Among a group of bird nuts, discussions range from the latest binoculars to the latest bird species to arrive this spring. Occasionally more introspective categories are covered, such as why we don't find magpies in Cass County or the reasons horned larks are so successful. To the average person, most of this talk sounds like gobbledygook, much as I would be lost among nuclear physicists arguing over the mass of the newest subatomic particle. But to interested individuals it means something.
One interesting challenge among bird finders is speculating about the next great sighting. What rare bird will show up in North Dakota or Cass County that will make a new record?
Gulls, as a group, make a tempting possibility. They are large and capable of long distance wanderings. One in particular is a ripe target - the lesser black-backed gull (Larus fuscus). This is a bird that has been showing up with regularity the last few years at Bismarck and Garrison Dam. It's only a matter of time, we speculate, before one shows up in Cass County. This is a common European species but has greatly expanded its range recently. Birds.cornell.edu says, "Its occurrence on this continent increased dramatically over the last third of the 20th century."
In this vein, a few of us have voiced opinions regarding the lack of rare gull sightings locally. Bismarck, Garrison Dam, and Grand Forks consistently originate plenty of gull reports but with good reason. Birders have ready access to large water areas (Bismarck and Garrison: Missouri River; Grand Forks: a large reasonably accessible lagoon system). With but few exceptions, the Fargo-Moorhead area has been a consistent blank spot on the gull map.
The Fargo landfill and the lagoon systems in West Fargo, Fargo, and Moorhead represent the nearby locations supporting decent numbers of gull species. Granted, these are not aesthetically pleasing places to watch birds, but hey, you go where the birds are. However, handicapping viewers at these sites is the general lack of access. The landfill folks are magnanimous enough to let us in during open hours. But the lagoon systems are gated and locked. This makes it challenging to find, view, and identify gulls.
Another barrier standing in the way of rare gull sightings is the birds' own natural histories. There are many different species with a shot at showing up here but the birds are notoriously difficult to identify. This is due mainly to the fact that it takes four years for most gulls to achieve adult plumage. Before that, the gulls pass through a series of molts giving each bird a new look every month it seems. I'll be the first to admit, I'm no expert. And each curious gull I see is viewed with guide books and skepticism at the ready.
When the gulls started arriving a few weeks ago, birders were lucky enough to find the birds spending considerable time in the open field just north of the landfill. This made for some relatively easy viewing with long, leisurely looks at the few hundred gulls. It wasn't long before a Thayer's gull was located and identified, making it the second one ever recorded in the county.
Then on May the third, I was making my way into Fargo along 12th Avenue. Passing by the previously mentioned field, I couldn't pass up the chance to quickly scan the gulls. Standing among several lightly colored ring-billed and herring gulls, a dark, charcoal-backed bird stood out.
I wasn't sure what it was, just that it was different and likely significant. I called a fellow West Fargo birder - Dean Riemer - and described what I was seeing. He quickly arrived and confirmed the first Cass County record of a lesser black-backed gull with photographs to boot.
In the aftermath, it struck us just how satisfying it was to finally find one of the birds on the target list of many area birders. It serves to illustrate that with a little knowledge, a little skill, combined with a dogged persistence and a lot of luck, a person's efforts can pay dividends in the end. Just how much luck? The bird was present for roughly 45 minutes and hasn't been seen since.