Wednesday, February 1, 2017

A Rarely Seen Gull Boosts Tupper Lake’s Birding Reputation

Ross's gull in flight in Tupper Lake in Jan 2017 by Larry MasterOn a recent Tuesday afternoon, some carpenters working at Jack Delehanty’s home in Tupper Lake put out on the ice some entrails and egg skeins from walleyes they had caught. The next day Jack noticed an unfamiliar bird picking at the walleye eggs. Jack consulted with his sister, Alex, and their mother, Charlcie Delehanty, a longtime birder, and they were also puzzled. Alex then sent me pictures and video they had taken to see if I could identify the bird. That night, I realized it was a first-year Ross’s gull, an incredibly rare vagrant from the Arctic.

Thanks to the internet, my news of the Ross’s gull reached the birding community within hours, and hundreds of birders from all over the country and Canada soon flocked to Tupper Lake (and Jack’s home!) to see the bird, which has been hanging out much of the time near the Tupper Lake boat launch and the causeway near the bridge over the Raquette River.  This bird has provided a small but significant economic boost to the Tupper Lake community as hundreds of visiting birders have bought food and gas and occasionally spent the night.  A similar appearance of this species in Newburyport, Massachusetts attracted thousands of birders from around the country.

Just how unusual is it to see a Ross’s gull? This species breeds in the high Arctic of North America and Siberia. It spends the winter primarily along the pack ice of the Arctic Ocean and rarely strays farther south. There are fewer than forty records of Ross’s gulls in the lower forty-eight states (see a 2010 map here), and in the past year there were only two eBird reports of Ross’s gull anywhere in the world.  (The eBird website is the primary way that birders around the world record their observations.) The other report was an adult bird in California two weeks ago (the state’s second ever reported Ross’s gull) that did not end well as the bird was killed by a pair of peregrine falcons.

Ross's gull landing at Tupper Lake in Jan 2017 by Larry MasterThe worldwide population of Ross’s gulls may be under 10,000 breeding pairs (IUCN Red List), with fewer than 10 pairs known in Canada (where it is considered “threatened”), a handful of pairs in Greenland and Svalbard, and as many as 10,000 pairs in Russia. Trends are largely unknown, but climate change in the high Arctic surely does not bode well for this species.  Oil and gas development, disturbance at nest sites, egg collecting, and hunting of the birds on migration in northern Alaska are also potential threats.  NatureServe considers the species to be “vulnerable”.

Two other unusual bird species have been seen in Tupper Lake in recent years. Just last summer, a pair of sandhill cranes nested in the marsh beside Simon Pond and raised two offspring, the first recorded nesting of this spectacular species in the Adirondacks. Four years ago, a great gray owl, a magnificent creature of the northern forest, was spotted alongside the highway just outside of town, delighting many people over the two to three days it remained. Going back much further in time, Charlcie Delehanty recorded New York State’s first western grebe on the waters of Tupper Lake in the summer of 1978.  These sightings led many birders to visit Tupper Lake to see these unusual and beautiful birds.

Images of the Tupper Lake Ross’s gull may be seen here and videos may be seen here.

Photos of Ross’s gull at Tupper Lake by Larry Master.


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Larry Master lives in Keene and has been photographing wildlife and natural history subjects for more than 60 years. After receiving a PhD at the University of Michigan, Larry spent 20 years with The Nature Conservancy and 6 years with NatureServe, most of that time as the organization’s Chief Zoologist. He oversaw the development of TNC’s and NatureServe’s central zoological databases, and also served on the EPA’s Science Advisory Board. Larry currently serves on the boards of NatureServe, the Ausable River Association, the Adirondack Explorer, the Northern Forest Atlas Foundation, Northern New York Audubon, and the Adirondack Council, as well as on science advisory groups for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Adirondack Program, the Biodiversity Research Institute’s Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation, the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, and Living with Wolves.

22 Responses

  1. Boreas says:

    According to the NNYBirds listserve the Ross’s Gull was still present yesterday. It has been hanging around because people have been feeding it fish entrails.

    • Paul says:

      That is not such a great idea.

      • Tim says:

        There’s a lot of food out there on the lake as it is. Ice fishermen have been leaving out remains just like the entrails that originally attracted the bird. My understanding is that others leave food for the local Bald Eagles, which also feeds ravens and crows. On the one hand, we’d hope that the Ross’s Gull wouldn’t become dependent on food supplied by people. Alternatively, the bird is being resourceful and has managed to find one of the few potential food sources for quite some distance that could sustain it. I don’t see it as being too different from a seed feeder for songbirds to help them through the winter. I’d worry about the gull’s survival odds without the fish parts on the ice, especially as more open water freezes over. Honestly, it’s already in a heap of trouble so far from its natural range and habitat. I hope it can pull through.

