It was late afternoon on a workday when the red light flashed on the Newfoundland rare bird line. One can absorb a lot of information in a hurry. Even before the news has sunk in to one half of the brain, the other half already has one foot out the door focused on getting to where that bird is.
This time it was a slaty-backed gull at Quidi Vidi Lake in St. John’s. Lancy Cheng found it. Lancy finds his way to Quidi Vidi Lake almost every day of the week to check out the gulls and ducks. It was fitting that it was Lancy who got to experience the full impact of the surprise and resulting adrenaline rush from the discovering this very rare bird at Quidi Vidi.
The slaty-backed gull is from Russia. It spends the summer nesting in northeast Russia and flies south to coastal Japan and Korea for the winter. Basically, the slaty-backed gull should be on the other side of the world.
There is a very interesting story developing behind the appearance of slaty-backed gulls in the province and elsewhere in eastern North America. The favourite theory is that some are flying from northern Russia (a.k.a. Siberia) east into the Canadian Arctic islands after the nesting season in late summer. Because of the increasing areas of open water between the islands that used to be chock-a-block full of ice, even in late summer, some slaty-backed gulls are finding their way deeper into the Arctic Islands than they historically could.
For the last 20 years or so it seems some slaty-backed gulls have been getting all the way through. Once in the open water on the Atlantic coast we presume they migrate south down the coast during the fall and early winter. No one has actually seen this happen but since the late 1990s a number of slaty-backed gulls have been seen in northeastern North America in placcessuch as Ontario, Quebec, the New England States and Newfoundland. This more or less coincides with meteorological observations of an increase in open water among the islands of the Canadian Arctic.
Newfoundland saw its first slaty-backed gull in January 2006. The exact number of different slaty-backed gulls that have visited Newfoundland since is getting difficult to keep track of. There have been more than a dozen in St. John’s plus one in Lewisporte and Corner Brook. In addition there is one sighting from L’Anse au Loup, Labrador. The last one at Quidi Vidi Lake was in March 2017.
It might as well have been the first one by the way I rushed through the door of where I work. A half dozen other birders were already at lakeside ahead of me. More came in the following seconds but we were all too late. A passing eagle had frightened off all the gulls.
However, all’s well that ends well. The bird has now been seen almost every day for two weeks. Like the other gulls in the city, sooner or later it goes to Quidi Vidi Lake for a drink and bath in fresh water followed by a leisurely preen on the ice. Many people have seen the bird. It created an impact on the Newfoundland Birding Facebook page. Walkers around the lake having heard about the bird would ask us if we had seen “that gull” yet. Sometimes it was there when they asked and they got a look themselves.
The slaty-backed gull will probably be here until the end of winter and then who knows where it will go next. Will it know how to navigate back through the Arctic Islands to get back to northeastern Russia to nest with its friends? There is just one problem: the passageways through the Arctic Islands will not have had time to open up much in spring or early summer. Getting back to Siberia in time for the nesting season will require flying over vast tracks of frozen, inhospitable land and sea, with no opportunity to feed.
The slaty backed gull fits in well with the motley crew of Quidi Vidi Lake gulls. It looks like a gull made up of parts of local gulls thrown together to produce something unique. It has a pale shade of grey on the upper wings borrowed from the lesser black-backed gull. It has a heavily streaked head in winter plumage like a herring gull. It has brilliant pink legs not quite matched by other gulls. It has a unique series of white spots in the outer wingtip that is often described as a string of pearls. The slaty-backed gull is a fan favourite at Quidi Vidi Lake this winter.
Bruce Mactavish is an environmental consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at email@example.com.