In late November, the superb Canadian birding magazine Birders Journal hosted the first North American Gull Conference at the Cairn Croft hotel in Niagara Falls, Ontario. To give other gull fans a taste of what went on at the conference and also how spectacular the Niagara River Gorge can be at this time of year, I have put together few video stills taken during the meeting.
Fig. 1. An immense cloud of freezing mist thrown up by the Canadian or Horseshoe Falls drenched those searching for one of the three juvenile Sabine's Gulls present on the river during the weekend. The 'Horeshoe Falls Sabine's Gull' spent a lot of time feeding in the mist below the falls but would occasionally flying around in the clearer slack water or roost on the rocks below these ice-covered railings (below). A second bird was reported from this location later on Saturday. A different bird was present further down stream at the Whirlpool.
Fig. 2. View across to the river to the New York side with the American Falls and Rainbow Bridge.
On Friday night, Jon Dunn opened the session with a brief review of gull species seen on the Niagara River (19 species so far) and was followed by John Vanderpoel who gave a hilarious video presentation based around the making of his 'Video Guides to Large and Small Gulls of North America'. Perhaps John will incorporate these bloopers and out-takes into a 'Directors Cut' DVD version of the same? The footage of gulls in Gambell Alaska was particularly poignant.
To finish the evening, Bruce Mactavish gave a detailed slide presentation on the identification of Common Gulls, as manifested by the individuals that winter in Newfoundland, Canada. Ringing data indicates that some of these gulls originate in Iceland although Bruce also mentioned the discovery of a Ring-billed Gull that had been ringed/banded in Norway. This startling result suggests some birds may commute between North America and the western Palearctic.
Fig. 3. Space was at a premium for the talks and many participants used binoculars to get a good view of the slides!
The Saturday session began with a fascinating review of the ecology of gulls in the Niagara region by local scientist Chip Weseloh. The discussion of the area's breeding species was particularly noteworthy for those of us who visit only in the winter months. Chip showed how nesting gulls are used to monitor circulation of pollutants in the Great Lakes and also highlighted the fact that there is still much to be learnt about why gulls come to Niagara in such large numbers.
This was followed by a three part presentation on the identification and systematics of Thayer's Gull (see below) led by Paul Lehman. After Paul led us skillfully through the identification of both adult and immature plumages, Louis Bevier summarized the taxonomic problems surrounding the Thayer's/Iceland group, showing interesting slides of the now very battered Thayer's type specimen. Just as things seemed to be getting straighted out, Bruce MacTavish fired off a salvo of dark Kumlein's Gulls (presumed) from Newfoundland Gulls that fullfilled many (but not quite all) the criteria for bona fide Thayer's Gull. At this point, I expected every member of a rarity committee (eastern and western alike) to run out screaming and jump into the gorge! Clearly there is still a lot work to be done on this tough problem and only serves to emphasis the care needed in evaluating out-of-range records for this difficult group.
Fig. 5. Several adult Thayer's Gulls were present in the gorge, allowing excellent opportunities for comparison with 'Great Lake' form of Herring Gull and more importantly with Kumlien's Iceland Gulls. This adult Thayer's Gull shows a classic rounded head shape, dark eye and extensive smudgy streaking on the head and neck.
Fig. 4. Jon Dunn (left) introduces Lars Jonsson (right) before his talk on the evolution and identification of the world's Herring Gulls.
After the banquet, Lars Jonsson took the stage with a lengthy but spell-binding account of his travels throughout the Holarctic region in search of large white-headed gulls. Lars gave us an interesting taste of how he works in the fields and clearly demonstrated that he is a very accomplished photographer as well as brilliant painter. The theme running through the talk was the novel hypothesis that mantle and wing tip coloration in large gulls relates to ultraviolet exposure in their wintering grounds. Hopefully, Lars will find the time to publish these innovative ideas in the not too distant future. During the day, I notice Lars pausing to photograph an American Robin, so perhaps he has other adventures on his mind?
Fig. 6. Conference participants lined up to scan the breakwater near the control gates. Many large gulls roost on this breakwater (allowing superb opportunities for study) and then feed in the turbulent rapids close-by.
Fig. 7. A view of the "Barge" located just above the Canadian Horseshoe Falls. The 'snow-like' effect (barely visible) is due to the thousands of gulls feeding over the shallow water below the control gates. A secretive female-type Harlequin Duck played spent the day in and around the small rocky islets and played hide-and-seek with several hundred anxious observers.
On the last day, participants rose early for a panel discussion led by Bruce MacTavish on the identification of series of gull photos, several of which have published before. In spite of the early hour, there was some spirited analysis and some potentially significant 're-evaluations' of regional rarities. Participants were also left with the important message that some gulls are best left unidentified and that puzzling individuals should not be shoe-horned into a convenient firm identification. With this sobering thought in mind, we all headed back to the river and tried to identify everything in sight!!
Fig. 8. Another view of birders scanning the gull flocks for rarities (aka mutant Herring Gulls). Throughout the day, bus loads of Taiwanese tourists stopped to have their pictures taken next to the crazy bird watchers! They didn't seem so thrilled by the idea of searching for Slaty-backed Gulls and other trash birds.....
Fig. 9. The Birders Journal Team who put the meeting together and some of the speakers pose for a 'record shot'.
All in all, I thought this was an excellent meeting and hope it will be the first of many. Thanks again to the Holder family (Matt, Phill and Sue), Margaret Bain and everyone at Birders Journal for putting together this splendid event!
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