(This 719th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on January 9, 2005.)
Those birds most of us know simply as seagulls have made the Niagara River an internationally significant ornithological region.
Any list of the birding hot spots of North America, the places where birders most want to visit to see rare birds, includes our river and falls along with exotic places like the Everglades, Attu, and the Big Bend of the Rio Grande. Every late fall and winter, birders come here from all parts of the world to observe gulls. Those visiting bird watchers represent a small but still significant tourist trade during this off-season. They eat in area restaurants and stay at local hotels and motels. I suspect that more than a few even venture into the gambling casinos.
What is the fuss about? We all know how to identify seagulls. They are those big, mostly white birds whose long wings are usually tipped with black. Anyone can see them by the tens of thousands above and below Niagara Falls along the Niagara River. You can also observe smaller numbers throughout this region. They are attracted to farm fields where farmers plow or spread manure. And especially when a storm forces them inland, they haunt fast food restaurant and grocery store parking lots where they look for garbage along with pigeons and house sparrows. It is in response to this behavior that my wife's warning applies: "Never leave your car under a parking lot light pole."
Fuss indeed. It turns out that there are many kinds of gulls. Ring-billed gulls, named for their easily identifiable feature, are by far the commonest species here all year. However, 18 other species have been observed along the river. On a good day in December or January expert birders are able to single out a dozen of those varieties from the massive flocks of ring-bills.
Some of the adult gulls are reasonably easy to separate. Most of the dainty small gulls seen along the river are Bonaparte's gulls, named for Napoleon's ornithologist nephew.
The two reasonably common species bigger than the ring-bills are herring gull and great black-backed gull. Identifying the great black-backed gull is straightforward. Appropriately, it is the big gull with a black back. It turns out that another species with which it may be confused, the lesser black-backed gull, is being reported here but is far less common. The other large gull with pink legs, gray mantle, and a large yellow bill with a red spot on it is the herring gull. (A gull's mantle includes the upper side of its wings and its back between the wings.)
You might also be able to pick out the two uncommon all-white gulls (no gray mantle and no black wing tips): the ring-bill-sized one is the Iceland gull and the one herring gull-sized is the glaucous gull. You can see those species occasionally trading back and forth along the river near the outlets of the Robert Moses and Sir Adam Beck Power Projects.
That gives you six gull species and, unless you want to study hard, that is a good place to stop because it gets tough from there. Not only are the characteristics of the other adult gulls more subtle, but each species has different plumages as it matures from year to year.
To the rescue of serious birders, Princeton University Press has just published "Gulls of North America, Europe, and Asia" by Klaus Olsen and Hans Larsson. It will very well serve anyone who wishes to know more.
Each of 43 gull species is given detailed treatment by Olsen and Larsson. For example, 13 pages are devoted to the ring-billed gull. These pages include in addition to many paragraphs of information about identification, voice, molt, distribution, migration and measurements: 15 color paintings, 17 photographs of various plumages and a range map. Arguably the most useful section is a brief non-technical summary devoted to identification high points.
The book's Northern Hemisphere extension is important because gulls are notorious wanderers and new species turn up here every few years. For example, the little gull's main breeding area extends from Finland east into Asia. This vagrant was first recorded locally in 1938 but is now often seen among the Bonaparte's gulls along the lower river off Lewiston.
If you like to stump the experts, here is a question you can ask them: What are the two most common Northern Hemisphere gulls? Few will know because both species are rare here. Olsen and Larsson's answer: the black-legged kittiwake (6-7 million pairs) and the black-headed gull (2-3 million pairs).
I highly recommend this book.-- Gerry Rising