I watched a herring gull live up to its name as Emily and I were leaving Windrock last weekend. My annual pilgrimage to the Agawam River Herring Run is a favorite springtime ritual. I start checking in late March, when the very first Osprey come winging northward, and the river herring out in the cold Atlantic sense something warmer in the meltwater that calls them home. By late April the blueback herring and alewife should be in the river and making their way to the flume. Here they collect beneath the plunging water and negotiate the fish ladder up and under the highway and into a chain of ponds by Myles Standish State forest where the lucky ones will spawn.
The herring fishery is closed in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and several other states as far away as North Carolina because stocks are so depleted. I can remember times when the Agawan was crammed with fish from bank to bank, and any Town resident could get a bucket for fish for fertilizer or lobster bait. Even so, there is usually still at least one other car at the herring run when we arrive: another Pilgrim like me who is there just to check on the fish. There are a number of herring gulls there, too, a species much maligned for its attraction to garbage. On this ocassion, however, Emily and I saw one catch a herring.
The bird stood on a stone in the rushing water, poised above the dark river and the fish striving in the current. Suddenly it struck and came up with a foot long fish. It flew to the bank and choked down the herring in a few great gulps while other gulls closed in to try and snatch away the prize should the bird falter. It was a great mouthful that stuck for a short time in its gorge as it worked to swallow its prize. I have seen herring gulls with corncobs wedged in their gullets, but this bird managed to complete its task in short order and demonstrated that it still derserved the name.
Emily felt badly for the fish, yet here before us was the great cycle of life and death played out in one of the great migration dramas of this or any other place. It is the same with salmon and grizz, lion and wildebeast. We saw the power of the school to overwhelm the predators even as it loses individuals, and felt something of the compulsion of instinct that draws the fish to the river in our desire to be there to watch it happen.
Herring in the river is a reassuring sight. It gives me faith that at least for another year, a part of the natural heritage of New England will still abide. I never knew the East's great rivers with their full compliment of sturgeon and salmon, but herring face their greatest struggle in our time. Long may they run.