New England Coastal BIrds

New England Coastal BIrds

Monday, January 30, 2012

January 30, Forty-Five Degrees?

Grassy Point-Lesser Black-backed Gull

     January 30, Ninigret Park NWR, Rhode Island- The morning was nothing less than gorgeous! The sun was bright and not a cloud in the sky. The wind was moderate so’westerly, and the temps were very unseasonable (but down right pleasant) in the mid forties. Jen and I decided to spend a few hours in the morning enjoying the great weather. What a perfect day to take a walk in Ninigret to visit the very reliable Lesser Black-backed Gull. I am sure  many Rhode Island birders have a name for this Gull. Since there wasn’t any immediate threat that the saltpond was going to freeze over, the chances that the Gull would be at its favorite spot around Grassy Point would be good.

     It was around 9:00 am when we arrived to the Grassy Point parking area, and the warm sky was as clear blue as a robin’s egg tempered slightly by the cool westerly wind. We started walking down the path to the Point and I anxiously started looking ahead as the path closed in on the cove. I kept peeking over the rushes in hopes of spotting this usually reliable winter visiting Gull.  The leeside of the cove on the eastern side of the Point was calm and quiet; no Gull! Ahead at the Point I could see two Gulls tucked in close to the small lee. One of the Gulls was a Ring-billed, but the other was just out of my sight.  I also walked down the small path to the west cove where I saw the Gull a week ago, but it wasn’t there either. When we were almost to the Point, a single Gull flew up and over the trees and over our heads. It was a Black-backed Gull, but a Greater.

     At the small observation area at the Point we ran into another birder who mentioned the Black-backed Gull was there when he arrived a minute or two ahead of us, but he never got a good look at it when it took off.  We introduced ourselves and were pleasantly surprised to discover that this kind gentleman Dr. George Donahue was also from CT.  We talked for a bit and discussed the missing Lesser B-b Gull and that we also knew Jerry Connelly from The Audubon Shop in Madison, CT (whose name was brought up when Dr. George asked where I purchased my spotting scope).  We all chatted for nearly an hour determined to wait for that Gull. In the pond to the distant east was a small group of roosting Gulls on a sand bar (too far to ID). Closer to us were a few small flocks of Bufflehead and Red-breasted Mergansers, also a pair of Red-throated Loons were fishing. Feeding alongside the Red-breasted Mergansers were thirteen Bonaparte’s Gulls which we all enjoyed watching.  We scanned every Gull that flew by, but the Lesser B-b Gull was no where in sight. Jen spotted a Harrier that was hunting over the woods near the parking area.

     The Bonaparte’s Gulls left the feeding activities with the Mergansers and then flew out of the pond over our heads heading to the west.

     This is the time I uttered those words that every birder and fisherman always say when its time to leave, but really don't want to; “well, we’ll give it five more minutes”! Six minutes later and no Gull, we said Good-bye” to Dr. George and Jen and I started down the path. When we reached the cove near the bench, something told me to stop for a second and take one last look. I put the scope down and made a quick run down the path to the western cove, but no Gull. As I emerged from the brush and as if almost on cue, I looked up, and there was the Lesser Black-backed Gull! It was flying in from the Point crossing right in front of Jen and me. It circled the area once …..

     ……and then landed a few yards down from us in the quiet of the cove.

     Jen and I watched the Gull for a few moments and of course we looked at each other in disbelief. Jen said that she was going back to the Point to bring Dr. George back with her so he can enjoy the bird too. Within seconds of landing, the Gull began feeding. It had a very unique way of finding food. The Gull would stir up the bottom substrate with its paddling feet while watching underwater very intently.……..

 …….when it dug up a food item it would lunge forward and collect its prize. I have watched some Herring Gulls all summer long from the deck of Jen’s parent’s beach cottage exhibit this feeding behavior. Not all the Gulls were masters of this technique. Many tried unsuccessfully and gave up in a short period of time. Simply, the Gull would walk along the waterline of the beach. It would turn away from the water in a perpendicular plane, then lightly knead the sand and then start digging in a “jogging in place” motion. As the bird dug deeper, the sand would be sifted naturally like a gold prospector “panning for gold”.  As the sand was sifted in the Gulls small hole, a prize would be discovered; usually a Mole Crab (aka Beach Bug as Jen and her dad call them) or some other tidal creature such as a sand worm, or a small Isopod. 


