New England Coastal BIrds

New England Coastal BIrds

Monday, May 23, 2011

May means a little trek north for Little Gulls

   by Keith Mueller

The month of May is significant to many of us with a varied choice of spring birding specialties. With the sudden warbler, vireo, thrush and flycatcher invasion the woods suddenly erupt with long awaited color replacing the drab colorless landscapes left barren by a long and very hard winter.  But the coast’s canvas is also being painted with a subtle palette of earthy colors in the form of  dynamically dressed shorebirds, smartly plumed waterfowl wearing there finest outfits, and of course the terns and gulls decked out in their distinctive suits of crisp black, white and grey accented with a bit of color adornments.

With many of the winter coastal visitors gone from the New England shores, a new group of transients and summer coastal residents have moved in.  The new flock of summer beachcombers such as Least, Common and Roseate Terns, Laughing Gulls, Willets and Piping Plovers are now our summer residents and have settled in along the coastal fringes. The returning transient species stopping by for a brief visit include exciting species such as Turnstones, Dunlins, Teal, Phalaropes, and of course Bonapartes Gulls. The second wave of these migrating small delicate gulls arrives on the mid New England coast in May. The majority of these gulls are first winter/first summer birds dressed in pre-adult plumages with only a few showing a developing hood speckled in grey. In Long Island Sound starting around late March/early April, flocks of returning adult Bonapartes Gulls are closely scrutinized for a possible tag-a-long Black-headed Gull or two or that petite rare gem; the Little Gull. The same is true for the wave of gulls in late May.

In the last week, the reports from Rhode Island, Mass and New Hampshire highlighted Little Gulls; 1 in R. I. an adult, 2 in Mass, and 3 in New Hampshire with one being a gorgeous hooded adult [[like this adult spotted later at Revere Beach, MA in late May 2011 Little Gull adult on Flickr and Adult Little Gull- Revere Beach- 27 May 2011]].  Birder Erik Nielsen had been at Sandy Point, MA one day earlier than us, on May 22, and gotten the great photos shown at his site... Little Gull (compared with a Bonaparte's Gull notice the smaller-than-Bonapartes size, the shorter tail, the darker black M pattern on the  wings, the white trailing edge on the wings, the more rounded wing tips, the dusky cap, the short straight bill, the red legs).  Here is a beautiful photo Erik took of that Little Gull (left, obviously) and a nearby Bonaparte's Gull (right) on May 22  (we were hoping for the same luck and good timing with the same Little Gull, at the same Sandy Point,  but one day later!).... Thank you Erik for contributing this one great photograph to this trip report....

Little Gull and Bonaparte's Gull on May 22,  one day before we were there...

As you know the weather recently has been anything less than invigorating. The endless days of rain, wind, fog and cold temperatures were more reminiscent of November, not “May-like” at all. But the birds arrived. To me, the worse the weather, the more miserable the conditions, the more I want to and enjoy being out walking the shoreline, especially if the enticement of a Little Gull is presenting itself. My schedule was full this week preparing for a three week teaching engagement in Marquette, Mich., but with the possibility of a small break in the rainy weather I took Monday off to head north for a little-“Little Gull trek”. I was fortunate to see Little Gulls on two occasions this year: the March Rhode Island pelagic trip Pelagic Rhode Island 2011 March 19  (  and a whale watch trip with Jen on May 1 (blog post to be completed soon) off Provincetown, Mass. where both birds were spotted flying at a distance. I was anxious to photograph the Little Gull up close. The gulls sighted in Mass and N H were just that; standing on the shore and swimming a few feet off of it. My friend Tom Robben had told me that he would be ready in a minute for a Little Gull trek, so I contacted him; his answer was I’ll be ready in a minute! We met Monday morning at 4:00 am, and headed north on 495.

The weather reports for Monday were inconsistent, but one thing was certain; 60% chance of scattered showers in the morning, and then a possibility of clearing during the day. Our itinerary was to start at Sandy Point, Plum Island in Newburyport for the morning and then head north along the New Hampshire coast for the afternoon.

