It was Sunday morning (Jan 31) when I got the news … Alvan Buckley called to tell me he had found a SABINE’S GULL off St. Vincent’s beach, about 1.5 hrs south of St. John’s. This enigmatic gull is a rarity (from shore) here at any time of year, but finding one in winter?!?! The odds are like winning the lottery! Sabine’s Gulls are regular migrants well offshore, but they head south of the equator in winter, and mostly off the coast of Africa. What was one doing here in late January?? I’ve learned to trust Alvan’s cautious and skilled identifications, but he still must have sensed some incredulity in my voice since the call was immediately followed by a grainy, but undeniable, photograph to confirm his claim.
I thought long and hard about heading down, but decided to follow through on some family commitments while others made the “chase”. As my good friend Bruce Mactavish later reminded me, I’m often “too responsible for my own good”. A dozen or so local birders saw the bird that afternoon, and Bruce tortured me with photos that night. Totally expecting this bird to disappear (virtually all other records here have been one-day wonders), I was surprised to hear reports that it was still being seen a few days later. I went to bed last night with an insatiable itch, and woke up early having already decided to go. I hit the road an hour before sunrise and headed south, coffee in hand. I knew some light snow was in the forecast for later in the morning, but was not expecting the driving snow and strong onshore winds facing me when I arrived at St. Vincent’s at 8:00am. Visibility was in the toilet, and the sting of snow and ice pellets as I stared into the winds and over the water was nearly enough to turn me back. Nearly.
The winds were strong enough that on a couple occasions I saw Dovekie flying over the beach – behind me as I searched the water! After scanning nothing but a handful of Iceland and Great Black-backed Gulls for the first few minutes, I nearly fell over when the Sabine’s Gull fluttered out of the snow squall, over the breakers and plopped down in the water not far offshore! I lost it fumbling for my optics, but found it again shortly after. It put on a great show, doing laps along the beach and feeding in the surf – often quite close. I almost forgot about the driving snow and hail pounding my face! Who knew that heaven could feel so cold …
The gull moved on after about an hour, around the same time that the snow and ice pellets had changed to freezing rain. Felt like a good time to go home anyways … a very happy birder!!