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Sabine's Gull visits Ohio

Sabine's Gull is one of the most beautiful and graceful of the gulls; a far cry from the french fry-seeking plunderers of McDonald's scraps that some of their larger brethren are.

Kenn Kaufman found an exceptionally cooperative first-year (first-cycle for those of you that follow the nomenclature of the hour) Sabine's Gull last Sunday, November 21st, at Metzger Marsh Wildlife Area along western Lake Erie. We see only a few Sabine's Gulls a year in Ohio, and virtually all of them are briefly glimpsed flybys out over Lake Erie on blustery fall days.

This bird is unusual in that it is sticking tight to the same spot where Kenn found it, allowing many a birder to relocate it. Matt Valencic was there yesterday, and kindly allowed me to share his amazing shots of this Sabine's Gull.

Photo courtesy of Matt Valencic

When at rest on the water, this 1st-year Sabine's Gull stands out from the nearby Bonaparte's Gulls by its brown back.

Photo courtesy of Matt Valencic

In flight, Sabine's Gulls are transformed, becoming works of geometrical beauty. Excepting the black band terminating the tail, the bird is all about triangles. Thus, Sabine's Gull is very distinctive and unmistakeable even from great distances.

Photo courtesy of Matt Valencic

This is an incredible photo, and we can even see that the bird is lifting its head to look about, possibly at the mob of birders looking at it.

As good-looking as the young birds are, adult Sabine's Gulls, especially in alternate (breeding) plumage, look even better. The brownish tones change to crisp gray, and they develop a dark charcoal hood with a black collar at its base. There are hardly any records of adults in Ohio, thus the flock of eight - seven immature and one adult - that materialized at Huron on September 15, 1984 must have caused the observers to nearly faint.

Normally one would have to travel to Arctic breeding grounds to see adult Sabine's Gulls, or see the species in any numbers. And that's what Sir Edward Sabine did in 1818, as an astronomer on expedition to the high Arctic. Apparently celestial objects weren't the only thing Sabine saw when he looked aloft, as he is credited as discoverer of this beautiful little gull, and it was named in his honor by his brother Joseph.

Photo courtesy of Matt Valencic

Away from their breeding grounds, Sabine's Gulls are highly pelagic (ocean-going), normally migrating far out at sea. And they go a long ways. Most of these little gulls winter in tropical seas far from where they bred, off South America and even Africa where they frequent the cold waters of the Humboldt and Benguela Currents, respectively. If this bird is part of the eastern Canada breeding population, and all goes well for it, it'll be off the coast of southwest Africa before long.

Thanks to Kenn for finding this Sabine's Gull and getting word out nearly instantly, and to Matt Valencic for sharing his remarkable photos with us.


Thanks for the great write up and history of Sabine's Gull. It makes seeing this beautiful bird even more special.

No one weaves a story like you, Jim.
Jim McCormac said…
Thanks Cheryl, and I'm glad you got to see that wonderful bird!
Vincent Lucas said…
How "rare" are these gulls in Ohio? It's been many a year, but I remember seeing a couple in Huron and Lorain back in the mid-90's, once with the late Tom LePage with whom I birded a lot back then. . . .
Jim McCormac said…
Pretty "rare" in my book (in Ohio). A few verified sightings a year, and no real hope of seeing one unless you're very lucky and can watch the lake frequently, or a cooperative bird such as this one turns up...
Allan Claybon said…
An immature Sabine's Gull appeared on the beach at East Fork State Park in Southwest Ohio on Saturday October 15, 2011. It was still present Monday evening giving many bird enthusiasts an opportunity for very close views of both behavior and flight throughout the day on Monday.
Jim McCormac said…
Congrats on an excellent find, Allan!

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