all the puddles are frozen solid, it is difficult to find those types of ducks. I am not sure where they went, but I kept hearing, "They're not over here," from reports by hunters on the Ducks Unlimited site all over the region. I'm not saying they all disappeared, but it wasn't easy to find many.
What ducks were around could often be seen simply standing on the ice waiting for a thaw to open up an area so they could get to the water and find some food. Puddle ducks don't dive below the surface to forage for food; they tip up in shallow areas to reach submerged grasses and mollusks. The shallow areas are the first places to freeze up in weather like we have had.
Certain species of birds don't get much respect and seagulls are probably near the top of the list. They are an essential part of the food web, however. On the day these photos were taken just a few days ago, the pond was in it's second day of a thaw. Fully 75 to 80% of the surface was still covered in ice with many areas becoming very slushy.
My wife had accompanied me on this outing to enjoy the sun and warmer weather and spot a few birds with binoculars. There were several hundred seagulls mostly just standing on the ice in the middle of the pond. I wasn't paying much attention to them, but it would get raucous once in a while with gulls yelling and chasing each other.
One landed close by and my wife happened to glance at it when it plunged it's head through some crumbly ice and pulled out a small fish and ate it. Right through the ice! Before it ate the fish, another gull saw it and thought he should be entitled to some too, and the chase was on.
That is when I started paying a little more attention to what the gulls were up to. After a short time, a Ring-billed Gull landed nearby that already had a fish in it's mouth. It didn't go unnoticed and within seconds a small "flash mob" gathered. I marveled that the gull was able to catch a fish with so much of the pond covered in ice.
Ice and snow being very light in color create wonderful lighting — even on days with full sun. The elements act like a giant soft box. You can see there are no harsh contrasty shadows in these pictures, but just beautifully lit pictures. Unlike a studio where lighting is controlled, outdoors you have to pretty much take what you get.
It wasn't until I saw the next picture on the computer that I realized what was probably going on. I have to downsize these images and lower the resolution for the internet, so I'm not sure you will be able to see it, but on the full sized image it is possible to see the eye of the fish.
The eye of the fish in this image gives a "CSI" clue as to how the gull was able to "capture" it. The eye was completely whited over meaning, the fish had been dead for some time before the gull found it. It was a tough winter on fish too and this one had apparently succumbed to the cold.
This gull must have done the same thing my wife saw the earlier gull do and plunge it's head below soft ice to retrieve a dead fish floating just below the ice. If you look carefully, you'll realize the fish is stiff as a board and flash frozen like a patty from the Gorton's Fisherman.
Gulls are relentless and won't give up the chase until the one with the fish chokes it down. That usually occurs in flight with one or two others hot on it's heels.
And that is the story of the seagull and the flash frozen fish.