     There was even time to preen……..

    ………but most of the time the Gull was feeding.

     You can see the small food item in the Gulls bill in this sequence.

     Jen and I and Dr. George watched and enjoyed the Gull for half an hour. Here are a few good images showcasing this special Gull species.

     The Gull was so successful feeding that a distant Greater Black-backed Gull decided it wanted in on the action and flew in causing the Lesser Black-backed Gull to take flight. But it was short flight, as the Lesser B-b Gull flew to the Point and settled in again.

     We said our good-byes to Dr. George and to the Gull. Jen and I enjoyed our visit with two kind souls!

     If you have a bit of difficulty identifying Lesser Black-backed Gulls, here are a few tips and field marks that you might find helpful:

    Long slender profile- this species is about the same size as or slightly smaller than a Herring Gull. It has a long slender shape which actually appears and gives the impression as too long for a large Gull species. The mantle (or back feathers) coloration of this Gull is a medium to dark medium blue/gray which is in between the grey of a Herring Gull but almost as dark as a Greater Black-backed Gull which has a dark sooty brownish/gray mantle color.

Features of the head (below)- (1) Bill- the bill is a slender medium sized bill that is slightly tapered. The base of the bill in its height is similar in size or slightly greater than the depth (or height) of the gonys (the small angular edge of the lower side of the mandible-in this image with the extensive red area). The gonydeal angle ( angular shape of the gonys) is not great or sharp-it has a medium angle to it as compared to the Greater Black-backed Gull which clearly has a heavier bill structure and a thicker gonys to the height of the bill base and sharper gonydeal angle (below-image 2). (2) Eye- in adult cycle (like the one pictured in these images) the eye is a pale lemon color with an orange/red orbital ring. (3) Orbital feathering- the feathering around the eye has a dark circlet appearance to it (similar to a residual "black-eye").  (4) Head Shape- the overall head shape of the Lesser B-b Gull is smaller in size and rounded with a gentle slope to the forehead.

     One of the best ways to identify the Lesser Black-backed Gull is its long wing tip extensions. The primaries extend beyond the tail starting around primary number six (below). If you contrast this to a Greater Black-backed Gull (below- image 2) you can see that the Greater B-b Gull has a very short wing extension.

                                     Greater Black-backed Gull

     The tips of the primaries of the Lesser Black-backed Gull shows very small white dots (below) compared to the larger white dots of the Greater Black-backed Gull (above image).

     The Lesser Black-backed Gull also shows a small white dot on primary number nine, and a smaller white "window" on primary number 10 on the dorsal (top) and ventral (lower) surface of the wings (below image) as compared to the larger white dot on P9 and window on P10 of the Greater Black-backed Gull (for comparison) (below-image 2).

       The wings of the Lesser Black-backed Gull are longer and narrower (below)

       Of course there are those yellow ochre legs and feet!

     On the way back to our truck, a pair of Red-tailed Hawks circled the parking lot. Their rich colors were made even more luxurious by the clear cerulean blue sky.

     After leaving Ninigret we made a quick run to Scarborough Beach (very few Gulls there) and then to Galilee Harbor. There was a small roost of Greater Black-backed Gulls in the outer parking lot by the Frances Fleet docks. They were perfectly posed; I needed to take a few shots as we drove by.

     A big yawn on this first winter bird......

    .....well, back to sleep!

     This Greater Black-backed Gull was quite a bit smaller than the others, and its mante gray color was much lighter as well.


    There were only a few Herring Gulls mixed in with the Greater Black-backed Gulls.

      Bags of Oyster shells waiting for pick up-maybe being used to structure someones Oyster beds?

     While we were there, I needed to take a few images of a Red-breasted Merganser decoy that I just completed.

      Another beautiful day along the New England coast!

Keith and Jen Mueller
Killingworth, CT