Recently, the North Dakota Birding Society assembled for the fall semi-annual gathering. The choice this fall was to float a pontoon boat on the vast waters of the Van Hook arm of Lake Sakakawea. We greatly exceeded our expectations.
The original plan was to board a local boat to survey the open waters both days of the weekend. Rich fishing waters and numerous islands for nesting draw in thousands of birds. However, a scheduling conflict for the boat owner forced us to stick to land the first day.
A group of eager birders numbering a dozen met at the local motel. Throughout the day, birders systematically checked the local hotspots in search of avian treasures.
The day started out quite cold with temperatures in the 40s, dark overcast and a stiff wind blowing off the lake from the south. Slowly, scopes picked out varied water species, such as great blue heron, greater scaup, caspian tern and a few common loons. Peregrine falcon and osprey made flyby passes.
As the day progressed, other species were tallied. A small woodlot next to a lake access yielded an assortment of sparrows, including Lincoln’s, white-throated and white-crowned sparrows scurriying from bush to bush. A couple keen observers caught views of a Wilson’s warbler with its bright yellow plumage and flashy black cap flitting about, but it disappeared before others could catch up to it. A sharp-shinned hawk, known for terrorizing small birds, appeared from nowhere and sent all scrambling for safety to end our fun.
As the group of bird enthusiasts approached Parshall Bay, a large flock of gulls was noted milling about and covering a large area of the bay. Among the flock were small dark-backed Franklin’s gulls winging their way south in large numbers. Gray backed ring-billed gulls were also present, with their wing tips dipped in black ink. A smaller all white winged gull was picked out of the flock, identified as a Bonaparte’s gull newly arrived from the north.
Suddenly someone calls out “little gull!" I was thinking “Yea, the Bonaparte’s gull is the smallest of the North Dakota gulls, what are you excited about?” I quickly scanned the flock, finally picking out the bird in question.
Little gull is the smallest of North American gulls, seen occasionally in North Dakota every few years. This particular one individual was a hatch year bird, told by its bold black linear stripes alternating with light gray stretching out to the pointed wing-tips. The trailing edge of the wing was white giving it a translucent look in flight. The head was white, with a spot beside the eye and a dark black cap. The tail was white, with a thin terminal band across the tail. At the size of our familiar mourning dove, this bird nearly disappeared when it landed among the Franklin’s and ring-billed gulls on a central island.
The excitement of the find didn’t last long as a rare but regular Sabine’s gull was also spotted nearby. This Franklin’s gull sized bird sports bold black wing-tips, gray back and inner wings, sharply contrasting with the snow white inner webs on the wings. I have featured this bird, a favorite of mine before, and it would not be the find of this day.
The next time folks are out at their favorite lake, check out the gulls passing by, there might be a gem to be seen.