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BRUCE MACTAVISH: A Russian gull among the flock

The exotic slaty-backed gull is completely unaware of its celebrity status as it goes about doing regular gull things on Quidi Vidi Lake in St. John’s.
The exotic slaty-backed gull is completely unaware of its celebrity status as it goes about doing regular gull things on Quidi Vidi Lake in St. John’s.

The walkers around Quidi Vidi Lake in St. John’s cannot help but notice all the gulls during their winter strolls. The gulls use the lake for washing, drinking and resting.

There is always some open water at the Rennies River and Virginia River mouths even during the coldest months of the year.

After a bath and a drink they collect on the ice to preen and loaf about. Among the winter flocks of the everyday great black-backed and herring gulls are the paler glaucous and Iceland gulls. These are winter visitors that came down from Arctic nesting zones.

It is a great place to study gulls. On a world-wide scale of things Quidi Vidi Lake is one of the best places anywhere for gull watching. Over the years, renowned gull watchers from Europe and the United States have come to Quidi Vidi Lake to study and photograph our northern gulls.

All serious gull identification guide books contain photographs of Quidi Vidi Lake gulls. It is that kind of place.

Gull watching helps pass the long winter months.

There are always some odd balls among the group to make it interesting. Maybe it is a European version of the herring gull, maybe it is a hybrid between two different species of gull. Photographs are taken and pictures are posted on Facebook groups dedicated to gull identification looking for opinions.

Some gulls are baffling and deemed unidentifiable. We put those pictures away in a folder for later. Gulls are great fliers and capable of long distance travel. Because of this trait, gulls occasionally end up well outside of their normal range. It is these rare gulls that the ardent Quidi Vidi Lake gullers are most interested in finding.

The classic rare winter gull is the exotic slaty-backed gull from Russia and Japan.

Due to more open Arctic sea ice conditions in recent decades, it is speculated that a few slaty-backed gulls have been slipping across from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean via the Northwest Passage.

St. John’s had its first in January 2006. The species has been found at Quidi Vidi Lake at least every second year since then. Despite its regularity the slaty-backed gull is still the Holy Grail of winter gull watching in St. John’s, or for that matter anywhere in Canada.

The experienced gull watchers are scanning through the large flocks of gulls with their slaty-backed gull filter operating at maximum proficiency.

It becomes automatic.

It was Lancy Cheng who got to experience the golden glow of discovery on 12 February. He saw the combination of a dark backed gull with a heavily streaked head and vibrant pink legs that triggers all the alarm bells and the rewarding adrenaline rush. It was a brief sighting as it bathed in the water then quickly flew off.

Lancy secured a few photos to share with the envious gull watching group. Over the next days all gull watchers and bird watchers alike were focused on the lake.

The bird was elusive. Finally on 16 February it was independently spotted by Charlie Fitzpatrick and Blair Dudeck as it bathed in the open area of water at the Virginia River mouth. Word spread like wild fire on the WhatsApp application.

The slaty-backed gull stayed for 45 minutes allowing birders to come and get their look at the bird. Many photos were taken, of course all while maintaining strict social distancing protocols.

As it turns out, photographs show that this was the same slaty-backed gull that visited Quidi Vidi Lake in February 2020.

The wing tip pattern was identical. While this bird originated from Russia at one time, where was it last summer? Did it fly all the way back to Russia or spend the summer in the Canadian Arctic? We can only ponder.

Meanwhile, Vernon Buckle of Forteau, Labrador is counting his lucky stars that he visited the local garbage dump on Feb. 18 for this was the one and only day a slaty-backed gull dropped in there. It was a third record for Labrador.

There is still lots of time for more exciting gull fun this winter.

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental consultant and avid birdwatcher.


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1 being least likely, and 10 being most likely

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