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ALWAYS IN SEASON: Franklin’s gull wanders into a summer day

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Illustration by Mike Jacobs2 / 2

If this were a word association test and the question were “summer bird,” Franklin’s gull is probably not the first species that would come to mind.

A spring bird, yes. An abundant migrant noted for the pink blush that the male shows on the breast during breeding season.

A fall bird, too. Many Franklin’s gulls follow tillage equipment feeding on insects the machinery disturbs. Many, too, go “hawking” on autumn evenings when insects swarm over the city.

 A winter bird, never. Franklin’s gulls spend the winter on the west coast of South America.

And a summer bird?

Only in some places.

Franklin’s gull is a species in central North America. It occurs from extreme northeastern South Dakota northwestward to northern Alberta. This includes western Minnesota and all of North Dakota north and west of the Missouri River.

The birds are not widespread, however.

They spend the summer in nesting colonies, which Franklin’s gulls form where conditions are right. This means extensive shallow wetlands.

Such places aren’t necessarily permanent; they depend on weather conditions. A drought year means too little water and a wet year means too much.

Gulls are particular.

Nesting areas are few.

Among the southernmost of these is Lake Traverse at the southern — the high end — of the Red River Valley. In Minnesota, nesting has occurred at Thief Lake Wildlife Management Area and at Lake Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge, which some years has the continent’s largest known Franklin’s gull colonies — as many as 65,000 pairs. In North Dakota the west end of Devils Lake used to have gull colonies. Now there’s too much water. Farther away, other favored areas are the J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge near Upham and Long Lake National Wildlife Refuge southeast of Bismarck.

Gulls are also wary. They often abandon colonies that have been disturbed, not by humans necessarily, but by potential predators such as foxes and skunks. Gulls are ground nesters, and foxes and skunks like gulls’ eggs..

The upshot of all of this is, don’t expect to see Franklin’s gulls in the summertime. At least, that’s what I have believed.

Not this summer, though.

Perhaps because this is a wet summer.

Perhaps because I’m spending more time outside.

I’m seeing Franklin’s gulls.

My guess is that these are non-nester, probably from last year’s hatch. Perhaps they are moving between colonies. Perhaps they are foraging. The largest flock I’ve seen was about 40 birds. They’d settled into a flooded field near our place west of Gilby, N.D. They didn’t stick around. Otherwise, I’ve seen smaller flocks regularly, often passing to the northwest.

Franklin’s is easily told from other gull species that occur in our area at this time of year. They have black heads. Other nesting gulls have white heads. These are ring-billed gull, by far the most common and regularly encountered gull in our area, and California gull, which is at the extreme eastern edge of its range by the time it reaches the Red River Valley.

Franklin’s gull is named for Sir John Franklin, the Arctic explorer. Franklin and his entire party perished on an expedition in the 1840s. The search for these 129 men obsessed Great Britain for nearly a quarter century.

On an earlier expedition, Franklin had been accompanied by Sir John Richardson, a doctor and naturalist — a common combination in 19th century England. Richardson found the gull and named it for Franklin.

Franklin is also the namesake of a kind of ground squirrel found in the Red River Valley.

Richardson is the namesake of another ground squirrel species.

Franklin’s is the common ground squirrel at our place west of Gilby. Richardson’s is more common farther west.

So, it was not a surprise that I encountered both of Franklin’s namesakes on the same day.

Having seen this combination, I suppose the next one to expect is Franklin’s gull and Richardson’s ground squirrel — but probably not in the Red River Valley.