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    Bucko and I cringe at the sight of seagulls flying into the path of cars driving along Heckscher Drive. Many are killed flying to and from a freshwater retention pond on the southern tip of Little Talbot Island. PAT FOSTER-TURLEY/NEWS-LEADER

Why did the seagulls cross the road?

Bucko and I enjoy watching animals of all kinds and find animal behavior fascinating. It doesn’t take much to entertain us, but sometimes it’s tragic too. Like the laughing gulls we watch at the pond at the south end of Little Talbot Island, for instance. It’s a killing zone for these birds, no doubt about it.

The problem is that the laughing gulls raising their offspring on the sandy shores of Huguenot Park often visit the pond across busy Heckscher Drive to get a nice drink of freshwater on hot days. It’s a short flight, but full of peril. When Bucko and I drive down the road opposite the retention pond this time of year, we see many road kills. One day, we counted eight dead gulls. Over the years, the state has installed poles and palm trees to try to force the birds to fly higher than car-level, but this strategy has not worked well and the deaths continue.

This pond in the parking lot at the south end of Little Talbot Island, just before the Fort George River Inlet bridge, seems to be a nursery ground right now for juvenile laughing gulls. Every now and then an adult, with its distinctive black head, flies in to skim a drink from the water’s surface. But primarily it is the young birds, still mostly in brown plumage, that spend their time floating on the surface.

One day as we watched, a group of vultures flew in to the nearby trees, causing alarm and a mass exodus of all the gulls from the pond. As they flew en masse, heading for the road, we cringed.  How many gulls didn’t make the journey back? We didn’t go back to count, but it didn’t look good.

There are other natural sights of interest at the Little Talbot retention pond besides the gulls. Usually we see a handful of ducks standing on the water’s edge. Often there is an anhinga spreading its wings to dry on the bank. Occasionally, a heron or egret comes in to try to find fish. And the remaining few snags that border the parking lot road play host to a variety of raptors.

In the past, these dead trees were plentiful and provided perches for numerous ospreys during the mullet runs in the nearby waters, but eventually hurricanes toppled them and only a few snags exist, just enough for a few vultures to settle on to digest their food.

For vultures, the nearby road with its gull road kills is a banquet just waiting to be consumed. Vultures don’t eat live seagulls, and neither do ospreys, but they do look enough like predatory hawks that their presence spooks the young gulls that aren’t yet wise to the other inhabitants of their world.

And then there are the wild flowers. This time of year, the gazanias are in full bloom along the pond banks. These plants, originally native to southern Africa, are a drought-resistant groundcover often planted on our sandy soils, but now widely spread through our dunes, and are often admired from our dune crossovers. Now they are in their full glory at this retention pond, an uplifting sight to look at besides the juvenile gulls facing the peril of the road.

For me, the bank with the gazanias holds its own threat. On one visit I decided to walk through the vegetation to get a closer shot of the blooming flowers. What I didn’t notice was the “jumping cactus,” I believe a variety of prickly pear cactus common in our area. Well, I didn’t notice them as I walked toward the gazanias, but coming back to the car they made their presence known. My sandals and calves were covered with their barbed sections. And getting them off me was not as easy as it seems, what with them sticking to my hands when I tried to remove them from my legs.

Next time you are at the end of Little Talbot Island, heading down A1A, drive into the parking lot at the retention pond and see what you can see. Like many places here, this is a unique habitat, which, although man-made, provides yet another view of the nature sharing our world with us. But try not to hit a gull on your way out. It’s far too easy to do.

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