The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)
Wily ‘Smeagull’ new wildlife refuge mascot
‘Smokey the Bear’ of Salt Meadow Marsh teaches people about coast
WESTBROOK — Smeagull the Seagull, probably the most famous herring gull on the Shoreline, and an avid connoisseur of fine seafood, is about to gain even more notoriety.
The 17-year-old gull has a new role — as mascot for the Stewart McKinney Wildlife Refuge on his new website, smeagullsguide.org.
Smeagull is the Smokey the Bear of Salt Meadow Marsh, according to author and wildlife conservationist Mark Lender, who co-wrote “Smeagull the Seagull,” a children’s book featuring the wily seagull, with his wife, Valerie Elaine Pettis, a graphic artist and illustrator.
The award-winning book was published in 2018. Lender is a wildlife
writer/photographer who is featured on Living on Earth segments broadcast weekly on over 250 public radio stations.
As it happens, the real Smeagull spends his days near the wildlife refuge at Salt Meadow Marsh — when he is not mooching morsels of fish (a delicacy sourced from a high-end fish purveyor) from Lender. He shows up at Lender’s patio door and insistently taps his beak on the glass daily — just like clockwork, he said.
“Just before the hurricane — he came twice — just to make sure he tanked up,” Lender said with a laugh.
Smeagull is one smart bird, as he figured out quickly that Lender was his meal ticket and learned how to train his humans, he said.
“He figured it out on his own that glass is transparent and solid, and you can knock on it with your beak and sound like a human, and they’ll come running. And we do,” Lender said.
Sometimes he’s been fooled into thinking someone was actually at his front door, he added.
Lender cheerfully acknowledges that he plans on being Smeagull’s caretaker for life. The bird is expected to live to be between 30 and 40 years old. Which means, “Like, wow. I can’t move and I can’t die. I will be well into my 80s,” he said.
Lender said his favorite gull has become famous locally. Lender, who is on the board of directors for the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge, noted they were working on a guide on local wildlife when he joined the group.
What makes Smeagull’s Guide to Wildlife special, “is that it lets you see through Smeagull the Seagull’s eyes,” Lender said. Right now, the site is run by volunteers, with Lender providing much photography and a section called See Here Now!, where Lender uploads recent photos and notes from his travels in the salt marsh.
At the refuge, visitors will see plastic cards displaying Smeagull’s likeness with a QR code that leads the visitor to the website, where kids and adults can learn about the local wildlife.
Visitors will learn about common shore birds, fish and shellfish under the water, and the birds and animals that nest or live on or near the water.
Smeagull is “kid-friendly” and it fits in with the purpose of the guide, which “is to provide a true beginner’s guide to wildlife,” Lender said.
Many bird books can be daunting for the beginning birder or someone interested in learning more about local wildlife, Lender noted. Birds are usually where beginners start, he said.
“Birds are one of the principal ways that people access wildlife to learn about the natural world — get introduced to it,” Lender said.
On the site, visitors will see a short video of a fuzzy baby tern snuggling under its mom on the beach to take a nap.
In the section, Under the Water, another curiosity is transparent Glass shrimp— “they are clear as glass” underwater and hard for humans to see, but not for the snowy egret who eagerly chows them down, he said.
A common seagull is an easy introduction to wildlife, Lender said, and the online guide uses simple terms.
The guide can be easily accessed on the web and smartphones.
Rick Potvin, manager of the Stewart McKinney Refuge agreed. The guide, he said, “Is trying to take an animal that everyone can recognize … a seagull to help explain the wildlife.”
“I believe that’s a credible value to the conservationists, because when people develop their environmental literacy, they can take action — intelligent action when there are environmental issues.”
Craig Repasz, chairman of the friends of Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge sees even more potential for Smeagull. “We are only scratching the surface of the potential Smeagull has for us,” such as using the bird to talk about conservation and saving the environment.
The refuge will be marking its 50th anniversary soon and the guide ties in with that. There is also a photo contest set for the fall, a good time to visit the marshes, he said.
“The salt marshes can be quite beautiful in the fall with their colors — the foliage. And I’m a Vermonter saying that. Salt marshes have a very interesting colors,” Repasz said.