When we arrived at Plum Island around 6:30 am, it was raining lightly; light enough to offer a glint of hope for a semi-dry morning.  Along the main refuge road in Parker River NWR we stopped periodically to look at the birds we spotted. Most noted were Bobolinks, Kingbirds, Yellow Warblers, Savannah and Song Sparrows, a hen Wild Turkey and of course Willets, Kildeer and Gadwalls. When we got down to Sandy Point at the south end of Plum Island there was another hopeful birder sitting in his car waiting for the gentle rain to end. Tom and I were anxious to get started, so we put on our coats, grabbed our binoculars, my camera gear and scope, and off we went down the path to the shore. As we stepped over the top of the grassy approach to the beach, the cold and wet SW wind greeted us with a less than desirable reception. The wind chill factor was elevated and the light rain made its presence known feeling like sleet from the force of the driven wind. I asked Tom “are you sure this isn’t November”? Looking out over the receding shoreline forming from the falling tide there were many flying Bonapartes Gulls and the buzzing calls of Common Terns. Seeing the Bonapartes Gulls made the conditions seem more comfortable; well, for at least a few minutes anyway!

By this time all three of us decided to head west towards the point since many of the gulls were also headed in that direction. When we reached the western point, it suddenly began to rain a bit harder and the wind also picked up. There were a few small bunches of Bonapartes Gulls along the shore, but after looking through all of them we didn’t find the Little Gull. After a few minutes of looking it was obvious that we were underdressed for this. We had prepared for light rain, but instead we were in the middle of a very substantial shower and now it was coming down heavier. I have a waterproof camera bag so I wasn’t worried about my camera. But if the Little Gull did show up, I wouldn’t be able to take photographs of it anyway. We all decided to head back to the cars (which were more than a quarter of a mile away) and dry off (and warm up) and wait until the rain let up (hopefully). During the walk back it was obvious the light rain had elevated to a driving steady rain. When we got back to my truck, Tom and I were both soaked. We waited (and dried off a bit) for about a half an hour. Since most of my birding takes place in the heart of winter, I pack extra clothing such as jackets, coats, sweaters, pants, socks boots, etc. in my truck. Because I extended my birding this year into spring (which feels like a mild winter this year) everything was still neatly packed in the back of my truck.

While we were waiting in the truck, and between the sweeping passes of the wipers, we would watch for birds through the windshield. We could see the numbers of Bonapartes Gulls increasing as they flew around the beach area. We also watched a very determined Merlin chasing warblers out in front of my truck. The bird made three attempts but failed. After a short while and a bit of drying out, the rain decreased to the point where it was barely leaving a trace on my windshield. With a quick change of warm and dry clothing we decided to head back to the beach. As I stepped out of the truck, a spectacular Brown Thrasher appeared on a small branch just in front of my truck. I slowly reached for my camera, but you know how that turned out. The other gentleman decided to leave and come back later, so Tom and I had the beach to ourselves.

As we walked over the top of the grassy area, we noticed that small groups of Bonapartes Gulls were starting to gather along the waterline out in front of the path we were on. We immediately approached the birds at a respectable distance and began searching through the birds. More and more Gulls approached and began to spread out along the shore. A larger group had gathered on the shoreline at Bar Head among the exposed reef rocks. By this time the light rain had stopped so I decided to head towards these birds and see what else might be with them.

Activity off the point...

Along the way, there were many Black-bellied Plovers feeding on the beach and many were in their spring finery; a very handsome species. With the plovers were Semi-palmated Sandpipers, a few Least Sandpipers, and a few Ruddy Turnstones. When I approached the Bonapartes Gulls, they were actively feeding in the disturbed surf along the tidal reef. I am fascinated by this Gull species, in fact it is my favorite gull species. I never get tired of watching this species, and consider it a treat when they migrate through our area in November, March, April and May. And besides, they always bring a few of their “rarer” friends with them. I believe the Bonapartes Gull has earned the nickname “seaworthy gull”. They are a very dainty and elegant gull species and they often feed in the most violent sea conditions; a classic paradox! Just offshore were a few Common Eiders and a raft of Oldsquaw and a flock of Brant flew by heading west. I searched through all the Bonapartes Gulls and watched them for a while, but no Little Gull. As I was heading back to the other gatherings of Gulls, I saw many shorebirds coming and going, including one mixed flock of 7 shorebirds which was made up of 5 Black-bellied Plovers, 1 Ruddy Turnstone and 1 Short-billed Dowitcher .


