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Happening NOW: Sabine’s Gulls and Long-tailed Jaegers on the Move.

For birders across the continent, a significant part of any day in the field is going to involve finding some water. If you’re on the coast, you might be hoping to locate some near-shore migrating shearwaters or an early wave of sea ducks. If you’re further inland, its more likely you’ll be staring at an inland reservoir or the widest, deepest curve of your local river. In this case, you may count yourself lucky if all you find are a few terns, wending their way in and out of distant coves and creek mouths. This year, many birders at the latter locations are experiencing the thrill of finding far rarer species.

If you think you’ve been hearing more about Long-tailed Jaegers and Sabine’s Gulls this season, then you’re right. From North Dakota to South Carolina and many, many places in between, these sleek, champion migrators are appearing at inland waterways. While many of us think of these two as consummate pelagic species, it is well-known that every year in late August and into much of September these species are prone to turn up at inland locations, far from the coast. While they do migrate offshore, juveniles in particular seem to take overland routes with a more-than-just-passing frequency, and when these high-flying birds encounter inclement weather, they may put down on whatever water they can find.

Sabine’s Gulls, like this one from Douglas County, Colorado, earlier this month, have been seen more frequently this fall than in years past. Photo: Mark Chavez.Macaulay Library

The interesting thing about this year is the number of sightings and their distribution. If you look at the Long-tailed Jaeger eBird reports this year, there have been fourteen records away from the coast, seven of which were from the Great Lakes area. In 2016, there were only seven inland records total. The pattern of Sabine’s Gull eBird records is just as dramatic, but in a slightly different way. In 2016, there were forty-nine records away from the immediate coast, while this year, there have been forty-one. However, last year none of these records came from the southeast. East of the Ohio River, the furthest south a Sabine’s Gull occurred last year was near Toronto, Ontario. This year, ten of the records have come from the mid-Atlantic and southeast, with another cluster of sightings in Texas, east to the Louisiana border. In the northern Great Plains, where most of last year’s records came from, this species has been rather sparse this year.

Now it is important to note that, when using eBird as a data source, the picture may not be fully complete. It is doubtful that every record—of any species!—makes it into eBird. States may have significantly higher records of these species than eBird would suggest. Even considering this, the story being told is compelling.

Of course, the looming question becomes, what the heck is going on? I think there are several strong hypotheses that could be ventured. The Gulf and southeast coasts have seen remarkably unsettled weather lately, and so one guess is that the birds have always been migrating over these regions, but usually make it through without needing to put-down anywhere. No matter the cause though, something is going on with these birds. So head out today! Document your findings well and then report them, so we can continue to unravel what’s going on with these stunning seabirds. Oh, and of course, check back in with us when we publish this season’s issue of North American Birds—its safe to say we’ll have some more thoughts on the matter for you!

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Note: This is part of a series of blog posts from the editors of North American Birds. The idea of these occasional posts is to highlight ongoing bird population phenomena of broad interest to birders and field ornithologists across the continent. Full analysis will appear in print in North American Birds. To learn more or to subscribe, please go online: http://publications.aba.org/north-american-birds/

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Mike Hudson

Mike Hudson

Co-editor, North American Birds at American Birding Association
Mike Hudson is co-editor of North American Birds. He grew up within sight of Baltimore, Maryland. Living in the city, he developed an interest in urban birds, and the differences in distribution he observed between rural and urban areas. He is also fascinated by the forces that drive changes in bird distribution, from climate and weather to competing species. Mike works at the Chester River Field Research Station where he assists with the seasonal bird banding operations there. He has also been an educator at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, where he taught about ecology and conservation and he has been staff at multiple ABA young birder camps and events.
  • Connie Hartviksen

    Enjoyed this read. Interestingly – my husband and I encountered a Sabine’s Gull this week in Northwestern Ontario. It was the second (only) sighting in this area, the one prior in 2006. We were so excited and I was able to get some exceptional photographs of it as well. Just tried to send one but resolution was too high :-(.

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