I started my big trip up to Northern New York with Niagara Falls, in search of the Thayers Gull. By its markings it falls somewhere between an Iceland and Herring Gull, and since there is a great deal of variation in each of those species, there is basically overlap in most if not all characteristics that would identify the Thayers. Thayers wasn't distiguished as a separate species until about 35 years ago, and recently the work that established it as such has been challenged as potentially invalid. In other words, Thayers may not exist. But for now it's recognized as a separate bird, and so it's a species I'd like to see!
I had a photo shoot at noon on Saturday that was supposed to end at one, but in fact ended at 3pm. OK, no problem, except that as I started the eight hour drive upstate I realized I'd forgotten my passport. Since a lot of the birding I was planning to do the next day was in Canada, I had to turn around and go back to Brooklyn for it. I finally hit the road around 4:30...I dropped my dog Monkey off with my mother in Westchester, and drove north, and drove, and drove. Got into Rochester around 11:30 and slept a few hours, and got up at 5 to meet Willie D'Anna and Betsy Potter at Niagara Falls at 7:30. Will is one of real gull experts, and I knew if anyone could help nail down a Thayers it was him. This is one of the most technical and difficult IDs in birding, and it consists of taking into consideration all aspects of the bird including wingtip pattern, bill and head shape, fleshy-part coloration, and eye color, all of which need to line up in order to have a positive ID. I wouldn't dare make a definitive call on a bird like this without a real expert like Will helping me.
Niagara is the best place in North America for gulls. Every year thousands upon thousands c
ollect at the falls and along the river, and more rare gulls show up here than anywhere. We tried a number of locations, many in Canada looking back at the US (remember, the bird I see has to be in New York). We'd find a vantage point, often several hundred feet up above the flying and perched birds, and then start scanning. One of us would find a candidate, and then try to help the others see it, too, out of the hundreds of gliding and milling gulls. This can take several minutes of calling out the location of the target bird in relation to some landmarks along the river. We found at least four birds that might be Thayers, including one excellent candidate, but none of them was perfect. This is the closest we got. Really, it's got everything it should to be Thayers, but the mantle color (the grey on the back and wings) was just a little too light for our taste. Again, in many people's books this would be a Thayers, but I really want as close to an unequivacable bird as possible.
Next we moved down river, and Will got a call from a fellow birder tipping us off to some Little Gulls mixed in with a large flock of Bonapartes. Little Gulls are the opposite of Thayers, ID-wise, since the black undersides of the adult bird's wing really stands out, even at a distance, and is completely diagnostic. Here's an example of a Little Gull (we found 3 total) mixed in with Bonapartes.
Overall it was a fantastic day, despite not finding my perfect target bird. It's always great to bird with someone who's much more experienced than you, and I think I doubled my gull knowledge in one day (2x0=?) Will and Betsy, like a lot of the birders I met, were just great people, and I'm looking forward to going up again in search of that elusive Thayers!