I met Tom back at the middle gathering of Bonapartes Gulls, and he hadn’t found the Little Gull  either. More and more Bonapartes Gulls appeared and they had built in numbers to a few hundred. Gulls came and went and we looked at every one of them. Out in the middle of the river large numbers of terns were feeding heavily and many were roosting on the sand spits. Because of the wind and rushing water most of the calls we were able to hear and identify were Common and Least Terns. The other gentleman returned and Tom joined him for a few minutes heading towards the most western point. I remained and as the water in front of me receded even more, a small peninsula formed where I was standing. The small sand spit was suddenly surrounded by water on three sides and the Gulls were all around me.

Groups of Bonaparte's Gulls feeding...

More and more would fly into the other gulls which were now only a few yards away from me. The birds accepted my presence and actually seemed to ignore me. The bulk of the gulls were immature birds in first summer plumage, with a small number of them showing signs of the hood which was now speckled with graying feathers. I only noticed 3 adult gulls having complete dark hoods. But what I also noticed was; no Little Gull. While I was standing there, the smaller groups of gulls to the west began flying to the birds around me, As they passed by often a few feet above the sand, they would split around me sometimes within a few feet……that was truly amazing!

Small group of Bonaparte's Gulls...

Bonaparte's Gull flying close...

Small groups of shorebirds would join the several hundred Bonapartes Gulls, and Common Terns began flying low over me offering good photo ops. As I was standing there, the Gulls suddenly erupted all around me and flew off in a well  choreographed flight reminiscent of an on-stage dance production. The birds wheeled around keeping perfectly timed with each other. I know I didn’t move suddenly to scare the birds off, the reason became clear; a Black-bellied Plover flew right over my head with a Merlin on its tail. The Plover reacted with a few evasive maneuvers and the Merlin flew by. If this was the same Merlin that we saw earlier unsuccessfully chasing warblers, its average wasn’t very good. It happened so fast, I never had a chance with the camera. The Gulls wheeled around for a few minutes and then they returned and landed in the same spot in front of me where they were. They again began feeding heavily on small planktonic organisms. I took a burst of images of the flying gulls hoping that a Little Gull sneaked into the group (but examining the images later showed no hitch hiker),

Flock of Bonaparte's Gulls...

Tom returned from the point and mentioned that the Terns were very active in river, and there were a few Bonapartes Gulls, but no one spotted the Little Gull. We chatted for awhile and Tom decided to take a walk to Bar Head, because there were good numbers of Bonapartes Gulls spread out all along the shoreline to the Point. As Tom slowly meandered to the point, other birders came and went, and no one had seen the Little Gull. I began to scope all the birds on the western point and across the other shore. I saw plenty of Terns, few Bonapartes Gulls and Shorebirds. On the point I spotted 3 Piping Plovers scurrying around on the beach for a few moments and then heading back to their nesting areas behind the fences.

Tom looking at gulls in the unexpectedly cold wind...

A friendly birder approached me and asked if he could join me for a few Bonaparte’s photo ops. I said “absolutely, plenty to go around”! His name was John, and he was from Illinois and in the area on business. He had a few hours to kill, so he wanted to get in a little birding during his break. He asked what the “bird of the day was” and I mentioned the Little Gull. That excited him very much. As we chatted, he also asked if I had seen any Roseate Terns. I mentioned I hadn’t but I knew they were being recorded there. I started telling him about Faulkner’s Island and how my Father-in-law is on the board of the Faulkner’s Island Brigade. And as fate often happens; as I was talking about the Roseate Tern program on Faulkner’s, a  pair of Terns approached us. He asked me what species they were. I looked up, and recognized them. I then asked him what color are their breasts, he replied “pinkish”, I said “there you go”! No sooner did I say that, the two birds landed close by on the small spit where we were standing only twenty-five feet away. One of these gorgeous birds was displaying a leg band. John was very happy since he had just seen a “lifer”. He thanked me and then asked me about a good shorebirding spot in CT since he was on his way there next for business. I suggested he try Long Beach Park and Lewis Gut.

Roseate Tern pair...

Tom slowly approached from Bar Head and examined carefully all the Bonapartes Gulls between him and I. At this point over 350 Bonapartes Gulls had gathered around me and near Tom and their orchestral choir of tern-like calls was resonating in the wind; it was wonderful to hear. Again, the gulls exploded into flight and sure enough, the Merlin had returned. It was chasing another B B Plover along the outer sand bars and again, the Plover out-maneuvered the Merlin. It appeared the Merlin was having a bad day. All the gulls settled again in front of me, and began feeding heavily, but no Little Gull.

