An unusual visitor to the Crescent City area has become quite the celebrity, drawing roughly 200 people here from other parts of California, Oregon and even Minnesota. And it’s not Sandra Bullock.
A black-tailed gull — native to the shorelines of East Asia — showed up at the mouth of Elk Creek on Feb. 11, Klamath birder Lucas Brug said.
Brug spotted the bird in his scope taking advantage of the herring run with about 50,000 other gulls. He said he immediately noticed a difference.
“I’ve been looking for one forever,” Brug said, adding that the black tailed gull is on his life list. “I have the images imprinted in my mind so I knew it was a black-tailed gull. I had to get good photos to make absolutely sure and then it took off. It flew around the harbor for quite awhile and landed on the other side of Elk Creek away to the south.”
Up until Monday, birders have seen the black-tailed gull at the Elk Creek estuary, on the beach near the B Street Pier and in the water near the end of 3rd Street, said Alan Barron, author of “A Birdfinding Guide to Del Norte County, California.” This is the seventh recorded sighting of a black-tailed gull in California, Barron said, and the 19th species of gull recorded in Del Norte County.
The last sighting of a black-tailed gull in California occurred about two years ago in either San Mateo or Santa Cruz counties, Barron said.
Black-tailed gulls are a medium-sized bird that’s larger than a mew gull and smaller than a California gull, both of which are common here, according to Brug. Adults have yellow legs, black on its tail, a red ring around its eye and a black ring and red markings at the end of its bill, he said.
Brug noted that gulls can be difficult to identify since many don’t grow into their adult feathers for about four years. Not only was there a difference in the black-tailed gull’s size, Brugg said he noted that due to its shorter legs and long wings its posture was different from the resident gulls.
“When they get into breeding their colors intensify,” Brug said. “When I first saw it the legs were dullish yellow and now they’re pretty bright yellow and the ring (around the eye) was a dull red and now it’s really bright red. It’s being really aggressive towards the smaller mew gulls while feeding on herring eggs.”
How did a bird that is revered in Japan — Barron says the Japanese government since the 1920s has set aside protected areas with special guards to keep breeding black-tailed gulls from being disturbed — find its way to Crescent City?
There is a theory that speculates this black-tailed gull may have been part of a more northern population and instead of migrating down the Asian coast began traveling down the North American coast from Alaska, Barron said. This, he said, is known as mirror imaging disorientation.
“They’ve done some research on some birds that get opposite navigation readings in their brain,” he said. “Many like songbirds perish in the ocean or never reach anywhere. Some of the birds we’ve had here have returned over and over for several years. Nobody knows where they go in the summer, but they come back in the winter.”
From an evolutionary standpoint, the black-tailed gull’s foray into unusual waters may be natural. Barron said there were two warbler species that were vagrants and a pair of them or more got lost at the same time in the same place and in the breeding season stayed and nested.
“Ranges contract and expand and adapt to things,” he said. “Some (birds) can do that pretty good, others can’t at all. They’re pushing their limits and boundaries where they can go and what they can do to survive.”
When a rare bird shows up in the community, it’s also good for local businesses, Brug said.
“I know a lot of people who came here from all over the state and from Oregon and Washington and stayed in motels in Crescent City and ate food and spent money,” he said. “It’s a good economic boost for the town.”
For more information about rare bird sightings, visit ebird.org.
Reach Jessica Cejnar at firstname.lastname@example.org .