Stalking Rare Gulls at Niagara
A large population of Emerald Shiner minnows migrates through the Niagara Gorge in December, seeking the warmer waters of Lake Erie. This concentration of tasty treats attracts an influx of predators, including Steelhead, Brown and Lake Trout, Pickerel and Muskellunge. It also forms a buffet for vast swarms of gulls, and when stormy weather drives birds in off the lake it is often possible to pick out rare and exotic gulls lurking amongst the hordes. And swarms of birds attract swarms of birders.
The Approach March
The first weekend in December 2019 was cool, with high winds and freezing rain in the forecast. Sensible people were staying indoors, but fifty or sixty hardy birders descended on Niagara Falls to take part in the Ontario Field Ornithologists’ (OFO) annual Gull Weekend. There were gull lectures, gull quizzes, an advanced gull identification workshop, and of course, lots and lots of gulls.
For the second year running (which qualifies it as an annual tradition) I linked up with Bruce Kirkland to make the trek to Niagara. We made a brief stop in Burlington to seek out a lone King Eider that had been hanging around with Long-tailed Ducks at the lift bridge. The eider was eventually spotted, though I was insufficiently organized to get a photo before it blended in with the 2,000 other ducks loafing in the ship canal. However I did get some smashing photos of Long-tailed Ducks and a decent shot of a Surf Scoter so all was well. Or so we thought…
Our next stop was Niagara-on-the-Lake. It’s a small tourist town with more tweeness per capita than anywhere else in Canada, thus normally to be avoided, but it sits at the mouth of the Niagara River so it’s an ideal spot to watch gulls as they stream out at the end of the day to roost on the lake. A rare vagrant Black-headed Gull was known to be in the area so it seemed a likely spot to try our luck. And sure enough when we arrived there were ten or so birders peering intently over the water.
Traditionally there is no more dreaded phrase in the birders’ lexicon than “you should have been here ten minutes ago”. This signals that the bird you were after has decamped, probably never to be seen again. However with the advent of modern technology, including time/date stamps on camera images, we can now state with some bitterness that “you should have been here four minutes ago” is infinitely more painful.
We dutifully set up our scopes and peered into the gloom for 45 minutes. Thousands of Bonaparte’s Gulls streamed by, which would normally be a wonderful spectacle but we were not to be mollified. There were even a few Little Gulls among them, which we could pick out by their very dark underwings. Little Gull sightings are not easy to come by in Ontario – these were my first ones in 2019 – but still we remained dejected. One fewer red light on the way and we would have had our quarry.
When it was finally too dark to see we repaired to the Sandtrap Pub and Grill for dinner. After a couple of pints of very pleasant Niagara College Butler’s Bitter I adopted a more philosophical attitude. The bird was still extant; we just had to find it in the next 36 hours.
The plan for Saturday had been to join the Peninsula Field Naturalists for a birding walk in the Welland area. But Bruce and I were now seized with the desire to “get” the Black-headed Gull so we set off to do the Niagara stations of the cross – a series of viewpoints where you can stand in the cold wind and stare down into the Gorge, searching among the Larid multitudes for the one slightly different bird.
The weather was decent – sunny, but with the usual cold wind ripping down the gorge. We visited such delights as the whirlpool, the Adam Beck power plant, the Queenston Heights lookout, the Queenston boat dock and the upper control gates, and carefully scanned thousands of gulls for the slight variation in field marks that sets apart a Black-headed Gull from its Bonaparte cousins.
Gull ID 101
In winter plumage the differences between these beasties are:
- The Black-headed Gull is slightly bigger: its wingspan averages 100cm vs 84cm for a Bonaparte’s. This sounds like a lot, but when viewing moving gulls at a slant range of 300+ metres the difference does not exactly jump out at you;
- The bill of the Black-headed is red in the summer and reddish-black in the winter whereas the Bonaparte’s bill is black year-round; and
- The Black-headed has a greyish smudge on the underside of the primary flight feathers. This is absent on the Bonaparte’s. The field guides show this diagnostic mark as a black wedge, but as the picture below depicts on a winter-plumage gull it can be a lot less evident.
A whole day devoted to gull voyeurism netted us lots of good looks at gulls and a few other avian creatures, but our target remained elusive. Sunday would have to be the day, but the weather reports were ominous. A heavy lashing of freezing rain was not going to make life easier.
First light on Sunday saw us back on the trail. Scattered reports from the day before led us to conclude that the whirlpool might be our best bet, so we started the morning vigil as the first wave of freezing rain descended. We gutted it out for a couple of hours before retreating to the hotel for an IHOP breakfast. It was only when we started the move that we realized how thickly the roads and sidewalks, not to mention our gear and clothing, were coated in sheet ice.
This made things slightly awkward, and after sliding safely into the hotel parking lot we learned that the QEW was closed and we weren’t going to make it back to Toronto and Kingston that day. So we reasoned that there was nowt else to do but go back out for another dose of eyestrain.
And so it came to pass that on Sunday afternoon about 1320 we closed with our prey. I was scanning gulls on the water, hoping for one of them to lift its wings and show the dark primaries. The mighty Vortex Razor HD telescope should have been annoyed at me for letting it slam against the ground an hour or so earlier, but instead it allowed me to detect what I thought was just a hint of red on the bill of one specimen.
It was hardly a slam-dunk view but it was suspicious enough that as it lifted off I tracked it while shouting directions so that others could get onto it. The gull wheeled to dive on a minnow and as it did I did not see the hoped-for black wedge, just a slight darkening. It really didn’t look like the guidebook image at all, and I hesitated about whether I had seen enough to make the call. Fortunately, the third person out braving the whirlpool gale was one Jeremy Bensette, a crack birder who among other things set the new record for bird species seen in Ontario in a year. He had gotten onto the bird and confirmed its Black-headedness. So we spent the next ten minutes enjoying the view of this rare visitor, whilst dutifully getting the word out on e-Bird and the OFO listserv.
At this point, having seen all the possible target species, and with our way home blocked by weather, we concluded that the best course of action was a wee nap, a glass of wine, an excellent dinner, and then a leisurely gull-sated departure on the morrow.
Niagara Gull Weekend – Bag List
Gulls seen on this trip:
Little Gull (3)
Black-headed Gull (1)
Bonaparte’s Gull (~6,000)
Ring-billed Gull (~100)
American Herring Gull (~600)
Iceland Gull (2)
Glaucous Gull (1)
Lesser Black-backed Gull (6)
Great Black-backed Gull (9)
 Most of the world’s 55 gull species are members of the genus Larus.