More Bonaparte's Gulls feeding...

Common Tern...

For the next hour, more gulls came and went and many Terns were flying overhead. Two more pairs of Roseate Terns landed in front of me offering good close photos. Since it was low tide and the water was quite shallow, a single Great Black-backed Gull spotted a meal and was suddenly dragging its large catch towards the beach. The gull had caught a Skate, and was having a bit of a time with it.

Great Black-backed Gull with skate...

A few more birders came and went and no one had spotted the Little Gull. As the morning turned into noon, Tom and I decided that after a morning of searching through hundreds of Bonapartes Gulls, it was obvious that the Little Gull wasn’t going to show. But the morning wasn’t a disappointment, we had three pairs of beautiful Roseate Terns within a few yards, we watched and were entertained by a Merlin trying its best to secure a meal, and got to spend a May morning in the presence of my favorite “sea worthy” Gull. As we were driving out of the Park, besides the usual Willets, Kildeer and Gadwall, Tom spotted 5 Green-winged (4 drakes-1 hen) and a gorgeous Blue-winged Teal drake.

Our next destination was the coast of New Hampshire, with a quick drive-through of the Salisbury Reservation. Other than a few flying groups of shorebirds over the marsh, the only birds of note were a few Common Terns at the boat ramp, and a concentration of 50 Eiders with a few Scoters off the Point.

Entering New Hampshire, Tom and I talked about our last trip there with the amazing Glaucous Gull. Heading north on route 1A we stopped briefly at the parking lot overlooking Hampton Harbor, the area where we had encountered the Glaucous Gull. In the harbor below us, there were a few of the usual Herring, G B B Gulls and Ring-billed. Sitting alone was a single immature Bonapartes Gull.

In the middle of the harbor, the low tide sand bars held good numbers of shorebirds; Dunlin, Least and Semi-palmated Sandpipers, and a few Black-bellied Plovers. Heading north again, we stopped at the south side of the sea wall at North Hampton. Peering over the wall we happened upon a lucky find: a small group of 21 Bonaparte’s Gulls. The birds were situated just inside the crashing surf amongst the large boulders.

Tom and I both looked very hard for a Little Gull, but no luck. I was looking just outside the breakers and I spotted a small group of Oldsquaw. As I was watching the Oldsquaw, I looked back over to the Gulls, and suddenly a small black bird appeared; a Black Tern! This was a wonderful find, and we watched the bird for five minutes as it wheeled around and fished above the breaking surf.

Black Tern, the first of four...

After taking a few images of the Gulls, Oldsquaw and Tern we returned to our northerly route. Halfway up the sea wall I noticed an adult Herring Gull standing proudly on the sea wall. I looked over and noticed it had two leg bands; one a typical USFW metal band on the right leg, and a large green with white letters auxiliary marker band on the left leg. The numbers on the green band were K68 and the numbers on the leg band were 1----0204. ( I reported the gull sighting to the USFW when I got home). We made several stops along the way towards Little Boars Head, the area where the adult Little Gull was discovered a few days earlier, The birds we saw along the way were a few more Bonapartes Gulls, Common Terns, Eiders, Scoters, Oldsquaw, a few Gannets and many sandpipers both
peeps and Sanderlings.

Banded Gull...

Approaching Little Boars Head, we began to see many small clusters of Bonapartes Gulls. Of course we stopped at every group along Little Boars Head and searched through them. Our anticipation of finding the Little Gull was growing; but still none were to be found. As we left the Little Boars Head area, more groups of Bonapartes Gulls were seen, but still no Little Gull. However, as we made another quick stop, Tom looked over the rocky sea wall and spotted a hen eider with 3 ducklings. Since Eiders are my favorite bird, and the brood was a bit early, it was exciting to see. The hen swam out with her brood and the few Bonapartes Gulls were alone, with no rare hitchhiker.

We had now driven to Rye Harbor where we had earlier seen the Black Guillemot. We drove out to the point at the mouth of the harbor. A few Eiders were present and a few Gannets and Oldsquaw off shore, but the Guillemot has apparently moved on. A small group of peeps were flying around the harbor and landed on the breakwater. Our last destination was Odiorne Point north of Rye. The Point is where 2 Little Gulls were seen on Saturday, two days before. Route 1A followed the coast from Rye Harbor, along Rye Beach North to Odiorne Point. We stopped many times along the road, and spotted small group after small group of Bonapartes Gulls, but no Little Gulls. Just south of Odiorne Point we spotted another group of Bonapartes Gulls, and a large concentration of feeding Common Terns just off shore with a few Purple Sandpipers on the rocks..

