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.

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