Published Nov. 25, 2004, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Going where the gulls are adds species to life list.”
2014 Update: Another gull guide was published in 2007 in the Peterson Reference Guides series: Gulls of the Americas, by Steve N.G. Howell and Jon Dunn, published by Houghton Mifflin.
By Barb Gorges
It was obvious, based on time of which day and the location–early morning Saturday near a wetland in Fort Collins, Colo.–that the flock of four Subaru Outbacks and five other fuel efficient vehicles gathering belonged to birders, especially since one bore the plate “Skuas,” referring to a type of oceanic bird.
Another clue was that about half the vehicles were then left behind in the parking lot.
Birders carpool not only to lessen the necessity of drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but because we’re sociable, and it’s easier to share sightings while enroute. It’s also easier to park where there isn’t a lot of room to pull off the road, which was the case at our first stop at the edge of Long Pond.
A local resident stopped to inquire what we were looking for. With nearly a dozen scopes on tripods set up, we were either peering through the windows of the waterfront homes on the far side or checking out the birds on the water.
We were on a gull trip this mid-November day. Our leaders, Doug Faulkner and Tony Leukering, had the expertise and the optics to find something beyond the most common species of the plains, the ring-billed gull.
My expertise lags far behind, but at least I don’t refer to them as seagulls. However, I wished I’d studied up the night before. Instead, I had to juggle my notes and my field guide with frozen fingers while gray chill also found my toes.
Squinting through my scope made my eyes water, increasing the difficulty of picking out how much black and gray marked the inside of a wingtip of a floating gull surrounded by a flock of common mergansers.
Birders sharing observations of particular feathers seen from about 400 yards away had it slightly easier because of the landmarks on the opposite shore, such as the green canoe, the overturned red canoe and the collection of chaise lounges.
Three gull species, herring, California and Thayer’s, were identified. The Thayer’s, normally an Arctic breeder wintering on the west coast, is considered rare in Colorado and has not yet made the records in Wyoming. I could add it to my life list, but not to my list of birds I can identify by myself.
Someone also picked out a large gull, white head with marbled brown body, and determined it to be a young great black-backed gull. It certainly was larger than the other gulls, and also far from home, the Atlantic seaboard.
As we wandered from lake to lake, we found a very pale gull normally seen along the northeastern and northwestern coasts of North America. The back of the glaucous gull lives up to its name which is Latin for a silvery, bluish color. I think I can add that species to my self-identifiable list, unless of course someday I have to compare it to the glaucous-winged gull, which strays much less often to Colorado and Wyoming from the west coast.
If you’ve only buzzed by Fort Collins on the Interstate admiring the snow on the peaks, or only shopped College Avenue, you might find it incredible that it’s a hot spot for rare gulls. However, one look at a map more detailed than a road atlas shows you are in lake country. The area at the foot of the foothills is pockmarked with ponds. All are manmade. Some reservoirs cover almost a square mile, making lakefront developments common.
Luckily, lakefront has been set aside in the Open Space system. One of our stops, Fossil Creek Reservoir, just west of the Windsor exit, has recently been developed for wildlife viewing.
No rare gulls at Fossil Creek, but I did pick up a new life species. The American Ornithologists’ Union has very recently determined that the four smallest of the 11 races of Canada goose are now to be known as a separate species, the cackling goose.
Without DNA testing equipment, birders will have to depend on relative size, color and location for identification. Doug said the geese we were seeing were cackling, migrating through from their tundra breeding grounds. For a long goose discussion, go to www.sibleyguides.com.
I also saw a species that I thought was a genuine life bird for me, only to discover once home that I saw it in New Mexico 10 years ago. The greater white-fronted goose’s name refers to its white face. Otherwise it is blah gray-brown. But it’s the orange bill, and orange legs if you can see them, which stand out in a crowd of cackling/Canadas. We counted six of them swimming in a line like the ducks on that pull-along toy I had as a toddler.
Like so many other field trips, this one was open-ended. A couple folks from Casper turned back around noon and a couple more of us from Cheyenne headed home around 2 p.m., the rest disbursing later. No new gulls were added without us, but we missed the trumpeter swan.
Tony said an increase in the sightings of rare gulls is partly due to increasing population and range thanks to people inadvertently providing more food sources, but also because more people are looking for gulls and more people are capable of picking out the rare species.
To become a gull expert, I should probably invest in that huge book, Gulls of North America, Europe and Asia by Olsen and Larsson. But nothing takes the place of field observation and the patient mentors I’ve met so far.