Niagara, December 3rd, 2011

Leader: Kevin McGowan

A larger than normal group of Ithaca gull watchers made our annual field trip to Niagara Falls. I was accompanied by Marty Borko, Susan Danskin, Jody Enk, Evren Lew, Becky Hansen, Stuart Krasnoff, Jay McGowan, Mark Miller, Ann Mitchell, Dave Nutter, Jesse Ross, Nick Sly, and Suan Yong. Fortunately we found a larger than normal number of gull species to match, and we had a great day.

We began at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, looking for a wayward Razorbill that had been seen during the week. Although the errant alcid was seen a few hours before we arrived, we did not find it. We did see a floating black-and-white body across the river; many believed it was the remains of the Razorbill’s encounter with a nearby boat of duck hunters. We did get very close looks at a Horned Grebe and nice views of Long-tailed Ducks, Whitewinged Scoters, and a flyby Peregrine Falcon.

Moving upstream, we stopped at the Queenstown docks, where only Suan was lucky enough to get on our target bird, Little Gull, before it disappeared in the distance. The rest of us had to be content with nice views of the large number of beautiful Bonaparte’s Gulls.

The overlook at Sir Adam Beck power plant was rewarding, as usual. We quickly found a first-year Franklin’s Gull, several Iceland Gulls, and several Thayer’s Gulls. We were contemplating leaving and going to look for a Black-legged Kittiwake when a nearby birder got a phone call that a very rare Slaty-backed Gull had just been found at the control gates above the falls. We made a quick and easy decision to skip the Kittiwake and head straight there. When we got out of our cars at the control gates, the Slaty-backed Gull was in view on an island out in the river. We could see that it was a large, darkbacked gull. Its back was lighter gray and its legs were brighter pink than the nearby Great Black-backed Gulls. It also was kind of dumpy and had a dirty face, both good Slaty-back characteristics.

When a low-flying Red-tailed Hawk flushed all the gulls everyone groaned but then cheered as the Slaty-back made its way directly to the breakwall just in front of us. As it landed, some got good looks at the double string of white spots on the wingtips that are the best fieldmark for the species. Accompanying the Siberian wanderer on the breakwall were several Lesser Black-backed Gulls, as well as lots of Great Black-backed, Ring-billed, and Herring gulls. Joining the gulls on occasion were two female-plumaged Harlequin Ducks, a rare bird for the trip. They spent most of the time so close to the breakwall, but on the opposite side, that we couldn’t see them. Every now and then they would pop up on the breakwall and preen a bit. On one occasion they were rather directly shoved off the wall by a rude Herring Gull. Stuart managed to get a video of it.

At a stop closer to the falls, we found two Glaucous Gulls and a probable Lesser black-backed X Herring Gull. We still had a bit of daylight left, so we headed downstream to the whirlpool where the Black-legged Kittiwake had been seen that week. I was the first to approach the overlook and was disappointed to see only one or two gulls flying around. But, as luck would have it, the first bird I put my binoculars on was the kittiwake! It gave great looks and was really quite beautiful against the dark green of the swirling waters below. We tallied a total of 12 gull species, with everyone seeing at least 11. That is one of the highest gull totals we’ve had on this field trip, and I think everyone appreciated how nice a birding day it was.

-Kevin McGowan