Monday 16 January 2017

Slaty-backed Gull saga

On New Year's Day, Chris Kundl started his year off right by discovering a Slaty-backed Gull in the shallows south of Goat Island in the Niagara River. This species is typically found in east Asia, though some breed in western Alaska as well. However it is a species that is prone to long-range vagrancy, and there are records across North America including thirteen for Ontario. I had previously seen two in my life, both in Ontario - however views were far from ideal as both birds were in the middle of the Niagara River, quite a distance from the Control Gates above Niagara Falls where I was standing on both occasions. Slaty-backed Gull was also one of the 23 bird species that I had seen in Ontario but had never photographed within the borders of the province. Because of these reasons, and because I really enjoy gull watching, this was a bird that I was itching to see.

At the time I was in Toronto birding with Jeremy Bensette, and we figured that even if we drove straight back to Niagara we would only have an hour until sundown to search for the bird. It was also only being seen on the New York side of the river at the time, likely not even visible from Ontario (and I currently have an expired passport, so crossing the border was not in the cards).

The following day I had plans with my siblings, though I birded a bit in the morning with Jeremy and Henrique. Of course there was no word of the Slaty-backed right away (we were at the Whirlpool looking for the Black-headed Gull). Only fifteen minutes after leaving Niagara I received a text from Richard Poort that the Slaty-backed was being viewed from the Control Gates, on the Ontario side of the river. Crap!! Jeremy ended up seeing the bird, a great addition to his Ontario big year, and even managed some photos when it flew into Canadian "airspace".

The gull was reported a few more times in the subsequent days, though sometimes these reports were several hours after the fact. I checked the Upper Falls almost every day during the first week of the year, figuring I was bound to cross paths with it eventually. But still no luck! The gull's appearances were sporadic on the river, and the theory among some birders was that it was likely hanging out at one of the local landfills.

birders not looking at the Slaty-backed Gull - Control Gates, Niagara Falls

On January 9, Ryan Griffiths was birding in Thorold when he made a stunning discovery - an adult Slaty-backed Gull on the ice of the Welland Canal! Photos seemed to indicate that it was the same individual seen the previous week along the Niagara River. Living only fifteen minutes from here, I raced over immediately, confident that the bird would still be present. Ryan was here, but the bird was not. Apparently I had missed it by just five minutes, and it had flown away - presumably to the nearby landfill to feed..

The next day, David Pryor re-found the Slaty-backed Gull in Thorold, but in a different location along the canal. Again I raced over immediately; again the gull had flown by the time I had arrived.

On my third try, myself (and the dozen or so other birders staked out in Thorold) looked far and wide, but it did not appear. Ugh...

But yesterday afternoon, Kayo Roy rediscovered the bird, at the same spot where David Pryor had located it. Thanks to Kayo for getting the word out quickly, and to Marcie Jacklin and Ryan Griffiths for letting me know ASAP. I was at Dufferin Islands at the time when I checked my phone and saw the messages. Twenty-two minutes later I pulled up to the spot, and there she was.

Slaty-backed Gull (right of centre with dark back) - Welland Canal, Thorold

It was just as much relief as it was excitement in finally laying eyes on this Asian beauty. I fired off a few series of photos, and checked out the bird through my spotting scope - frame-filling views. Awesome!

Slaty-backed Gull - Welland Canal, Thorold

Some of the salient field marks that identify this bird as a Slaty-backed Gull include:
-dark gray mantle (back), about the same shade as Lesser Black-backed, and a bit paler than Great Black-backed
-bright pink legs
-moderate head and neck streaking, and in particular heavy streaking around the eye and on the nape
-thick, white tertial crescent (much wider than on Lesser Black-backed Gull)
-pale yellow iris
-in flight, unique primary pattern includes "string of pearls", which are created by white subterminal spots

Slaty-backed Gull - Welland Canal, Thorold

It was a short-lived visit for the Slaty-backed, however. Despite looking comfortable only moments earlier, sound asleep on the ice, the bird got up in short order and began preening. A minute or two after that and it had taken to the wing, though this did provide great views of its primary pattern and the extensive white trailing edges to its wings. It continued due east, perhaps heading towards the landfill, or maybe even the Niagara River. Two more cars came to a screeching halt, and out jumped Marcie Jacklin and Tim Seburn from one vehicle, and Blayne and Jean Farnan from the other vehicle. Using our directions, all four of them were able to get on the quickly disappearing dark-mantled gull. Not the greatest looks, but better than missing the bird!

Unfortunately for the several other groups of birders en route, the Slaty-backed did not return. But during January 14 and 15 it returned to the Niagara River where it was seen by a handful of birders. I was fortunate in zipping out to see it on Sunday afternoon, though views were a lot more distant than with the sighting in Thorold.

Now that the Slaty-backed Gull appears to have established a bit of a pattern, the hope is it will become a bit more reliable. Good luck for those looking in subsequent days. I'll definitely be out there looking...this is a bird that does not completely satisfy with only one or two sightings!


Nathan Miller said...

Nice! I will be down in that area for work the next two days, lemme know if you spot it and I'll do the same.

Josh Vandermeulen said...

Will do!

AC said...

That's quite the adventure to see it! Any recommendations on time of day if I'm going to try and see it?

Josh Vandermeulen said...

It has been seen at the two locations in Thorold and as well on the Niagara River somewhat irregularly, and can be a tough bird to pin down. Sightings at the Welland Canal in Thorold have occurred only on weekdays, and usually between 11:00 AM and 2:00 PM, though some days it goes missing. Sightings are often brief - it rarely hangs around for an hour or more.

When found on the river, it has always been above the Horseshoe Falls, most frequently upstream of Three Sisters Island. It has been seen on the river primarily on weekends, but also on some weekdays.

Good luck!

Unknown said...

Great find and beautiful photographs! Love the pink legs. -Laura

Josh Vandermeulen said...

Thanks Laura!