A Highlight of Birding- Breeding Sabine’s Gulls

by Bryce W. Robinson


I can write a book about how many birding highlights I had this past summer on Alaska’s north slope. It seemed every day I had a memorable experience that will last a lifetime.

I’ve mentioned before that Richard Crossley came to Prudhoe Bay on my last week of work in the region. I agreed to guide him around the oil fields for a day and show him where I had seen particular species. He, of course, had an agenda, and I was tasked to help him out.

We had a hell of a day. I think we started around 8 in the morning, and by midnight, I was still wandering around the tundra photographing birds. He was very keen on finding the Sabine’s Gulls, a bird of which I had seen little. Still, I had a reliable spot that would likely turn up a few gulls, in the least. Just after midnight, we headed that way.

We stopped near the spot I planned to check, only to photograph a small group of Semipalmated and Pectoral Sandpipers. While Richard took photos, I scanned about. I then saw a single Sabine’s some yards away. I alerted Richard. After scanning about a bit, we found a dozen more.

Excitedly we approached the group of gulls and began photographing. The gulls would lift off, and take turns harassing us. Such behavior is typical of breeding birds, defending their young. I took advantage of their tenacity and let my shutter fly. After gathering more photos than necessary, I began the search for the young. Soon enough I found a single bird across a pond, sitting with an adult. It was nothing more than a single ball of grey fluff. So adorable, and so vulnerable.

Our intrusion lasted only a moment. We recognized the stress we were causing the birds, and left. It couldn’t have been better; finding Sabine’s, which I’d barely seen, and having the opportunity to see both adult and young at such close proximity. The experience will stick with me for my lifetime.

The tragedy comes with the benefits of digital photography. Through some glitch, I lost nearly all photos from that evening. Luckily, I have one. It is a photo in the striking midnight sun of the arctic, of a bird I will never forget, and hope to see again, somewhere on the open arctic tundra.