  2. Terry says:

    Thanks for the spectacular story, pictures, and videos!
    On my daily commute through that area, I’ll be on the lookout.
    Why is he/she alone? Might there be another/others in the area?

    • Terry – This species only very rarely strays from it’s Arctic home so I’m sure there are no others anywhere else nearby or likely even in the lower 48 states! They are not a social species and so they are usually seen alone except when breeding in loose colonies or on migration off Point Barrow, Alaska.
      I would look closely either near the boat launch or at the causeway near an open water. Look for birders looking through their binoculars or spotting scopes!

  3. In their native range in winter, these gulls will regularly take carrion (e.g., from polar bear kills) and some species (e.g., Ivory Gull) rely more on such leftovers. As far as I can tell the gull is mostly foraging naturally near the ice edge, but it may have settled here because of fish scraps left on the ice by Tupper Lake’s ice fishermen. I frankly do not see the harm when folks have deliberately put out clams or fish eggs for the gull to eat, as these offerings may help this juvenile gull to survive and fatten up so as to make it’s way back to the Arctic later this winter. This seems conceptually not much different to me than backyard bird feeding where the chickadees et al. still mostly forage naturally in neighboring woods.

  4. Hope says:

    After this weekend it either will have a smorgasbord of bait to feed on. Could be around for awhile as long as the eagles don’t catch it.

    • Boreas says:

      Eagles probably won’t catch it, but a Peregrine sure can. Some Peregrines do hang around all winter as long as there is some open water.

      • Happily (for the gull), no birders have reported a peregrine in Tupper Lake recently. If the gull had settled near Plattsburgh it might be a different story.

      • Paul says:

        In the Adirondacks these falcons have the same summer and winter range.
        These birds do seem to prefer the city to the country!

  5. Dave Gibson says:

    Larry, such informative posting about this species. How fitting that this individual “chose” (thanks to the walleye remains) to settle near Mrs. Delehanty, one of the most informed and experienced birdwatchers in our region

  6. Jack Delehanty says:

    It certainly was wonderful adding this vagrant to my life list, but watching birders on the chase and seeing their reactions collecting it was even better! Birders are the most wonderful people.

  7. Jenn Thibodeau says:

    The next day Miles Thibodeau a carpenter for Schoolhouse Renovations noticed an unfamiliar bird out on the ice and wondered if it might be a mink. Then the homeowner consulted with his mother and sister after Miles asked to borrow binoculars…

  8. Chris says:

    There was Ross’s Gull recently in Half Moon Bay CA that met a sad demise by two Peregrine Falcons

    • Paul says:

      Wow, that is way out of its range! At least to get here it didn’t have to navigate across several huge mountain ranges.

  9. Charlie S says:

    Just watched two of the videos. What a beautiful species! And look at how wary it is as it approaches the walleye remains. Survival instinct. I’m sad for this bird and all other species on this planet because I know what they’re up against and no matter how much survival instinct they have all animals on earth are threatened because of the crazy ape man. For this Ross’s gull to be in this area can only mean something is amiss in the area where it should be.Unless this is just a fluke which I doubt. Man is ever encroaching upon and taking away more and more of what remains of the natural areas and we are going to continue doing this because it’s just in our nature to do so. We are destroyers of nature every natural thing is fair game to us we wont stop destroying until there’s nothing left!

    • Boreas says:


      It could mean something is amiss, but some individuals (both birds and humans) ain’t wired properly. Many bird species have stragglers that migrate north, west, or east instead of south. They are generally birds with an instinct to disperse – some just choose or are wired to go the wrong way. But this is part of evolution. Who knows – they may find just what they need by flying the wrong way and establish a new breeding territory if several others survive. But usually, they are going to perish.

      The fact that this bird made it here from the arctic is a good sign that it is resourceful. My feeling is that it will fatten up here, but never make it back to its home range. It just may be wired improperly and continue to wander until it dies – possibly by a predator or disease. Many people do the same thing – not necessarily a bad way to go.

      Sometimes the future sure looks bleak, but we can at least enjoy these moments of joy given to us by Nature.

    • Paul says:

      ” For this Ross’s gull to be in this area can only mean something is amiss in the area where it should be.” That doesn’t have to be the case at all. There are a number of other reasons why something like this happen. You just can’t help yourself -you gotta blame it on the “ape man”. Give it a rest. Have a good weekend.

  10. Beverly Sullivan says:

    I was planning a trip to visit my mother in Moriah, NY. Is the great gray owl around? How about the Ross’ gull?

    Bev Sullivan

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