Thursday, January 31, 2019

Sabine's Gull in Bremer Bay

With a real dearth of gull species in Australia it is always great when we are graced with a rare visitor. Rumours began to surface of a rare gull in Bremer Bay on 14th January, photos were taken the next day and it was then identified as the 6th Sabine's Gull for Western Australia.

The bird could give extremely close views on the small beach
The bird was located at the town's fisheries harbour and very soon took to the fish being offered by eager birders, who made their way down to see this dainty arctic gull.

The photos show all the classic characteristics of this elegant little gull. The black bill with a bright yellow tip (a feature of adults birds, though it can also be this developed in some 2nd year birds) and the pale flesh coloured legs. In breeding plumage the adults attain a slaty-black hood, whilst this bird shows the blackish hindneck collar it retains in non-breeding plumage.

Flight shot showing the characteristic M pattern across the upperwings

In flight the distinctive M pattern of black and grey on the upperwings can be seen, this is an extremely useful feature to ID this species, even when the bird is at some distance from the observer. Although it was in heavy moult with extremely worn feathers the graceful tern-like flight was still very noticeable.

The extreme feather wear was obvious in flight

First discovered in Greenland by the Irish scientist Edward Sabine in 1818, it is a high arctic breeder on tundra in Siberia, Alaska and Canada. One of very few gulls to winter in the opposite hemisphere to breeding, spending the non-breeding season in the southern oceans. 

After breeding they either migrate down to the eastern Pacific, wintering off the coast of South America, or travel down the Atlantic Ocean to the west coast of South Africa. Though the exact winter distribution of this species worldwide is poorly known as it spends much of the time far out to sea. It has also been recorded far inland and it is thought that some birds may cross continental land masses rather than the more common ocean route between wintering and breeding areas

All the previous records from Western Australia have been from Port Hedland northwards, with 4 of those 5 sightings between the months of November and January. It is a species that has been known to turn up in some unusual places, one bird turned up at a claypan near Derby (a very long way from the tundra!) in August 2006 but probably the most amazing record was of a bird sighted at Cape Ann in Antarctica on 5th Feb 2006 feeding with a flock of 100 Snow Petrels.

The bird gratefully accepted fish thrown to it

The bird seemed quite content feeding on the small beach by day and then roosting on one of the floating mooring attachments present in the bay, so it was a surprise that on the morning of Jan 19th after only 5 days the bird was seen flying off to the west and despite an extensive search in the nearby bays and beaches it wasn't relocated . A sighting reported from Cheynes Beach (100km to the west) the following day indicated that it was off to pastures new.

Many thanks to Robyn Pickering & Plaxy Barrett for the use of their photos

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