A Rare Gull

On the morning of Friday, September 16th, a juvenile Sabine’s Gull was discovered at Ottawa Beach just east of Andrew Haydon Park. Reports came in throughout the day that it was still there, giving me hope that I might be able to see it the following day. The Sabine’s Gull is a small, handsome bird which breeds in the Arctic. Adults in breeding plumage have a dark gray hood, edged in black, and a black bill with a yellow tip. Its back is slate-gray back, its belly and tail are white, and the tops of the wings are white in the middle with black tips, giving the bird a distinctive ‘M’ pattern in flight. Juveniles are brownish instead of gray and black, with a white face. All plumages have long, pointed wings and a notched tail.

The Sabine’s Gull spends its winters near the tropics and along the shores of South America. It prefers to migrate south along the coasts, rarely passing over North America. As such, it is very rarely seen in Ottawa. I headed over to Ottawa Beach first thing Saturday morning where a number of people on an OFNC outing were already looking at the bird through their scopes. The bird was down near the Scrivens Street entrance, and while I could see a small brownish bird on the beach, it was too far away to be sure that it wasn’t a shorebird. As it was a life bird for me, I needed to be sure. Once the OFNC group left, I started walking toward Scrivens Street.

The view from this vantage point was much better, and I had no doubts as to whether or not this was the gull. I slowly began to walk toward it, recalling that others had reported that it was quite approachable. I got close enough to take some decent photos, but when it started walking in my direction I got a few that were actually worth posting!

Juvenile Sabine’s Gull

This gull often feeds by walking along the tidal flats and picking up food. In the summer, the Sabine’s Gull’s diet consists mostly of insects and aquatic insect larvae; however, during migration, it will often feed on small crustaceans, fish, and other sea creatures. Other feeding methods include hovering low over the water, the dropping down to take food from the water’s surface without landing; spinning in circles in shallow water, stirring up food from the bottom (much like a phalarope); and foraging while swimming.

This one was foraging just like a shorebird, ambling along the mudflats while stopping to pick up an insect here and there.

Juvenile Sabine’s Gull going for a stroll

At one point it stopped to stretch its wing; here you can see the distinctive wing pattern which is similar in both adult and juvenal plumages. This pattern makes it easier to identify in flight. You can also see his bright white tail edged in black.

Time for a stretch!

I took some video to memorialize the occasion. Another photographer was taking pictures at the same time; the clicking in the background is the sound of his camera’s shutter.

Eventually it was time to leave. Also of note at Andrew Haydon Park that morning were a family of five Northern Flickers in the same dead tree, the Red-necked Phalarope, two Black-bellied Plovers which flew by but refused to land, a pair of yellowlegs (one Greater and one Lesser) which did land long enough to ID before taking off again and one Semipalmated Plover.

Next I went to Mud Lake, where I counted only six species of warbler: Black-and-white Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Northern Parula, Yellow-rumped Warbler and Palm Warbler. Palm Warblers were the most numerous; I saw at least half a dozen along the ridge in what appeared to be a mini-invasion. The usual Great Blue Herons, chickadees, Cedar Waxwings, Gray Catbirds, Blue Jays, Wood Ducks, Eastern Phoebes and Pied-billed Grebes were also present. A few mosaic darners were flying around, too, and I managed to finally chase one down and photograph it.

Shadow Darner

Ottawa has received its fair share of amazing birds this year; I’m so glad I was able to see the Sabine’s Gull, as it is definitely one of the highlights of the fall migration!

  • Lifer #273 Sabine’s Gull
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