Monday, October 12, 2015

Franklin's Gull Visits Ohio!

This past Friday I left Athens, Ohio, and drove up to the town of Huron along Lake Erie to help with some salamander research. I had Sunday free, so I decided to do some birding at Sheldon Marsh State Nature Preserve. I received a notification a few hours in from the Facebook group Ohio Rare Bird Alert that Ohio birder Steve Landes had found 4 Franklin's Gulls on the beach at Alum Creek Reservoir. Now, Alum Creek was 2 hours away from me, but it was also along the way back home to Athens. I decided to seize the opportunity and go chase the gulls.

Franklin's Gull Ohio
Two hours later, I arrived at the Alum Creek Reservoir beach. A large group of gulls sat on the beach, and I hoped that at least one of them was the Franklin's Gull. Why all the fuss over a gull? Well, the Franklin's Gull is a rare visitor to Ohio. It breeds in the northern region of the Great Plains before migrating south through the rest of the Great Plains, down through Central America, and then to the Pacific Coast of South America where it overwinters. Ohio is outside of their migration flyway, which means that this species can't normally be found in Ohio; however, normally a handful of individuals are found here every year. I noticed that there were two other birders on the beach, and one of them was taking photos of the gull group. A good sign, but I was still apprehensive approaching the group. The most nerve-racking part of "chasing" rare birds is arriving at your location and not knowing if it is still there. Luckily, one of the Franklin's Gulls was still present. Can you spot him among the Ring-Billed and Herring Gulls above?

Franklin's Gull Ohio
Here's a closeup of the Franklin's Gull. Like the more familiar Bonaparte's Gull, this species is one of the "hooded gulls," but he is currently missing his hood. This is because he's currently in his winter plumage. This is an adult Franklin's Gull in nonbreeding plumage. This stage typically lasts from August to March. At the end of March they will molt into their breeding plumage, which has the characteristic black hood. You can see a photo of a breeding individual at this link (photo by Terry Sohl).

Franklin's Gull Ohio
When confronted with a bird you're unsure of, especially if you think it might be a rare species, you should always have a run down of characteristics to ensure a correct identification. So why is this a Franklin's Gull? The first question you should ask yourself is "What is the more reasonable bird choice?" In this case it is a small gull, smaller than a Ring-Billed Gull (see the previous photo for a comparison). The more realistic species for Ohio is the Bonaparte's Gull, another small, hooded gull. This is when you start comparing the field marks of this individual to each choice. The Bonaparte's Gull in nonbreeding plumage also has a black bill, dark eyes, and black wingtips. However, the Franklin's Gull has more extensive black on its head than a Bonaparte's Gull, which only has an "ear spot" and some black near the eye. The Franklin's Gull also has a darker back than the light gray back of the Bonaparte's. Also notice the dark-colored legs of the individual above; a Bonaparte's Gull would have orangish-pink legs. Overall, the dark legs, dark back, diminutive size, and extensive black on the head confirms it is indeed a Franklin's Gull. To see a photo of a Bonaparte's Gull for comparison, see this link to Terry Sohl's photo. 

Franklin's Gull Ohio
The Franklin's Gull is one of the several species of inland gulls which nest on the marshes of the northern Great Plains. They nest in large colonies, with some colonies reaching 10,000 individuals. They feed mainly on arthropods, often spending time in freshly plowed agricultural fields. The nests they build are quite interesting, as they are actually floating nests. These nests are constantly maintained by the adults as they continually sink as the materials decay in the water. Eventually the chicks even begin maintaining their nests once they get older.

Franklin's Gull Ohio
As with many other bird species, the Franklin's Gull population has been declining over the past several decades. Accurate population data is difficult to acquire with this species, as they depend on wet marshes which naturally fluctuate in quality depending on the weather of that year. Some years a marsh might hold enough water, while it might be too dry in others. This forces the colonies to shift nesting locations from year to year, which makes it hard for ornithologists to get an accurate idea of the population dynamics. Some areas have recorded sharp declines, while others have been stable. There have been some instances of the Franklin's Gull expanding into new breeding regions as well. Overall, the North American Breeding Bird Survey claims that the total population has declined by 4.7% every year from 1966 to 2010. This means there has been a cumulative decline of 88%. In the early 1900's, this species suffered greatly due to large scale destruction of breeding habitat, but more recent management and creation of appropriate wetlands have helped the population from completely crashing. It will be interesting to see how this species does in the future, especially with the effects of climate change on the Great Plains.

Thanks for reading!

1 comment:

  1. Hi, Kyle. I’ve enjoyed reading about your birding adventures.

    When I was in High School, I had permission from several local farmers to fish the sections of Alum Creek that flowed through their properties. At that time, there were no beaches or gulls, but there was some great Smallmouth Bass fishing.

    As an undergraduate student at OSU, I helped catalogue fish and other aquatic life living within the boundaries of the planned impoundment. We worked our way upstream ahead of the rising water. That’s where I saw my first Rainbow Darter, along with many other amazing fish species. People visiting the lake now rarely think about what the area was like before construction of the dam.