A White-winged Gull Convention in Portland Harbor

On Sunday, Kristen Lindquist and I worked Portland Harbor for gulls.  In my usual routine, I started at the Maine State Pier and worked my way west, checking all of the piers and roosting locations in Old Port.  I was pretty happy with the 4 first-winter Glaucous Gulls and a healthy handful of Iceland Gulls from the state pier, and we continued to see Iceland Gulls here and there as we continued along.

DSC_0023_1stC_ICGU-flight2,OldPort,3-2-14

It was a good day for gulls in the harbor, but we didn’t realize just how good it was until we got to the end of the “Fish Pier.”  There, everywhere we looked we saw white-winged gulls!  Out by the dredging barges there were white-winged gulls.  Feeding at the rips around the channel markers there were white-winged gulls.  And all around the fish pier there were white-winged gulls!

I was very conservative in my counts, and yet tallied an exceptional 12 first-winter Glaucous Gulls – an all-time state high count for me.  But it was the abundance of Iceland Gulls that stole the show; 4 adults (all with completely different wing-tip patterns of course), at least three 2nd-winter, and an astounding (for southern Maine, anyway) THIRTY-TWO 1st-winter birds.  With that many, it was not surprising that the whole range of variation of “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls was to be seen, but try as I might, I couldn’t find a single bird that even allowed for an attempted stringing of a Thayer’s.

Despite starting the day by saying, “I am not taking any more first cycle Iceland Gull photos this winter,” with this many birds around, I couldn’t help myself.  Here’s a selection of photos, starting with two phone-scoping using an iPhone 4S, Phone Skope adapter, and a Zeiss Diascope FL, followed by “better” photos using my Nikon D80 with a 300mm lens.

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IMG_2837_gulls_at_outflow_pipe2,OldPort,3-2-14

At the aforementioned outflow pipe.

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1st cycle Iceland Gull feeding storm-petrel style.

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1st/2nd cycle (L) and 2 1st-cycle “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls (R), with a dark 1st winter Herring Gull for contrast.

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Light and darker 1st-cycle “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls.

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Worn, late 1st Cycle or early 2nd Cycle “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gull.

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Adult “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gull.

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Adult and 1st/2nd Cycle “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls.

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1st cycle and adult “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls.

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Wait, that’s not an Iceland Gull…sorry, I got distracted…

After second breakfast, we checked in at Mill Creek Cove, where the outgoing tide was attracting gulls to the mouth of the creek as usual.  With birds heading to and from the Old Port, we didn’t add to our earlier counts, but there were at least 4 1st-winter Iceland and 2 1st-winter Glaucous Gulls present.  Oh, and this rather confiding female Green-winged Teal was dabbling with the Mallards.

DSC_0033_GWTE_hen1,MillCreek,3-2-14
showing a little more green speculum than usual on one side.

Then we worked the Cape Elizabeth shoreline, highlighted by 3 Greater Scaup at Kettle Cove, 11 Brant at Dyer Point, and these 28 balls of awesomeness (aka Harlequin Ducks; phone-scoped photos).

IMG_2875_HADU1,TwoLightsSP,3-2-14]

IMG_2877_HADU2,TwoLightsSP,3-2-14

But back to those gulls…why so many?  While the number of Herring and Great Black-backed gulls (and the expected relatively small number of Ring-bills) were average (at least by recent winters’ standards), this is by far the most total white-winged gulls that I have seen in PortlandHarbor in the 13 years I’ve lived here.  Some of these gulls are probably northbound migrants, but clearly there was something more at play here.

For one, there’s a dredging operation ongoing in the main channel of Portland Harbor.  While we didn’t see any gulls obviously foraging on the dredge spoils being pumped into the barge, or immediately around the buckets scooping up the muck, there were birds standing around on the new moving “islands.”   I wondered if a lot of these gulls were following/riding the barges in from where they are dumping the dredge spoils seven miles offshore.  But in today’s Portland Press Herald, I read that the occasional dynamiting of underwater bedrock would kill some fish, and then the “seagulls’ (sic… ahem!) were feeding on the dead fish.  That would certainly augment the already-occurring food sources in the harbor.

But most of the Iceland Gulls today were centered around the outflow pipes of various lobster-related facilities, as usual.  Meanwhile, the high tide limited roosting and foraging opportunities along the coast, and here in the harbor.

So my guess is that the time of year (migrants), the dredging operation, and the tides all helped to greatly increase the volume of white-winged gulls present today to numbers not seen in recent years – at least not since Portland had a thriving year-round fishing industry.  Obviously, this is just conjecture, but whatever made it happen, I was happy to be there to enjoy it!

DSC_0022_1stC_ICGU-flight1,OldPort,3-2-14

Also gull-watching:
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3 thoughts on “A White-winged Gull Convention in Portland Harbor

  1. Pingback: A (Very) Early Spring Week in Review | Maine Birding Field Notes

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