Lost Gulls in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska
by Bryce W. Robinson
If you’ve started to read, then I’m impressed. Gulls in the title is probably a big turn off for most birders. But in all purity, this is what birders love. VAGRANTS.
Still, Gulls? It is my opinion that the average birder is bored when it comes to gulls. Bored not at the lack of challenge, for there certainly is a challenge, but bored at the birds general appearance and habits. These are simply assumptions on my part. I actually don’t know the reason for the lack of enthusiasm, but I bet the reasons for low numbers of “laruphiles”, or gull lovers, are numerous. Still, it is undeniable that it is widely understood that gulls are not the most exciting subjects when it comes to birding. I on the other hand, have felt an itch for paying attention to this highly successful bird group.
There are only two gulls that breed on the north slope of Alaska, being the Glaucous Gull, and the Sabine’s Gull. Both birds are rather distinctive. The Glaucous Gull differs from other large gulls by having a notably pale back, with entirely pure white remiges. This look is distinctive, even at a distance, allowing any oddballs to be easily recognizable.
The oil fields at Prudhoe Bay house a large number of people. With people comes trash, so it is no surprise that the oil fields have a dump. Dumps are gull magnets, and the dump at Prudhoe Bay is no different. Knowing that anything is possible in birding, I formed the habit of scanning the hundreds of gulls that hang around the dump from day to day. The habit finally paid off two weeks ago when I noticed a dark backed gull amongst the pale Glaucous Gulls.
I hurriedly snapped photos and analyzed the bird. To me, it resembled a Western Gull, but some aspects were a bit off. I also noticed that the bird was banded. Very exciting, given the ability to read the band. Reading bands is a complicated business, and as the gull was in an area that I was unable to enter, I couldn’t get close enough for a better photo, or a way to read the band myself. I wish I had explored my options further. This was the only time I saw the gull. So, no band number.
I’m just learning the gull dilemma. It is a challenge. There is a lot to learn, and the differences between many species are slight. With this vagrant dark backed gull, I had to get some help. I emailed a friend in high places, and he soon got back to me with a consensus, along with the opinions of other authorities. The result was GREAT BLACK-BACKED GULL. A life bird for me, and a bird I hadn’t even considered. The back just didn’t seem dark enough. Still, after taking into consideration their input and analysis, I agreed. What a bird, so far from home.
In the following days I made my rounds by the dump, in hopes of finding the gull again to catch the band number. Last week, I thought I found the gull again, but actually, I had found something more exciting, a second dark backed gull. Immediatly I caught that this gull had no retained immature remiges, and had yellow legs. I knew the bird, even though it was another life bird; LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULL!
Sometimes birding is a game of curve balls. I never knew I could get so excited over gulls, but it spoke true to one of the reasons I am a birder. I love to find birds far from home, on crazy journeys themselves. I love to wonder why, and what they’ve experienced, and simply recognize that they are here, and how strange or miraculous that is.
Birders find vagrants everyday, some, much more exciting than these gulls that passed through Prudhoe bay. Nonetheless, the gulls helped me remember; This is birding, to notice something spectacular, that is so often overlooked.