September 17, 2019
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How this birder missed his chance at seeing a rare gull

I hold grudges. In fact, that’s why I’m sitting here, right this moment, on a pier overlooking Eastport. Across the channel, there is a swarm of small gulls. Somewhere in that flock of thousands, there is a rare gull species, and I have a grudge against it.

Not many Mainers have heard of Sabine’s gull, nor should they. It summers in the Arctic. It winters in the tropics, mostly at sea, and mostly in the Pacific. It’s rare to see one from land, even rarer to see one from land in the Atlantic. But somehow, every year, someone spots one in the waters between Eastport and Campobello, amid hordes of wintering gulls.

Every Mainer knows the abundant herring gull. Most Mainers are familiar with ring-billed gulls, the similar-but-smaller gull that hangs around McDonald’s and the Bangor Mall. You probably recognize black-backed gulls, the big ones with the black backs. Probably the laughing gull is familiar, with its smaller size and black head.

That swarm of small gulls I’m watching across the channel consists mostly of Bonaparte’s gulls. This dainty little gull nests on freshwater throughout much of Canada, then flies south to winter along the American coastline. Bonaparte’s gulls particularly love this channel, and they move in by the thousands every August.

My hope is that the distant gull swarm will move closer to my pier as the tide changes. The Sabine’s gull is likely to be among them. It will look similar to the Bonaparte’s gulls, but with darker wing tops and a yellow-tipped black bill. Even though I’ve never seen one, I know exactly what to look for, because I’ve tried and failed so many times. That’s why I hold a grudge against it.

Grudge birds go by several names. Some call them jinx birds or nemesis birds. They are birds that one has never seen, despite multiple attempts. Two weeks ago, the Sabine’s gull moved ahead of boreal owl to take the top spot on my list of grudge birds. Blame Seth Benz.

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Seth is the bird ecologist at Schoodic Institute in Acadia National Park. We co-lead several tours each summer. That’s why we were on a boat in a torrential downpour, looking for birds. We had intended to take our group on a boat out of Lubec, but the captain thought we were nuts to go birding in the fog and rain. He was right, of course. But then we called Butch Harris at Eastport Windjammers. He also thought we were nuts. But he said that if the 10 of us wanted to try it, he would take us.

It was unexpectedly magical. With only birders on board, there was no obligation to search for whales. Butch took us to where the gulls were gathered. The fog lifted slightly, allowing us to see an astonishing abundance of birds on every side. Most were Bonaparte’s gulls. One was not. Seth spotted something unusual, and had barely enough time to snap a photo before it flew off into the fog. That evening, back in the motel, he blew it up on his computer. A Sabine’s gull! Dag-nab-it! I was within spitting distance of a Sabine’s gull, and never saw it!

Courtesy of Seth Benz
Courtesy of Seth Benz
A Sabine's gull

So here I sit dockside, four days later, writing this column and waiting for that gull swarm to move closer. I’ve picked out a few other rarities. Aptly named, the little gull is the smallest gull in the world. It is even tinier than the Bonaparte’s gull, and breeds throughout Eurasia. A minute number — perhaps just a couple hundred — have established small colonies in Canada, and a handful of these pop up in Maine every autumn. This is only the second one I’ve seen here.

There is also a black-headed gull out there. It’s a little bigger, and this youngster has a red bill. They are abundant throughout Eurasia, with a small colony in Newfoundland. This is the first one I’ve seen in Maine waters in at least a decade.

For most backyard birders, this kind of extreme birding is best left to demented, hardcore devotees like myself. It’s just handy to know that this huge autumnal gull gathering between Eastport and Campobello is a natural phenomenon that happens nowhere else. It’s a spectacle.

At the moment, it’s a distant spectacle. The tide has now turned. Sure enough, the gulls moved. Farther away. No Sabine’s gull for me again today. This is how grudge birds are created.

Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at duchesne@midmaine.com.

Watch: How to spot purple sandpipers along the coast of Maine



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