ALWAYS IN SEASON: Rare gull recalls local sighting
December seems to be gull season on the Northern Plains -- not for common gulls that nest here nor for those that pause on migration. No! December gulls are rare birds. A couple of years ago in December, a glaucous gull showed up in Grand Forks C...
December seems to be gull season on the Northern Plains -- not for common gulls that nest here nor for those that pause on migration.
No! December gulls are rare birds.
A couple of years ago in December, a glaucous gull showed up in Grand Forks County. It was only the second bird of its kind ever recorded in the state.
This year's gull is even more rare -- and it is farther away.
A Ross's gull was found at Gavin's Point Reservoir on the Missouri River near Yankton, S.D. There are about 30 records of this gull from the Lower 48 states.
Ross's is a Russian gull. It nests in northeastern Siberia and winters along the Alaska Coast.
Like other gulls, Ross's is a wanderer, however. There are North American records from as far south as Louisiana.
Why would a gull wander so far?
Well, the tribe is a peripatetic one. Most gulls migrate long distances, and their close relatives, the terns, are among the champion long-distance fliers of the bird world. Some species breed in the Arctic and winter in the Antarctic.
A second reason is that gulls pretty much depend on open water, and they'll fly until they find it.
That makes the Missouri River reservoirs excellent places to find rare gulls. There's open water below each of the dams because water is kept moving through turbines that generate electricity.
Garrison Dam in North Dakota is well-known for its appeal to northern gulls, and several state records have been found there.
Third, the rare gulls that are found here are Arctic nesters -- and it would be stating the obvious to point out that the Northern Plains in winter bear a strong resemblance to the Arctic.
Many of our winter birds are Arctic nesters. Snowy owls are the best known of these. This has not been a banner year for snowy owls. Only a few reports have reached me, and I am still anticipating my first snowy owl of the season.
Although the snowy owl is the iconic bird of the North, snow buntings actually nest farther north than the owls, indeed father north than any other land bird. Snow buntings have been abundant in open areas this year.
Rough-legged hawks have been common this season, too, although their numbers have fallen with the onset of snow cover. This is the northernmost nesting hawk, and it's a major predator in Arctic grasslands. This behavior comes with the hawks to the Red River Valley. The birds habitually hunt along the interstate highway right of way.
Oddly for a water bird, the glaucous gull hunted the highways, too.
Gulls are scavengers, and the highway edges provided an abundance of food for the gull, including road kill of all kinds.
The glaucous gull spent about three weeks in the Grand Forks area, ranging north along the interstate highway as far as Drayton.
Where it went, or if it survived the winter, cannot be known.
The Ross's gull in South Dakota has attracted a lot of attention and no doubt will be closely watched.
A single Ross's gull was seen in Grand Forks County in the early 1990s. The bird appeared at the city sewage lagoons and spent only a short time. Unlike this year's sighting in South Dakota, the Grand Forks Ross's gull was here in summer.
Ross's is a small gull, quite dainty and elegant, not at all like the glaucous gull, which is a lumbering behemoth in comparison. Ross's is a beautiful bird. The mantle over the back and topside of the wings is pale gray but the breast and belly are quite brilliant white. The overall effect is of a dazzling, bright bird.
There's a thin but distinct black ring at the back of the neck, and quite often, a pink wash on the belly.
One of our nesting gulls, Franklin's, sometimes displays this pinkish plumage, too. Franklin's is a buoyant, elegant gull, too, but its head is black so it can't be confused with Ross's gull.
Ross's gull is named for James Clark Ross, who is also the namesake of Ross's goose, an uncommon migrant here, usually found with flocks of snow geese.
Mike Jacobs is editor and publisher of the Herald. Reach him at (701) 780-1103; (800) 477-6572, ext. 103; or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org .