Shortly before Thanksgiving day the North American Rare Bird Alert posted the finding of a Ross’s Gull at the Gavin Point Dam area on the Missouri River near Yankton, SD. This was the first ever reported sighting in Nebraska and the second ever in South Dakota. The Iowa Bird Line picked it up and sent out an alert to its subscribers suggesting that a trip across the border might be in order to see this rare “lower 48” visitor. Shortly before noon on Saturday I drove to Yankton, arriving around 3:30. I searched for the Ross’s among the flurry of Bonapartes and Ringbilled Gulls air-fishing in the tailrace below the dam. No luck. I drove across the dam and turned right, toward a complex of frozen ponds. There several birders had their scopes lined up looking at the Ross’s Gull, which was sitting on the ice in the midst of a flock of Ringbills and Bonapartes. I am learning that one of the best strategies for finding rare birds is to first look for the rare bird searchers.
The Gull was very cooperative as it sat and walked on the ice for nearly an hour. It then flew off into the sunset so I was unable to get a good view of it in flight. However, the sitting and walking views were satisfactory. The bird was clearly pink on the breast and belly. The black ring band on the back of the neck was not present, as is to be expected in a winter bird. It looked a lot like a little seal with its round, white face with large black eyes and black bill as it sat on the ice looking directly at us. The eyes seemed unusually large for a gull. I was happy to add this bird to my Life List as number 692. I have considered travelling to the Churchill area in northern Manitoba to view the Ross’s Gulls that have been seen there in recent years, (although in very limited numbers now) but it was much more convenient to drive to Yankton from Des Moines.
While chatting with the other birders who were looking at the Ross’s, one of them mentioned that a Little Gull had been seen at the Oahe Dam north of Pierre, SD. I decided to extend my visit to SD and stayed overnight at Yankton. I left for Pierre about 4:00 a.m. the next morning. I arrived about 8:00 and after a quick breakfast, began my search for the Little Gull. At first, the only gulls visible were too far out on the reservoir to identify. I looked down-river and around the dam, with no luck. About 10:30, the gulls started moving and I was able to locate the Little Gull on an ice-covered pond very near the power plant, just below the dam. It was nestled on the near side of a large flock of resting Ringbilled Gulls, Bonapartes Gulls, one Black-legged Kittiwake and one Glaucous Gull. The little Gull was very close to the West Tailrace track, so the view was excellent. It was easily distinguished from the sometimes confusing Bonapartes because of its much smaller size. It was a first-winter gull, with a lot of black on the wings. This became my North American Life Bird number 693. I have previously searched for Little Gulls reported once in Dickinson County, IA and annually by Lake Michigan in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, without success. The 700 magic number is getting surprisingly close. I doubt that I will reach it in 2010, but with any luck, 2011 will be the year. These two gulls were high on my list of “Want to See”, so it felt like an early Christmas present. I guess I fit right in with the Black Friday/Saturday mad shoppers, only I don’t have to wait in line for the stores to open.