The Trials, Tribulations and (eventual) Triumphs of Gull-watching

Expect me to write plenty more about gulls over the next few months – they are a mainstay of winter birding here in St. John’s, a draw for visiting birders, and possibly my favourite group of birds.

Watching gulls requires a lot of patience and a good sprinkling of skill & experience. The ten or more species seen here most winters appear in mind-boggling arrays of white, greys, blacks and browns (yes – the young ones only add confusion) – not to mention the varying pinks, yellows and greens of bills and legs. Identifying them can be tricky for the inexperienced, and finding those “special” ones can be downright difficult. Especially in the case of the elusive Yellow-legged Gull, one or two of which show up here most winters. But one or two tricky birds in a city with tens of thousands of gulls — well, it can also be a needle in a haystack!!

Such was the case these past few days, as a visiting birder from British Columbia and I combed through many masses of gulls to find just oneHe had contracted my services as a birding guide to help him find the Yellow-legged Gull – it was head and shoulders the top of his priority list, with anything else just being gravy. Fortunately he had a few days, since I told him up front that finding it was far from guaranteed, and the chance of poor weather was always a threat.

Very few people have been as fortunate to experience Yellow-legged Gull in North America as I have. And as a guide, I've had pretty good luck finding it for eager visitors -but its far from guaranteed. On this tour in January 2010, we finally found it on the very last day ... a coup since it hadn't been seen by anyone in several weeks! - Photo: Jared Clarke (January 12, 2010)

Very few people have been as fortunate to experience Yellow-legged Gull in North America as I have. And as a guide, I’ve had pretty good luck finding it for eager visitors – but it’s far from guaranteed. On this tour in January 2010, we finally found it on the very last day … a coup since it hadn’t been seen by anyone in several weeks!
– Photo: Jared Clarke (January 12, 2010)

We ended up spending three fulls days in dogged pursuit. The first day (Sunday, December 1) was a lovely one to be outside … cool, calm and slightly overcast. But where were the gulls?!?!? We birded the standard areas from sunrise to sunset, with so few gulls being seen that I felt like a bit of a hustler — I was certain he thought I was pulling his leg when I said I had never seen such a lack of gulls in St. John’s at this time of year! But he bit the bullet and we went out again the next day – a cold, crisp one with just a slight breeze. There were lots more gulls … but they were spending their time loafing on the roofs of building around Pleasantville and bathing in Quidi Vidi Lake. Fortunately, I knew vantage points where we could see them and we ran the circuit – checking and re-checking the best spots all day. Not a hint of the bird. I could almost hear him thinking “Who does this guy think he’s fooling?” So, admittedly, I was a bit surprised when he called me up that night to arrange yet another day of searching on Wednesday – a day with a dismal forecast of high winds and rain!!

The forecasters seemed to have it right when I woke up Wednesday morning – the wind and rain was lashing the back of the house. But by the time I got the girls off to preschool and we headed out to go birding at 9:45am, the rain had dissipated. I knew from experience that the wet, windy weather would keep the gulls off the the roofs and encourage them to flock on local grassy fields and ballparks. Sure enough, that’s where we started finding them. We scrutinized thousands of gulls over the next few hours, both on the fields and at the lake … but no sign of our elusive target. To my surprise, the clouds parted, blue sky emerged and at times bright sun shone down on us — and the gulls! As lovely as it sounds, bright sun makes gull-watching all the more difficult, casting hard shadows on the grass, bright glare on the water, and changing the all important shades of grey needed to pick out our bird.

Still … we persevered, scrutinizing the gulls at each location from as many angles as we could. Sometime after 1:00pm we took our place on a hillside overlooking Bally Haly golf course, where (by my estimation) 7000+ gulls had set down for a rest. A small flush erupted as I set up my scope, and I noticed someone with binoculars walking across the golf course to scan the flock (someone I did not recognize). I rushed to scan the flock in case he continued to disturb them — about fifteen second and 500 birds later, that “magic shade of grey” caught my attention. Then the gleaming white head!! I HAD IT!! I was just getting our visitor on the bird when the guy on the field began to walk away, waving his arms as he went in an attempt to flush the gulls!!! Fortunately, only those closest to him paid any heed and the gull stayed put. Although it slept most of the time, we got prolonged looks and ample time to to study the unique shade of grey and white head, and occasionally the head and bill shape as it lazily lifted its head. It stood up just a couple times (once as an unknown presence caused a mass flush that filled the sky with every gull on the field!) — enough for us to see and appreciate those magnificent yellow legs for which the bird is named.

Although yesterday's Yellow-legged Gull was much too distant for photos, this one (photographed at the same location and similar date several years ago) shows that "magic shade of grey" and clean white head that first caught my attention and helped it stand out amongst a myriad of other gulls. The mantle is intermediate between Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gull, and combined with other features like unique head shape, thick, blunt bill and large red gony spot, helps an experienced pick out this needle-in-a-haystack rarity. - Photo: Jared Clarke (December 13, 2008)

Although yesterday’s Yellow-legged Gull was much too distant for photos, this one (photographed at the same location and similar date several years ago) shows that “magic shade of grey” and clean white head that first caught my attention and helped it stand out amongst a myriad of other gulls. The mantle is intermediate between Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gull, and combined with other features like unique head shape, thick, blunt bill and large red gony spot, helps an experienced gull-watcher pick out this needle-in-a-haystack rarity.
– Photo: Jared Clarke (December 13, 2008)

Yellow-legged Gull !! And another happy customer who now understands the value of patience and persistence when hunting for those hard-to-find, tricky-to-identify rare gulls of St. John’s!!

BTW – The only other sightings of this gull in the past number of weeks were two ABA Big Year birders Neil Hayward and Jay Lehman, who also spent much time and effort in finding it. They were fortunate!!

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One thought on “The Trials, Tribulations and (eventual) Triumphs of Gull-watching

  1. Super photos and great commentary are so helpful. Would love it if you’d do a piece on distinguishing between common and ring-billed gulls.

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