Gull Migration Adds Hitchcock to Tugboat Dock

Wall Street Journal, June 27, 2015
DETROIT—Joe Heaney often feels like a character from Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”

As a tugboat captain for Great Lakes Towing, his job is to help freighters navigate the swift currents and low bridges of the Detroit and Rouge rivers. But from April to July, it is a struggle just to manage his own dock amid the flocks of ring-billed gulls that annually descend on his workplace.

“They’re chirping at you, their mouths are bright red, and they’ve got those eyes that’ll look right through you,” he says. “And every one of them is upset that you’re in their home.”

Mr. Heaney remembers when this stretch of waterfront was occupied by the Detroit Marine Terminal. He used to tow ships to the terminal, long abandoned. Now gulls nest where cargo and gantry cranes stood, and wheeling birds have replaced bustling stevedores.

“It’s like National Geographic right there on our working dock,” says Lindsay Dew, Great Lakes’ director of operations and compliance.

On a recent Saturday afternoon Mr. Heaney, 59 years old, looks across the 300 feet of concrete dock standing between him and his tug, Wyoming. The pavement is layered with bones and guano. Eggs sit on bare ground, ringed by feathers and grass. The air smells sharply of ammonia.

Acting engineer Scott Rosseel, 32, is the first to attempt the gull gantlet, flapping his arms as he stalks to the boat. Mr. Heaney and deck hand Jeff Davis, 62, follow, baseball caps pulled low. All three tiptoe with eyes on the ground, taking care to avoid eggs. As they advance, chicks hop away frantically and enraged parents screech warnings from the air and commence divebombing.

“You keep agitating them,” Mr. Davis scolds Mr. Rosseel. “Be one with the gull.” Mr. Rosseel’s approach is rewarded with several white splotches on his blue work shirt.

When they finally reach the red and green tug, Mr. Heaney says, “it is completely whitewashed with guano.” Mr. Davis makes a pot of coffee, then grabs paper towels and Windex to clean droppings off the windows. About 20 birds stand on the 86-year-old boat. A nest in the bow contains two brown-speckled blue eggs.

The gulls are a stubborn lot. And it is illegal to kill them; even their feathers are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. But for all the annoyance, crew members have grown protective of the gulls.

“Cutest little fuzz-ball chicks you ever did see,” says Mr. Heaney. “There’s 10 thousand gulls if there’s one.”

Jay Downen is port representative for Great Lakes Towing, which owns the tugs. He stopped mowing the weeds on the dock because he didn’t want to harm the fist-size gray chicks nestled in them. He also marvels at the birds’ pluck.

“One morning you do a tow, come back six hours later, and there are new nests on the dock,” he says. “They’ll nest on bumpers, towlines, navigation lights. They’ll take anything to make a nest: plants, string, wire, bits of line.”

When called to work at the Detroit dock during gull season, the crew knows to park their cars under a protective carport. They keep a broom handy for the Fleet Captain to shoo birds away when he visits.

The dock’s location is ideal—near the confluence of the Detroit and Rouge rivers, in the industrialized “downriver” area where most freighters call.

According to Robert Burns of the Detroit Riverkeeper Program, part of a national water-quality group, the gull colony had been on Fighting Island in the Detroit River for decades until the landscape became overgrown. It moved to nearby Nicholson shipyard, where employees got rid of it by building a house for a family of neighborhood foxes.

Around 2012 the gull colony found its current home, conveniently located across the street from 9300 W. Jefferson Ave.—a 123-acre wastewater treatment plant. There, the gulls dine on algae and scum skimmed off the open-air tanks.

The opportunistic water birds will eat almost anything—fish, frogs, garbage, crops. “You name it,” says Greg Norwood, biologist at the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. “They protect their colony via the benefits of nesting en masse.”

The noise from the Jefferson Avenue colony is constant, anxiety-inducing, and loud enough to prevent conversation below a yell. Casting off, Mr. Heaney pulls a lever to sound the tug’s horn. The gulls bolt en masse into the air. “It looks like the whole earth rises up,” says Mr. Downen.

The captain steers Wyoming down the Rouge and into the Detroit River to meet Sea Eagle II, an integrated tug and barge that carries cement. One additional passenger, too young to fly away, runs laps around the pilothouse, passing the open door at regular intervals.

Mr. Downen watches a gull sitting mockingly on a plastic owl—a faux figure that often frightens birds away. “These Detroit seagulls don’t get scared by much,” he says. Last year he tried using something called a Bird Xpeller Pro, a squawk box that imitates seagulls in distress and birds of prey. Mr. Heaney says it may as well play Frank Sinatra or “mood music,” because the noise only seemed to encourage the gulls, which average three clutches a season.

At the dock, the gulls settle back down, oblivious to the humans and their boats. “[The crew is] trying to find that equilibrium, to not harm the birds and do their jobs,” says Mr. Dew.

The gull situation definitely requires extra manpower, he says—like time spent cleaning the tugs. For an image-oriented company like his, Mr. Dew says, it is “embarrassing” to be seen with guano-covered boats.

One day, in July or early August, the birds will disappear—heading south to spend the winter along the coast from Florida to the Mississippi River Delta. Until then, says Mr. Dew, the problem “is somewhat insurmountable.”

But he’s resigned: “It would be easier to move the dock than get the birds to leave.”