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Huge Movement of Franklin’s Gulls in the Great Lakes and the Mid-Atlantic

Dainty and graceful by gull standards, the Franklin’s Gull has one of the great migrations in the western hemisphere. They breed on the prairie marshes of central Canada and the adjacent states and moves south in great clouds of birds, eventually reaching wintering grounds mostly in the South American nations of Chile and Peru. Birders on either side of that route that takes them down the great middle of the continent look forward to single fall Franklin’s Gulls turning up among the regular gull species. In most of the rest of the continent, they’re uncommon at best. They’ll occur with some regularity but are the kind of species, by virtue of their scarcity and their beauty, that make a good day in the field exceptional.

Once in a very great while, however, birders in the rest of the continent get to experience something akin to those clouds of Franklin’s Gulls that our midwestern colleagues get to enjoy. And yesterday was one of those days.

A persistent low pressure system sitting over the Great Lakes shifted northeast where it sat on Quebec and New Brunswick. Which in turn opened a fire hydrant of wind from the prairie provinces over the Great Lakes and straight out over the Mid-Atlantic from about Virginia to New England. It was as if someone put a funnel on the south side of Manitoba with the end spitting out over New Jersey.

FRGU winds

The wind at about 5AM, 11/13, at 1000ft, as viewed from

And did the Franklin’s Gulls follow the wind? You bet. And they ended up all over the Great Lakes and the East Coast. Birders on both sides of Lake Erie saw them. There were single birds in western New York, along Long Island, and across Massachusetts. Southern Quebec nabbed a few. I reported yesterday that Connecticut had it’s 5th record of Franklin’s Gull this past week. Yesterday they tripled those records. In Ocean City, Maryland, birders participating in the annual rarity roundup weekend had an unprecedented start with two dozen Franklin’s Gulls in Ocean City inlet.

But Cape May seemed to be the epicenter of the flight, as it is so often in nearly all things. Birders on the cape reported flocks, honest to god flocks, of Franklin’s Gulls coming in off the ocean, milling around in the surf, and basically making themselves at home. At the end of the day it was estimated that more than 300 individuals were seen in a number of locations. It was a truly unprecedented day.

Locations where Franklin's Gulls have been seen since the beginning of November.

Locations where Franklin’s Gulls have been seen since the beginning of November, most from 11/13

Perhaps one of the most interesting part of this wave of Franklin’s Gulls, beyond the shock of the scale of the flight, was how the word spread from state to province to state as the low pressure system worked its way across the continent. Listservs, facebook groups, and eBird were all buzzing with the news. No doubt word of Franklin’s Gulls in surrounding states encouraged birders to go out and find their own, particularly on a day where that felt practically guaranteed. It’s a fun aspect of the cross-border connections we experience in the 21st century.

Birders in the maritime provinces may see their turn coming this weekend. The wind does not seem likely to shut off till Sunday, at least, as the system continues its inexorable march out to sea. Keep an eye out for Franklin’s Gulls, and who knows what else.

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Nate Swick

Nate Swick

Editor, Social Media Manager at American Birding Association
Nate Swick is the editor of the American Birding Association Blog, social media manager for the ABA, and the host of the American Birding Podcast. He lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Danielle, and two young children. He is the author of Birding for the Curious and The ABA Field Guide to Birds of the Carolinas.
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