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31 December 2009 @ 06:03 pm
The last new bird of 2009  

After leaving the Baxter Conservation area on Monday, I decided to take the Bankfield exit from Highway 416 in order to check the agricultural areas for gulls. I had seen a few flying from that direction on my drive down, and knew that they could sometimes be found in large flocks in the harvested corn fields. As I still needed both white-winged gulls for my winter list, I thought I'd check the fields along Moodie before heading to the Trail Road landfill.

The fields along Bankfield and Moodie were covered in snow, not gulls, so I drove slowly past the large quarry pond (also empty) before turning down Trail Road. The landfill is a magnet for gulls, and there were already a couple of birders just past the gate where the paved road ends scanning a large flock of gulls. As soon as I parked the car I recognized Tony Beck and asked if there were any Glaucous or Iceland Gulls in the flock beyond the fence. He confirmed that there were a few of each, but no Lesser Black-backed Gulls that he could see - a species which I needed for both my year and my winter lists.

I brought out my own scope while Tony introduced me to his companions, Jen and Rich, then carefully scanned the flock for the two white-winged species. There were many Great Black-backed Gulls mixed in with the Herring Gulls, but a large juvenile Glaucous Gull stood out from the rest. Nearly pure white in plumage, the colour of the bill is what differentiates it from the similar Iceland Gull: while the Iceland Gull has an all-black bill, the bill of the Glaucous Gull is black at the tip and flesh-coloured at the base. Not long after I spotted the Glaucous Gull, Rich pointed out a juvenile Iceland Gull. It was whitish, but finely patterned with a very pale gray. It was beautiful, and I would have dearly loved a photo, but the distance was too great for the sort of photo I wanted.

We watched the gulls for a while. An adult Glaucous Gull flew by, displaying its pale gray back and clean white wing-tips; then a juvenile Iceland and a juvenile Glaucous Gull flew by together, both heading in the same direction. I wish they hadn't moved so fast; it would have been nice to study them together.

At length Tony mentioned he thought he had a different species in his scope. It was gray-backed like a Herring Gull, but had a dark eye and a rounder head. It could have been an Iceland Gull, he said; he needed to see the wings to be sure. While I tried in vain to find the same bird he was looking at through my scope, he confirmed it: we had a Thayer's Gull.

Thayer's Gulls are not uncommon in Ottawa (a few show up every year) but they are much less common than the white-winged gulls. I found the individual at last, and while I could clearly see the dark eye, white head, smudgy streaking on the nape of the neck, and the bright red mark at the end of its bill, I doubt I would ever have been able to identify it on my own. Head shape is a difficult field mark to master, especially on distant birds - how many times have I had to leave a scaup unidentified because such a subtle trait was beyond me? - and I couldn't really see the different head shape of the Thayer's Gull in this situation, either. Still, I compared it to the Herring Gulls around it, and could tell it was something different. This gull was not only a lifer for me, but also for Jen and Rich. I wanted to study the Thayer's Gull a while longer, but a predator (likely the Red-tailed Hawk I had seen fly by a few minutes earlier) startled all of the gulls into the air, and they all landed further up the field, dropping onto the ground like a flurry of gray, black and white snowflakes. There were a couple hundred of birds altogether, and the Thayer's Gull was good and lost among them.

Still, Tony had found it, and we had seen it; and it is always exciting to end the year with a new life bird!

  • Lifer #257 Thayer's Gull