IN a fierce battle for food, I recently watched four seagulls fight for a long, fatty eel as they flew over the Huangpu River. Standing on the riverfront in Lujiazui as I stared at the determined birds, I thought about how much they are part of the Bund and its surroundings. And yet it’s the iconic skyline that tourists and locals marvel at, instead of the flocks of gulls that hover over the water.
To most they are a nuisance.
In the West, seagulls are among the most disliked birds, and are often referred to as rats of the sky, or flying rats, for their threatening behavior and tendency to scavenge and steal food. In some cities, they have started to live entirely off garbage and frequently steal food straight from people’s hands. Their aggressive search for anything edible has drawn the scorn of locals who have gone as far as to poison and kill the birds.
In a 2014 study in the UK, 95 percent of respondents even said that they “detest” seagulls. But to me, the gulls that populate the Huangpu and Bund area between November and March are interesting birds to observe.
From 7 to 10am, a dozen species of herring gulls, also called Vega gulls, Mongolian gulls and Heuglin’s gulls are actively searching for food, constantly flying above the water to scan the river for prey.
When one gull spots a fish, it will dive in to catch it. In that moment, the other gulls seem to turn around instinctively and will soon swarm the successful hunter to steal the fresh prey.
Sometimes a gull rips a fish from another gull’s bill, only to loose it to yet another competitor seconds later.
It’s fascinating to watch.
Few people know what a long way these birds have come to fish in the Huangpu River. Every year, the gulls leave their breeding grounds in Siberia and Mongolia in search for warmer waters. They arrive here in mid-November and stay until March, when the weather allows for their return north.
Like other birds, the gulls migrate in fixed routes, with the juveniles following the adults in fall to learn the route to their wintering grounds. Most of them are found in the Bund area, Paotaiwan Wetland, Chongming Island, Nanhui Dongtan as well as Dianshan Lake.
Shanghai has been the herring gulls’ winter palace for hundreds of years due to its good habitat conditions and rich food source. Although they prefer fish and shrimp or other seafood, they will also eat small rodents and smaller birds.
The mud banks at the Bund, where the Suzhou Creek enters the Huangpu River, are a habitat for certain fish species, which has attracted the gulls.
As some gulls can live up to several decades, I can’t help but think about how they have witnessed Shanghai’s rapid transformation, with ever taller buildings welcoming them each season.
Gulls were already here when the first fishermen arrived, and quickly learned that ships will leave small fish and shrimps behind — a welcome and easy snack for the birds.
Apart from the abundance of food, the Bund area is also a safe haven for the birds. They’ve long been used to passing boats and ships, and there are almost no other distractions.
The best spot to observe the gulls on the Bund is by the riverfront in Lujiazui, conveniently located near the Lujiazui station of Metro Line 2. Most gulls gather in the northern area closer to the estuary.