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Sunday, October 16, 2011

What's So Great About That Franklin Guy, Anyway?

In order to be successful in today’s birding world, it’s important to be wired at all times. If you’re able, you can receive eBird alerts or listserv emails while you’re in the field and immediately twitch the rare birds in question. If you don’t have an iPhone or other smart device, you won’t even realize you’ve missed a life bird while you’re out birding. Or, in my case, while you’re at work, which is where I was when a would-be lifer Franklin’s Gull was reported from a random causeway over Jordan Lake.

When I got home and read that email on the local listserv, I thought I was screwed. No way would a Franklin’s Gull be anything but a one-day wonder, but I had to try. After a sleep-deprived night and early-morning shift at work, I made my way over to the causeway, and sure enough a bunch of gulls lounged around on a little jetty in the morning sun. Unfortunately, as I fumbled for my scope, a pair of kayakers decided to make a bee-line for the gulls, and as they neared the entire flock alighted. Whether or not the Franklin’s was present in the flock pre-kayakers, I’m not sure, all I am sure of is that when the flock finally settled down, my target gull was nowhere to be found. I did find a trio of juvenile Laughing Gulls and a previously-reported Sanderling, both pretty good birds for the area. If they stuck around, I remained confident the Franklin’s must be around as well, so I waited. There were other birds around to occupy my time, like these Black Vultures that would fly so close you could hear their feathers rustling!

Instead, here's a much more mundane pic of them standing around.

Periodically I would check the spit, just to see if my bird had shown up. No luck yet, but the water level began to drop, and the sandbar began to elongate. Gulls came and went, mostly Ring-billed Gulls, but also some more interesting birds, like a nice Common Tern, a good bird in the Piedmont at any time, especially so as the weather begins to grow cold around here. The trees surrounding the causeway were full of warblers, but as far as I could tell, the vast majority of them were Blackpoll Warblers, an insanely common bird at the right time of the year.

Naturally, he would jump into the light every time I put away my camera.

I watched the Blackpolls flit between that little grove of trees so many times, I now have a pretty good idea what a Blackpoll Warbler flight call sounds like. It’s important to check all the birds though, or I would’ve missed a nice flyover Peregrine Falcon earlier in the morning, or a pair of Ospreys that soared over the middle of the lake. As such, perusing the warblers finally turned up something different, a little bird with inky streaks down its sides, and a nice little pattern in the face – my first good look at a Cape May Warbler this fall.

A vast improvement over our old Cape May Warbler shot.

Suddenly, I heard an odd squawk over by the expanding sandbar. The birds were all in the air again, apparently because a pair of Caspian Terns had swooped in to cause a little trouble. Noting a little Forster’s Tern flitting around the newcomers, I noticed a smaller gull, oddly pale and with a weird mask on its face. Even without my binoculars, I knew I had finally found my bird – my lifer Franklin’s Gull had arrived!

Great success!!! Very nice, how much?! (*insert Borat quote here*!)

Immediately I was on my cell phone, texting fellow birders I knew were in the area. Lounging next to its Laughing brethren, the Franklin’s Gull was a remarkably distinct bird. It’s kind of fat, with a little round head and a tiny bill, not to mention the thick eye-arcs and white diamonds on its primaries. When it ruffled its feathers, you could even see the tail band that’s way narrower than a Laughing’s, and terminating at a pair of white outer tail feathers. Maybe if it had been alone, I would have done a double-take, but together with all the other birds, there’s no mistaking this amazing bird.

It'd walk around, swim, etc, but would not fly so we could see the tail pattern!

Other birders started showing up, hopefully because my texts had gotten through to the guys hanging out at Ebenezer point. We all marveled at the bird, surprised that it had stuck around, congratulating each other on the life, state, county, and at least year bird. On my way home, I found myself wondering who the hell the Franklin’s Gull was named for, and what he had done to deserve such an honorific. Turns out he was a British dude who tried to sail for the Northwest Passage in the mid-1800s, a fool’s errand that ended up killing him. But during some of his early expeditions, he was the first guy to take a specimen of Franklin’s Gull, which he gave to a naturalist to scientifically describe.

What's cooler than a Laughing Gull? ICE COLD! Also, Franklin's Gull.

I guess doing all that deserves getting your own bird. Still, such a mundane name as Franklin’s Gull doesn’t really capture the beauty, subtlety, and presence of the bird I viewed today on a random spit off of a random bridge over Jordan Lake. Perhaps Guy-That-Discovered-Me-Died-of-Hypothermia-in-the-High-Arctic Gull would be more fitting. At the very least, it can’t be less fitting.

I guess Maybe-Got-Cannabalized-By-His-Crew Gull didn't make the cut.

Oh, by the way James – if you’re reading this from college, I borrowed the camera you left behind to get pics of the gull. Sorry, bro! Thanks for letting me get these pics!


  1. I'm surprised that no one is making a bigger deal about this bird. Personally I never get to see them except within their proper range. Great find and thanks for sharing.

  2. @John - According to Potter et al.'s Birds of the Carolinas, Franklin's Gull is almost annual across North Carolina, and I think they have been slightly more common a few decades ago than they are now. Maybe that's why people aren't making such a big deal about this bird, but hell, I sure am!