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home : birding w/don reimer : birding w/don reimer
January 29, 2020

8/22/2013 9:59:00 AM
Some New Gulls in Town-
Mew Gulls - Photos by Don Reimer
Mew Gulls - Photos by Don Reimer
by Don Reimer

... If happy little bluebirds fly
Beyond the rainbow,
Why, oh why can't I?

Some folks seek out rainbows in pursuit of beauty and inspiration. Me, I have an odd practice of scanning parking lots to see what forms of bird life might occupy such vast open spaces. Like finding the proverbial pot of gold at rainbow's end, I have been richly rewarded on a few occasions.

Around 6 a.m. on August 3, I pulled into the paved parking lot behind Thomaston Grocery, where 60 to 70 Ring-Billed Gulls loitered and preened on the feather-strewn tarmac. Since August is the prime period for feather molting activity, the scene there resembled an overnight pillow fight carried to extremes.

Depending on the vagaries of daily tide cycles and weather fluctuations, this parking area often hosts a slate of morning gulls. Its present inhabitants included two marked Ring-Billed Gulls wearing numbered orange wing tags from a Massachusetts gull study. A third gull with a lettered blue leg band hails from a huge nesting colony (45,000 pairs) near Montreal, Canada.

At the rear of the lot, five gulls splashed around in a bathtub-sized rain puddle. "All Ring-Billeds," I reckoned. The Ring-Billed is a medium-sized, gray-backed gull with yellowish legs and a dark-banded straw yellow bill. Then I noticed that one gull looked slightly smaller and more compact. Its back feathers (mantle) appeared a bit darker than the surrounding birds too.

As I edged the vehicle closer to the assembled throng, some suspicions arose about the gull's possible identity, and my pulse quickened. Further investigation revealed a straight yellow bill without a ring-band. In contrast to the other gulls, the rounded head profile gave this bird a rather gentle expression (yes, certain gull species do exhibit a continuum of "facial expressions" that can be mildly useful with identifications). The gull's eyes were dark colored, like two coffee beans suspended on a white background.

I could no longer suppress an inescapable conclusion: After years of gawking at parking lots and beachfronts, I had stumbled upon a Mew Gull! The gull's wing feathers and coverts were badly worn, creating a fuzzy patch of white on its lower back. Now there was little doubt as to its true identity. This bird represents only the Third State Record for Mew Gull in Maine. Its exceptionally early arrival date at a U.S. East Coast site is also remarkable. Three of the four subspecies that comprise the Mew Gull complex exist across expanses of Alaska, N.W. Canada and Siberia. Their look-alike European counterpart, the Common Gull, occasionally strays onto Newfoundland in late summer and fall.

I reported the sighting to the Maine-Birds website and a score of birders came to observe and photograph the gull throughout the following two weeks. The gull's favored hangouts included the Oceanside High School rooftops and the adjacent recreational fields.

Beyond the obvious rarity of this gull, we are still left to puzzle over its geographic and subspecies origins. Gulls are chronic wanderers that can show up in odd places hundreds or thousands of miles from home. Given the species' world range and distribution patterns, our Thomaston Mew Gull may have trekked 3,000 miles or more.

Through the marvels of the Internet, I forwarded some querying photos to gull experts in Newfoundland and England. No definitive answers as of August 18.

Perhaps this globe-trotting creature has not flown beyond the rainbow's bend, but he/she surely flew far enough to make my birding day!

Reader Comments

Posted: Friday, August 30, 2013
Article comment by: Maggie Trout

What a fine article. Thank you. And that these are urban sightings, encourages paying attention to what we can experience in our own "backyards." And just wonderful to learn more about the gulls.

Three days ago, there were 8 osprey flying in the vicinity of Broadway/Prescott Sts., and a bit further into town in Rockland. Amazing. 8 of them, and for at least 30 minutes.

Writing from Rockland

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