Birdwatchers from across central Ontario are flocking to Barrie in hopes of catching a sighting of a rare gull.
And they’re not making the trek on a wing and a prayer.
“Yesterday, there were a few birders here and they came across this bird and it happened to be somebody who is an expert in gulls. It is a very difficult bird to identify,” said Charmaine Anderson, pointing to a stocky, primarily light brown young gull noted for its white wing tips, missing the black markings of many of the 10 other gull species that Anderson names in Kempenfelt Bay.
The Whitby-area birder was among the birders who flocked to Barrie on Sunday after seeing the sighting posted on the popular birding website ebird.org.
It's the second sighting of the glaucous-winged gull in Ontario. The first was in Sault Ste. Marie in December 2020.
“Every birder in Ontario, probably further, saw the report and came up here this morning and confirmed it was a glaucous-winged gull,” explained Anderson, who typically focuses her binoculars on birds in her home of Durham Region, but will hit the road when there’s an exciting finding. “There is a little bit of a question because they can hybridize with other birds. … So there’s a small chance it could be a hybrid, in which case you can’t count it on your bird list. It has to be a pure bird.
“It’s a pretty important sighting and I think people will still keep coming here. It could disappear today, it could hang around for weeks. I know people from Ottawa will be coming down and even further," she added.
Barrie has become a popular destination in the fall for birding, said Alex Mills, longtime Barrie birder and York University biology professor who studies bird migration.
“This is a gull that is common on the Pacific coast of British Columbia and Alaska, and is rarely seen inland, even in B.C. It is almost unheard of in Ontario,” he wrote in an email to BarrieToday. “Most non-birders are not that interested in gulls, but there is a great diversity here — more than in most places on Earth — and there are often thousands of gulls of numerous species here in the fall, peaking from late October to mid-December.”
He said the consensus among birders is that the bird identified in Barrie’s waterfront is indeed the glaucous-winged gull and throngs of birders from elsewhere in the province are visiting to see it.
Birder and naturalist Justin Peter spotted the rare creature Saturday and even managed to collect a stool sample for testing. He hopes it will determine its geographic origins.
But Peter’s trip to Barrie was initially disappointing. The key to his quest was the emerald shiner, a small minnow which attracts a huge number of migrating birds, particularly loons, waterfowl and gulls. And looking into the clear water of the bay, he found absolutely none.
But being a fan of gulls, he continued along the beach checking out the different species when he noticed some rather odd attributes of one particular gull, setting it apart from the others.
“It had a reptilian look to it, it didn’t have a cutesy look to it,” like the very similar herring gull, Peter said.
Its bill was dark, not pink. Its tail was a medium colour and there were its white wing tips.
Its proportions were also different.
The wings extend slightly past the end of its tail, making it rather stout and compact. Its uniform brown tone indicated it to be a fairly young bird, making it a little trickier to identify than if it were an adult.
After studying it for some time, Peter realized it was the same gull species he had seen along the west coast where it is known to reside.
So he photographed it, evening catching it in flight displaying its white tips and then posted his findings. And he also managed to collect a stool sample from the edge of the pier.
“I plan to have it tested and we’ll see if we can figure out anything else from this,” said the amateur ornithologist, who owns Toronto-based Quest Nature Tours travel company. “Amateurs can make lots of field observations that are original.
“If I see something interesting, whether it’s a rare bird or some new behaviour from a bird that I don’t think anyone else has seen, I’ll write it up and contribute to the scientific literature," Peter added.
Anderson was thrilled with the finding. Her recent sightings have included groove-billed ani of the cuckoo family about a month ago, in Perth County, which attracted about 200 people. She also spotted the southern bird, sage thrasher, near Chatham-Kent.
“It’s a fun thing whenever a really rare bird shows up in a community it often sparks a lot of interest,” she said.