Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus) breeding on east coast of USA

August 2009

The Lesser and his Herring Gull mate produced two chicks this year, which we banded in early July.  Their field-readable bands are green with white lettering with the following codes:  F04 and F06.  During our most recent visit to Appledore, the two chicks were still alive and observed near their nest on 21 August.  They should fledge soon, so keep your eyes peeled for these two youngsters!

May 2009: LBBG returns to Appledore!
On May 9, 2009 the Lesser was observed at its nest by Bill Clark and two undergraduate students from Canisius College, NYA few days later, its Herring Gull mate (banded in 2008) was also observed by the nest.

February 2009: Banded LBBG continues to "vacation" in Florida

I received the following email this morning from Chuck Tague in Volusia County, FL:

"This morning (February 23, 2009, 8:15 a.m.), I photographed a leg-banded Lesser Black-backed Gull (White on green FO5). The bird was loafing on the beach at high tide with a small group of other larids, mostly Herring and Ring-billed Gulls. There was an unbanded LBBG in the group, although I noted no interaction between the two.

The bird was about a quarter mile north of the north jetty at Ponce Inlet, Volusia County Fl. From Google Earth, 29° 4'57.78"N, 80°55'26.97"W. This is six miles south of the sighting reported by Michael Brothers at Daytona Beach Shores on January 21, 2009."

UPDATE  January 2009

Exciting news! The Lesser Black-backed Gull was seen and photographed on January 21, 2009 in Florida.  The original description of the observation is below:
"Subject: Thayer's, Kumlien's, Franklin's, Possible Yellow-legged Gull.
Daytona Beach Shores. Volusia Co.
From: Michael Brothers
Date: Wed, 21 Jan 2009 23:23:17 -0500

What a day! Today, 1/21, Alvaro Jaramillo, Bob Wallace and I led a field
trip for the Space Coast Birding festival to the Tomoka Landfill,
Daytona Beach,Volusia County. The birds were difficult to see, but we
did find Thayer's and Kumlien's Gulls. Later, we took most of the group
to Daytona Beach Shores for the evening fly-in. We were not
disappointed. First, we found a banded adult Lesser Black-backed Gull.
Alvaro did some research this evening and it turns out that this bird
was banded on an island off of New Hampshire and is the second known
breeding Lesser Black-backed Gull found in North America outside of
Greenland. A celebrity bird on our beach!"


A photo of the LBBG at Daytona Beach Shores, Florida. (Photo by Michael Brothers)


History of Lesser Black-backed Gull breeding on Appledore Island, Maine, USA.

In May 2007, a Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus) was observed at a nest with a Herring Gull (Larus argentatus) on Appledore Island in the Isles of Shoals archipelago, located approximately 10 km from the coast of New Hampshire, USA.  This record represents the second observation of breeding by a Lesser Black-backed Gull in North America (outside of Greenland) and the first record for the Atlantic coast of North America (Ellis et al. 2008).

Herring Gull at nest; Lesser Black-backed Gull approaching nest; May 2007(photo by David Brown, Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

Herring Gull on nest; Lesser Black-backed Gull standing guard at nest; June 2007 (Photo by David Brown, Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

On 22 June 2007, two chicks were observed at the nest; both survived until late July when one was killed by another gull. The surviving chick was banded (see photo below), and appeared to fledge successfully. 

 Surviving chick in July 2007: note federal band on right leg and plastic, field-readable green band on left (photo by David Brown)

History of Lesser Black-backed Gulls in North America

The Lesser Black-backed Gull breeds primarily in northern and western Europe, but has undergone considerable range expansion during the past century (Post and Lewis 1995).  The first record of a Lesser Black-backed Gull in North America (outside of Greenland) was in coastal New Jersey in 1934 (Edwards 1935).  Records of this species in North America increased slowly from 1950 through the mid-1970s, then increased substantially thereafter.  By 1994, this species had been reported in all 31 states in the eastern half of the US except for West Virginia (Post and Lewis 1995). 

Most observations of Lesser Black-backed Gulls along the Atlantic coast of North America occur from October through April, but increasingly the species is observed between May and September.  Wintering birds may come from Greenland or Iceland, where breeding populations of Lesser Black-backed Gulls have been increasing (Cramp and Simmons 1983; Boertmann 2008).

