Last Monday I was able to do some late-day boat birding on Lake Norman, the purpose being to find a rare gull or two among the thousands that gather in the late afternoon.
Soon after we embarked, we motored past an island with a large, active great blue heron colony. A few common loons seemed rather unconcerned as we entered the channel, but a handful of horned grebes were quick to take flight as we approached.
Our first destination was an exposed mud bar at Governor’s Island. About 2,000 gulls were loafing there, the vast majority of them ring-billed. Almost all of the gulls seen on the lake and around the area shopping centers are of this species, but the potential exists for a real rarity – and a chance to add a species or two to the county bird list.
I was hopeful about seeing a glaucous gull or even an Iceland gull, pale whitish birds with frosty wingtips instead of the black-tipped wings of our area’s common species.
Interspersed among the ring-billed gulls were occasional dark brown gulls, which were much larger and bulkier. These were the herring gulls, only about a dozen on this bar.
Winter herring gulls are mostly first-winter birds in dark brown plumage. This day, however, we were able to identify herring gulls representing all four years of immature plumage. Larger gulls such as herrings take four years to mature, each year acquiring a characteristic plumage. Smaller gulls such as the ring-billed may take only two years to mature.
Our attention was drawn to a dark, immature gull that was slightly grayer, smaller and slimmer than the herring gulls. Close inspection revealed a first-year lesser black-backed gull, a rarity for sure, but a species that is increasing and may become more visible on the lake in the future.
We ended the day at the much larger congregation in the main channel, where an estimated 5,000 gulls had gathered. We did our best to search through them for more rarities but were unable to find any. As dusk gathered, we were treated to a beautiful sunset – a great end to an enjoyable afternoon.