Tom immediately spotted 3 more Black Terns with the group of Terns; fantastic! We watched the Terns for a few minutes and then I spotted a larger group of Bonapartes Gulls standing along the rocky beach in a small cove at the base of Odiorne Point. We drove over to the area, and when I walked over the top of the bank, I immediately saw another hen eider with 5 ducklings. The hen slowly swam over the group of foster sister hens and they all surrounded the ducklings and led them away. One of the foster hens closed the circle and took up a position in the back of the group. She looked over to me almost telling that this sister group of foster hens would not let any harm come to these little ducklings…..I was impressed.

Foster hen Eiders with brood...

Looking out into the cove, the outer rocks were home to roosting Terns and Bonapartes Gulls. The inner cove shoreline supported a group of 24 Bonapartes Gulls. Since this was the end of our trek, would there be a Little Gull sitting in the group giving us a fabulous Little Gull crescendo for the day?? Unfortunately, no Little Gull in the group.  It was 4:30 pm and our trek had come to an end. Even though we didn’t find a Little Gull, we had a great time and a great experience in some of the most beautiful coast line habitat that New England has to offer. We spotted many great birds including Black Terns, Roseate Terns, Seafowl of all species, but mostly Eider ducklings and hundreds of my favorite “seaworthy gull” the Bonapartes.

As a note: On Tuesday morning a single Little Gull was spotted and photographed on Sandy Point! Oh well, I will try again next year!

ADDENDUM-(Nov. 23, 2011)- I received an email yesterday stating that the sender had found what he thought was a Little Gull in the image above of the flying flock of Bonaparte's Gulls (image #7). He thought the full hooded gull in the center of the image was the Little Gull. I explained that the gull in question was one of three adult Bonaparte's Gulls we saw that day with full hoods, and the classic white "blades" of the anterior wings of that bird clearly indicated Bonaparte's Gull. Tom and I spent hours studying all the birds on the beach that day, and just couldn't find the Little Gull. I also spent countless hours reviewing all the images that I took that day (1500) searching for that one Gull that maybe was trying to hide in all those Bonaparte's Gulls, with no luck of course.

When I was on this page looking at the image in question, I just happened to look at the image below with Tom standing there (in the blue jacket). At the time I took that image, he was walking slowly back to the area where I was standing on a little sand spit with a small cove of water between us. The entire beach that day was covered with Bonaparte's Gulls and we took great care searching through all of them. In the image, Tom was studying all the Gulls that were flying by him, and at the time his concentration was on the flying birds, not the birds along the edge of the water. As I made a casual look at the image, my eyes practically fell out of my head! At Tom's feet to his right just along the edge of the water is the LITTLE GULL!! 

I went back and looked at the original images, and this bird is only in four images in sequence on the flash card. As I mentioned, Tom had just reached the area and he was concentrating on the flying Gulls, and I was concentrating on taking Tom's picture, so he and I never looked at the Gulls in front of him. The bird must have slipped out while we were paying attention elsewhere. So add 1 LITTLE GULL to the list, and consider this Little Gull Trek a success!!

Keith Mueller    Killingworth

Birds seen (both Mass and N H):

450-500 Bonapartes Gulls
150+ Common Terns
30 Least Terns
6 Roseate Terns
4 Black terns
100 typical Gulls + 1 banded Herring Gull
24 Black-bellied Plover
100 Peeps (mostly Semi-palmated Sandpipers)
3 Short-billed Dowitcher
12 Ruddy Turnstones
36 Dunlin
10 Sanderlings
18 Willets
9 Kildeer
3 Piping Plover
100 Common Eiders
8 Eider ducklings
250+/- Oldsquaw
18 Scoter
50 Brant
12 Gadwall
5 Green-winged Teal
1 drake Blue-winged Teal
18 Snowy and Great Egrets
7 Gannets
1 Merlin
10 Warblers
3 Kingbirds
3 Bobolink
1 hen Wild Turkey
1 Brown Thrasher
7 Song and Savannah Sparrows