For the Birds Radio Program: Sabine's Gull

Original Air Date: Oct. 16, 1995

Laura finally added a Sabine’s Gull to her lifelist. She explains why they might be so shy around people. 3:44

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Now that I’ve been birding in Minnesota for almost 15 years, I’ve pretty much given up on seeing new birds here, especially in the northeastern quarter of the state, but within one week this fall I actually added two lifers—birds I’ve never seen anywhere before—and saw them right in Duluth! First was a Northern Wheatear that turned up at Erie Pier—that bird belonged either in Alaska or Greenland, but apparently the Duluth tourism department has been doing a good job of attracting visitors from all over. Then, during the blustery east-wind days last week, a Sabine’s Gull turned up at Park Point.

Sabine’s Gulls were first discovered by European ornithologists in 1819, when an Arctic expedition led by Ross and Perry collected a specimen on islands off the west coast of Greenland. Sir Edward Sabine was the ship’s astronomer, and his brother named the bird in honor of him. This delicate, almost tern-like gull with a forked tail and striking wing markings breeds in the Arctic Circle, and winters in South America, making its migration one of the most impressive of all birds. Most Sabine’s Gulls migrate along ocean coasts, but occasionally some are blown inland. The birds that turn up during strong east wind periods like we had last week are probably from Greenland. Kim Eckert called me at about 11 Wednesday morning, telling me that Mike Hendrickson had just seen one flying along the beach toward the airport, and in a flash I was on my way. Mike was still there when I arrived, and had just seen the bird again, this time winging the other direction.

The wind was horrific, directly off the lake, and even though it wasn’t raining, I was pelted by spray so heavy I had to take off my glasses. I’m nearsighted, so it was harder than heck to see anything. As shadows of gulls flew past, I got my binoculars on them, and for 15 minutes, all I could find were Herrings and Ring-bills. But at last a delicate little gull flew in on a fierce gust of wind, again flying toward the airport, and I got a quick, shivery look at its pretty wing and back pattern as it raced past. Ten or so minutes later, it went by the other way, and the moment it was out of sight, I rushed to the car, chilled to the bone. My pants were soaking from the lake spray, and my hands were frozen, but my heart felt warm and satisfied to have enjoyed even momentarily this luscious bird.

We don’t see many Sabine’s Gulls in these parts. There are about a dozen records in Minnesota, all but one during fall, and four records in Wisconsin, all in fall. They prefer wilder, more barren places. A Dr. E.W. Nelson wrote of an egging excursion in Greenland in 1887:

A gunshot caused at least 100 of these gulls to rise like a white cloud over the islet, and showed us that we had found a breeding place. … While I was securing my prizes the birds hovered overhead in great anxiety, although they rarely uttered their grating cry, and in the very few instances when a bird darted down at us it was in perfect silence… When the eggs were secured, a large and fine lot of gulls were shot, and then we made our way back to camp heavily laden with spoils.

No, I certainly don’t blame Sabine’s Gulls for not spending more time near us humans.