12 December 2010

"My" Mew Gull

One of the most challenging groups of birds to identify are the gulls, which is why I like them so much. I admit it, I'm a lariphile. Getting excited about gulls makes winter birding much more fun, because winter is a great time to find rare gulls. Here in Utah, Ring-billed and California Gulls are by far the most common two species, although either one may greatly outnumber the other depending on your location in the state and the time of year. In winter, Herring Gulls are also pretty easy to find. I would consider any other species of gulls in the winter to be a rarity, although some are more rare than others.

This week I was able to find a rare gull in Logan, in a field north of the landfill and near the Logan Fisheries Experiment Station. Scanning through a flock of about 300 gulls, I saw mostly Ring-billed Gulls, about one California Gull for every ten or twenty Ring-billeds, a couple of Herring Gulls, and one that didn't match any of the other three species. It was slightly smaller than a Ring-billed Gull (our smallest common gull). It had a dark eye, more smudging on the nape than a Ring-billed Gull, a slightly darker mantle, and a short, small yellow bill with only a faint smudge of black. It was a Mew Gull (photo above, bird with wings raised). The white dots at the end of the primaries (black wing feathers) and the lack of black markings on the "wrist" of the wing told me it was an adult, which in this species means it was at least in its fourth winter.

Mew Gulls primarily breed throughout much of Alaska and northwestern Canada, but in the winter they are almost strictly coastal, being found within a few miles of the coast from British Columbia to Baja California. (The photo below was taken in Washington.) They are always a surprise when they turn up in Utah, and perhaps especially so in Cache County, where we tend to have fewer gulls than in the Great Salt Lake area. As of 2007, there was only one other record of a Mew in Cache County, a first-winter bird found by Ron Ryel in 1991. But in the winter of 2007-2008, I found the second county record, another first-winter bird. The next winter, 2008-2009, in almost the same spot, I found a second-winter Mew Gull. I didn't see any Mew Gulls here in the winter of 2009-2010. And now, in the 2010-2011 winter, I found an adult Mew Gull. It seems quite likely to me that this is the same bird, one who got lost in his first winter, was lucky enough to find a patch of warm water and a nearby buffet at the landfill, and has decided to find his (or her) way back to the same spot each winter. So while it's always a surprise to find a Mew Gull in Utah, it might be a little less of a surprise if I find an adult, "my" Mew Gull, at this same place again next winter.

10 December 2010


I've got to admit it, I get jealous sometimes. It's bad enough that birders in southern Utah can find show-stopping species like Vermillion Flycatchers, California Condors, and Phainopeplas almost any day they like. Add to that the propensity for rare birds to show up down there, like the recent Purple Sandpiper, and I can get downright green when I think of my southern neighbors. (Certainly a part of the abundance of rare bird discoveries in southern Utah is due to the great birders that live there.) It is times like these when it pays to remind myself of the good birds of northern Utah, some of which are tough to find elsewhere in the state.

Some species reach the southern edge of their breeding range in Cache County. One example of this is the Grasshopper Sparrow, which was on the state review list until 2002. The only breeding records in eBird for this species are north of Salt Lake City, and the species is pretty easy to find in Cache County. Another example is the Common Grackle. They are a pest bird in the east, hogging seed from feeders and keeping other birds away, but in most of Utah they can be difficult to locate. We have a few reliable spots for them here in the north.

But this time of year, winter, is when northern Utah really shines. Many of the species that breed in the arctic barely make it this far south in the winter, and so northern Utah is the place to be if you want to see northern birds. We get Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs almost every winter, for example.

Common Redpolls are more likely to be found here than elsewhere in the state. Winter owls are also more likely here: Cache and Rich Counties together have had four of the five Great Grey Owl records in the state, and Cache County has the only record of a Boreal Owl outside of the Uinta Mountains. Last year, Cache County was the winter residence of the first accepted Utah record of an Iceland Gull, and has hosted at least 11 other species of gulls. These are the things I remind myself of as I long for the bright, exotic birds of the southern reaches of the state; I've got plenty to look forward to up here, too.