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!