Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
European Gulls Visit Newburyport Harbor
October 22, 2021
By Steve Grinley
Margo and I headed to Plum Island birding one windy afternoon this past week. The wind was so strong, it made the temperature seem much colder than it was. It also made it difficult to scope the shorebirds and ducks at the Salt Pannes, but there were dunlin, semipalmated sandpipers, yellowlegs, black ducks, gadwall and a few green-winged teal present. A couple of harriers were fighting the wind further out in the marsh and a very distant peregrine falcon put up some ducks as well.
The wind kept down the land birds as we saw very few on our way down the island and while walking the Hellcat boardwalk trail. We did see a small flock of juncos along the road along with a few song sparrows. Yellow-rumped warblers, chickadees, robins, a few waxwings, white-throated sparrows and a lone phoebe were all we could muster up this short trip.
On our way off the island, we noticed that the tide had exposed the flats in the harbor, and there looked like good numbers of birds, so we stopped at the “clam shack” to scope the flats. The wind had died down and the evening sun lit up the harbor. There were hundreds of dunlin and yellowlegs, but I started to look through the gulls for something different. Ring-billed, herring, and great black-backed gulls are the more common gulls here and they were all present in good numbers. The seasonal Bonaparte’s gulls had joined them.
As I started to scan through them, I almost immediately saw a gull of diminutive size, clearly smaller than even the Bonaparte’s gulls near it. It had a dark carpal bar and very small bill. It lifted its wings a couple of times and I could clearly see the black “M” pattern on it mantle – a winter plumaged little gull!
The little gull is a Eurasian species, uncommon in this area. One or more show up in Newburyport Harbor or on Plum Island most years. It is a bird that is sought here by birders from other parts of the country, and it is always special when we “locals” see one.
We both wanted a better look so we went to the boat ramp to try to get closer and to get the evening sun behind us. At the boat, we scanned for the little gull and just as I refound it, Margo had found another small gull with a red bill. It was another uncommon European gull –a black-headed gull! Like the little gull, his bird was also in its winter plumage, missing its dark hood of breeding season. The black-headed gull is somewhat larger than the Bonaparte’s gulls and its red bill shone in the evening light.
Margo tried to digiscope photos of both rare birds using her cell phone through the scope, but the distance and light made it difficult at best. Eventually, most of the gulls started to move east in the harbor, back toward the Plum Island bridge. The tide was coming in, and the little gull and black-headed gull also lifted up and joined more Bonaparte’s gathering well out of scope range near Woodbridge Island.
Both of these gulls will likely stay around for at least a few days or longer. They are worth the scan of Newburyport Harbor when the tide is right, and other rarities could show up in the weeks ahead.