Nature has been pretty tough on us this winter, with the wind and flooding over the weekend adding to the damage from repeated snowstorms.

But nature also sent us an unmistakable sign that better days are here: the first laughing gulls of spring.

A week ago today, a pair of these signature gulls of the southern New Jersey shore were reported to the Cape May Bird Observatory from the beach in Villas, Lower Township.

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By Saturday, the first day of spring, laughing gulls should be showing up along shore areas throughout the region, welcoming the warm weather with a voice that sounds to us like a maniacal, nasal laugh: Haaa, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha ... descending slightly in pitch and loudness.

CMBO director and bird-book author Pete Dunne years ago nominated this medium-sized, black-hooded gull as our bird of spring for its prominence in our summer scene and its regularity in arriving at the very end of winter.

Birders took to the idea and hold an informal competition to find the year's first laughing gull. This year, a pair of birders on the Cape May-Lewes Ferry spotted one in New Jersey waters March 8, a day before the Villas sighting.

A century ago, laughing gulls arrived too late to be suitable heralds of spring. In the early 1900s, the first gulls were seen in early to mid-April, according to Witmer Stone's "Bird Studies at Old Cape May."

Their arrival three weeks earlier now could be due to a warming climate or the recovery and expansion of the species. By the 1890s, nesting colonies of laughing gulls were nearly wiped out by egg gathering and hunting for plumage, but were recovering in Stone's day after federal protections stopped the practices.

Today, laughing gulls nest on back-bay marshes throughout the region, including what is considered the world's biggest laughing gull nesting colony behind Stone Harbor and Avalon. In late spring, pontoon boats will take tourists to these vast nesting areas to view gull chicks and other birds up close.

Visitors and residents alike need not make an effort to see and hear laughing gulls. They will soon blanket the barrier islands, watching beaches and boardwalks for fallen french fries and other morsels. We have ourselves to blame for their aggressive pursuit of our food, since some of us feed them our leftovers despite laws (largely unenforced) against doing so.

Our misbehavior and their adaptability have brought the gulls to lots of places where they should not be, such as shopping center parking lots, sidewalk cafes and landfills. The one good thing about them following us so closely for food is that we can observe details such as the white partial eye rings and blood-red bill easily without binoculars.

Laughing gulls are better left to eat the small crabs, worms, fish, squid and insects that are their natural diet. Sometimes on summer evenings, large numbers go to the Atlantic City casinos, where they can be seen feasting in flight on insects drawn by the bright lights.

Alone among our shorebirds, laughing gulls are woven into our seasonal lives. That's good and bad, but we can all be glad that they - and our favorite half of the year - are back.

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