The only other record of a breeding Lesser Black-backed Gull is from Juneau, Alaska on 12 June 1993 (vanVliet et al. 1993).  A Lesser Black-backed Gull was observed with a Herring Gull at a nest with two eggs in the middle of a small mixed colony of Herring gulls and Glaucous-winged Gulls (Larus glaucescens).  That nesting was apparently not successful; the authors visited the site six weeks after the initial observation and found egg shell fragments and dried egg shell membranes near the nest, along with both members of the pair. They did not locate any evidence of juvenile birds at or near the nest.
Putative hybrids between Herring and Lesser Black-backed gulls have been observed in some eastern states, including North Carolina, Connecticut (www.fordham.edu/lewis/birds/comhyb/herxles.html), and New York (www.birds.cornell.edu/crows/lbbgull_hybrid.htm).  These observations, combined with records of large numbers of wintering Lessers and observations of juvenile-plumaged birds, suggest that there may be breeding populations in North America that have yet to be discovered.

A Lesser Black-backed and Herring Gull pair was observed in May 2008 at the same site; presumably the same pair that nested there in the previous year.  We were able to observe the pair copulating, which confirmed that the Lesser Black-backed Gull is the male in the pair.  In early June, we captured and banded both members of the pair; we used a federal and field-readable plastic band on each bird.

Field readable leg band on the Lesser Black-backed Gull (photo by David Bonter, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology)

Summary of bands used on Lesser Black-backed gull and "family"

All birds have one metal (federal) band on the right leg and a field-readable plastic band on the left leg.  All the plastic bands are GREEN with WHITE lettering and a 3-digit alphanumeric code (letter_number_number).

Year    Individual         Federal Band            Plastic Band

2007    Chick               1767-09164                  N02

2008    LBBG                1086-09207                  F05
          HERG                1767-09201                  F01
          Chick 1             1767-09207                  F02
          Chick 2             1767-09206                  F03

For more information on Herring Gull and Great Black-backed Gull populations in New England and the gull banding project at the Shoals Marine Laboratory, go to:  http://www.sml.cornell.edu/sml_research_gull_program.html

Future directions

We obtained feathers from the two chicks in 2007, and from the Lesser Black-backed Gull and two chicks in 2008; these feathers will be used to obtain DNA for a variety of genetic studies - for example, until we analyze the DNA, we cannot say for sure whether the Lesser Black-backed Gull is actually the father of the chicks.  We are also very interested in knowing where these birds spend the winter, and whether the chicks will return to Appledore Island to breed in future years.  If the chicks are hybrids (HERG x LBBG), then it will also be important to determine whether they are fertile. 

 Lesser Black-backed Gull giving Long Call, May 2007; Herring Gull mate is on the left (photo by Bill Clark)
  Lesser Black-backed Gull with one of its chicks on Appledore Island, June 2007  (photo by David Brown)

Boertmann, D 2008.  The Lesser Black-backed Gull, Larus fuscus, in Greenland.  Arctic 61:129-133.
Ellis, JC, MC Stoddard, LW Clark. 2008.  Breeding by a Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus) on the Atlantic coast of North America.  North American Birds 61:546-548.
Post, PW, RH Lewis 1995.  The Lesser Black-backed Gull in the Americas: occurrence and subspecific identity.  Birding 27:282-290, 370-380.
Edwards, JL 1935. The Lesser Black-backed Gull in New Jersey Auk 52:85.
Cramp, S, KEL Simmons (eds) 1983. The Birds of the Western Palearctic.  Volume 3.  Oxford University Press, New York
vanVliet, GB, D Marshall, D Craig, J Egolf 1993.  First record of nesting activity by a Lesser Black-blacked Gull (Larus fuscus) in North America. Bulletin of the Pacific Seabirds Group 20:21.
Our work in both 2007 and 2008 has been conducted with a great deal of logistical support from the director and staff of the Shoals Marine Laboratory (http://www.sml.cornell.edu/).  We are also grateful to David Brown, Marc Dantzker, and Ian Fein from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for video and audio footage of the pair.  Steve Bogdanowicz (Cornell Univ) is contributing substantially to this project by conducting all of the genetic analyses.  Ellis is sub-permitted to band gulls through Sara Morris (Canisius College), and has IACUC approval for gull capture and banding through Tufts University.  We also greatly benefited from discussions about the history of Lesser Black-backed Gulls in North America with Bill Etter (esbittern "at" verizon.net).