Foam Lake birding No. 12

No. 12
When it comes to water birds that swim, there are many more than just ducks and geese. Gulls are just such a group. With their waterproof feathers and fully webbed feet, they can and do ride the waves as well as any duck or goose. Not only can gulls do what ducks do, but they can do other things as well. First, they perch on buildings, poles, cars and so on. Second, they have special glands that extract salt from water, which allows them to drink from oceans and salt water lakes such as the Quill Lakes. Third, they can eat just about anything that man eats, and more. Isolated from man, gulls’ diets include insects, smaller birds and animals, but not vegetable matter. Near humans, their preference is man’s refuse, if it is available. Like man, they seem to enjoy processed food – even grain based foods such as bread. Because of their scavenging habits, they are considered very useful in cleaning up birds and animals killed by vehicles, hunters or disease. They are especially good at keeping shore lines clean of dead fish. Their feeding habits undoubtedly reduce the spreading of diseases. For these and other reasons, all gulls are protected by law.
Five different species of gulls occur locally; two are common, one is uncommon but regular, two occur occasionally during migration. Probably, the most common is the Franklin’s Gull – especially during wet years. Of the three black headed gulls in Canada, only two occur here, and only the Franklin’s Gull can be seen in the summer. In other words, if one sees a black headed gull in the summer, it is almost certainly this one. The bill and feet are red; the breast is pink that quickly fades to white after death. White feathers around the eye contrast sharply with the solid black head. The wing tips are black. Like the other black headed gulls, it makes a ‘laughing” sound that has resulted in this group also being called the Laughing Gulls. The young take two years to mature. During this period, they are a dull grey with dark spots and streaks and no black heads. As with all gulls, males and females are identical and cannot be told apart in the field.
In the past, when farming practices included extensive summer fallowing, it was a common sight to see a flock of Franklin’s gulls following a farmer working in his field. The freshly disturbed soil provided a banquet of newly exposed insects, worms and mice. In such instances, more than one farmer was “bombed” by gulls flying overhead. Strangely enough, this seldom evoked anger. Instead, it became a source of amusement – especially to onlookers! Some companies even manufactured caps featuring a “gull bomb” on it.
Although some summer fallowing takes place today, it no longer plays a major role in the Franklin’s Gulls’ lives. As a result, they spend most of their time around lakes, sloughs and marshes. On rainy days, when earthworms have come to the surface in order to avoid drowning, Franklin’s Gulls will congregate in school yards, parks, golf courses, pastures and even lawns to gorge themselves. At times, a small flock will even march down a town street picking earthworms from the gutters. During dry years, they will, occasionally, fly out to grasshopper infested areas to feed. However, because they prefer to be near water, they are rather scarce during dry years and are rarely seen during the summer.
On July 11th, a lady in town phoned me to report that a flock of gulls was in the Composite School grounds. I drove out to take a look and saw a good sized flock of Franklin’s Gulls and several white headed Ring Billed Gulls that had already eaten and were now relaxing during a misty rain. Because it was so heavily overcast, I was unable to get a good picture. It definitely was a “gull” day. Not all birding takes place on sunny days!
During our winter travels in the southern United States and Mexico, I have seen the other two black headed gulls, but never the Franklin’s Gull. It is highly migratory and spends its winters from Guatemala in Central America to Chile in South America! Why? Nobody really knows. Of all the gulls it is the most social and is seldom seen in ones and twos, usually in larger flocks of a dozen or more birds. This year, being a relatively wet one, is a good time to observe Franklin’s Gulls.