AUGUSTA, Maine — On Jan. 10, Louis Bevier found a slaty-backed gull at the Hatch Hill Landfill in Augusta. This is a double milestone. It’s the first time this bird has ever been seen in Maine. It’s also the first time in a long time that I’ve cared about a gull.
I sheepishly admit that I’m not terribly fond of them. Whose idea was it to give them so many different plumages that vary by age and season? In my opinion, that’s why the black-capped chickadee is a perfect Maine state bird. It always looks exactly like a chickadee.
We can be sure of the proper identification of the slaty-backed gull because Louis is one of the best birders on the planet. You can tell the difference between a professional expert like Louis and a recreational expert such as, well, me.
A true expert says things such as, “Look at the white tips on the underside of the primaries of the wing; that’s a third-cycle slaty-backed gull.” Somebody like me says things such as, “Hey, those wings look funny.”
Slaty-backed gulls breed along the coast of Alaska. They tend to spend their winters around Japan and Korea, but a few wander. I first became aware of the bird in 2002 when one enlightened individual made headlines by choosing Key West as its new winter home. It looks similar to our great black-backed gulls, though not as dark.
For a bird that can sit on water and eat garbage, oceans and continents are not big barriers. Because they’ve turned up elsewhere on the east coast, one was expected to mosey into Maine sooner or later. After all, we’ve got tasty garbage.
And garbage is one reason we now have so many gulls. Eighty years ago, there were few great black-backed gulls in Maine and herring gulls were not nearly so numerous. Open air dumps provided a ready food source through the middle decades of the last century and populations grew dramatically. Herring gull populations have actually declined in Maine since the closing of the landfills, but great black-backed numbers have continued to rise.
There are few such dumps now open in Maine, so the Augusta landfill is popular with birders because it draws unusual gulls.
Maine has breeding populations of herring, great black-backed, ring-billed, and laughing gulls. Later in summer, post-breeding Bonaparte’s gulls and black-legged kittiwakes move into our waters. Late summer rarities such as lesser black-backed, common black-headed, and little gulls wander in from Europe, though some little gulls nest in the North American subarctic, too.
In winter, birders are always on the lookout for the Iceland and glaucous gulls that come down from the far north. They aren’t common, but they aren’t rare either. They are often easy to pick out of a crowd because they have no black in the wingtips. The glaucous gull is noticeably larger than a herring gull and the bill is large and heavy. Juveniles can look almost ghostly white. Iceland gulls are slightly smaller than herring gulls and their bills are rather small and dainty. Juveniles share the annoying gull habit of appearing mottled and brown.
Glaucous and Iceland gulls can show up anywhere. The channel between Maine and Campobello is a gull paradise, so lots of unusual species show up in Eastport and Lubec.
Fish canneries have forever been incredible places to find interesting gulls, which is why I was sad to see the last sardine cannery in the United States close its doors in Prospect Harbor. I could always count on finding them there. Other canneries in Belfast and Bath were hot spots in their day.
Still, uncommon gulls are often found sitting on ice floes in the Kennebec River in Bath. When in South Portland, check the Hannaford supermarket in the Mill Creek Shopping Center. The outflow from the adjacent park into the cove has been famous for decades.
Meanwhile, back at the landfill, I never did see the slaty-backed gull. I did run into a lot of birders, including Louis, who pointed out several hybrids.
Yes, just when you think you’re catching on to all the plumage variations for each gull, it turns out that glaucous and herring gulls will mate. Apparently there is more inappropriate mating behavior among gulls than there is at a college frat party. I have pledged that 2012 is the year I will improve my gull identification skills. Of course, I made the same pledge last year.
Bob Duchesne serves in the Maine Legislature, is president of the Penobscot Valley Chapter of Maine Audubon, created the Maine Birding Trail and is the author of the trail guidebook of the same name. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.