Steve Johnson tosses food to a sea gull at Mackerel Cove, Bailey Island, Dec. 4. (JESSICA PICARD PHOTO)
On a chilly afternoon in early December, a gray Ford Focus putters down Abner Point Road toward Mackerel Cove, where boats are bobbing in the small waves. Seemingly out of nowhere, dozens of seagulls swarm the skies and small beach, recognizing the car making its way down the hill.
Stepping out of the car with bags of bread in his hands is 79-year-old Steve Johnson, who immediately begins throwing hunks out to the hungry scavengers who are still flying in from overhead. Sitting on a wooden fence, Johnson doles out the food, making sure each bird gets a share. One gull, after catching a whole slice out of the air, proudly struts off into the grass to eat his prize.
“I’ve lived here my whole life,” Johnson said. He grew up on Bailey Island with his four siblings. He now lives on Orr’s Island. “If I was from New York or Pennsylvania or somewhere and saw this, I would fall in love with it,” he said, looking out over the water.
Johnson fondly remembers growing up on the island in the 1950s — and the pranks he and his friends used to pull as teenagers. He laughingly recalled untying all the skiffs at the dock, bringing them out into the cove, and leaving them out of reach on the moorings, except for the last one, which was brought up the road until they were caught.
Another time, he stole his father’s white paint and, under cover of night, a handful of kids painted large footprints going 250 yards down the main road. “There wasn’t a lot of traffic back then,” he said. His father, rather than punishing him when he found out, only asked what paint he had used, because he was impressed with how well it held up on the road.
A lifelong fisherman, Johnson started as a teenager in the 1950s, when he was paid 5 cents per pound for helping to haul lobster.
His relationship with the local seagulls began when a particular gull would follow him in his skiff each day he went out fishing. “He’d fly and land on my bow,” Johnson said. “If he got hungry, he’d jump onto my bulkhead and I’d feed him a herring. He stayed with me all day.”
“I think that’s what started the feeding,” said Johnson, who began feeding them on a regular basis one winter four or five years ago, after he had retired from lobstering. “After a while, I couldn’t get rid of them.”
Steve Johnson, 79, of Orr’s Island, rests at a picnic table at Mackerel Cove, Bailey Island, Dec. 4. (JESSICA PICARD PHOTO)
The gulls now bombard his vehicle as he pulls in and have even flown through the car’s window and landed on his lap. If no one else is around, the birds will land on his head and eat out of his hands.
To support the near-daily ritual, Johnson stops into the Bailey Island General Store in the morning, where leftover bread is often waiting at the counter for him to pick up.
“I don’t want to see any living thing starve,” Johnson said. This includes people — Johnson is known for picking lobster and crab when available and bringing it to members of the community at no charge.
“You would think I gave them a million dollars,” Johnson smiled, adding that what means the most to him is seeing others happy and just receiving a thank you.
The seagulls show their appreciation in a slightly different way — leaving white splatters on the hood of Johnson’s Ford before flying away.
Jessica Picard, of Newcastle, currently works for the Maine Department of Labor, writing and photographing in her spare time. She previously worked as a journalist and photographer in Midcoast Maine and Massachusetts.