A Ross's Gull in Tupper Lake!!!

Don't Miss This Bird

Alan Belford

A Rare Find

Thanks to their ability to fly, birds can cover ground quickly. Even with that advantage, I’m not sure they can move as fast as news about them travels in the birding world. This speed of information was well displayed this past week when a Ross’s Gull was found at a private residence on Simon Pond in Tupper Lake. Ross's Gulls are an Arctic species that is rarely found south of those haunts. Not only that, but the North American colonies in northern Canada have been declining – most of the world’s Ross’s Gulls breed in Russia. For more information about them, check out All About Birds

The excitement of my day began when I received a phone call about the bird from a friend first thing in the morning. Apparently he had been sent photos from the landowner who was trying to identify the odd bird which had come to some fish scraps and roe on the ice. My friend had identified it as a Ross’s Gull but wanted to have folks go check it out since he was out of town. Unfortunately, I was stuck in Lake Placid working for the day and I couldn’t get to Tupper Lake until late in the afternoon – scary late if the bird wasn’t going to linger for long. But my friend told me he’d email me the photos and that he was also calling another local birder, who would hopefully be able to check out the bird. Thankfully she could. 

 While these shots are dark and gray, they clearly show the key characteristics for a Ross's Gull. And we had great looks in our binoculars and scopes!

Sorting Through Emails and Phone Calls

I checked my email for the forwarded photos as soon as I could, but as I did there was already an additional message about the bird from another birding friend who heard a rumor thanks to the statewide birding listserve. Somehow it had made its way onto the list via a post in Connecticut – sounds strange, but it’s true. This email showed a gray image of a Ross’s Gull and questions about when it was seen, all important details which were absent and driving birders reading the post wild with speculative hopes. “Do you know anything about this?” her message asked.

“A little,” I thought to myself, and I chose to open the photos sent from my friend who had called me that morning to see more of the bird for myself before responding to anyone. Sure enough, there were photos and a short video of a Ross’s Gull in the emails – and I looked anxiously at the clock wondering when I’d be able to slip away to go look for it. I jokingly told folks at school I’d have to bail on them that day – something of highest importance had come up – and I think they may not have fought with me about going, either. Nice folks to work with!

When the bird flew it showed off its wing and tail patterns.

Having seen the photos myself, I passed them on to other local birders and my friend at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, all of whom excitedly agreed with the identification. Soon the phone was ringing and I was slipping out of the room to chat with folks to give them information, even as I was emailing others with the details I knew, although I didn’t even have the directions to the location where it was seen! The morning was soon a flurry of calls, emails, discussions of identification, and quick chats while still juggling my job. When I finally posted about the bird on our local Northern New York listserve I still didn’t know the correct directions, but I wanted to at least clear up the rumors and give birders salivating in hope at their computer screens the information I knew. Thankfully a few birders – including my early morning emailing friend – were able to get out to the site and find the bird, studying it further. They in turn corrected my directional shortcoming.

A Chance to See the Gull – Finally!

The afternoon and the end of the day did not come quickly enough, but Wren and I made a quick stop at home and shot to Tupper, our spirits (Wren was just excited to go out, but she didn’t know it was another boring – in her mind – bird chase) buoyed by a phone call from a friend who was able to be there all day. They had just seen the bird again.

I arrived to find a group of birders hunkered down in the lightly falling snow, their hopes resting on the small, dark bits of fish and roe which had attracted the gull in the first place. Friends of mine from the area were there, some of whom I had alerted about the bird. My friend from Cornell made the trip from Ithaca with one of his colleagues. And there was a guy from Connecticut who first heard the rumor of the bird at about 6 a.m. that morning! Apparently birders from Vermont had already successfully visited.

The gull was wary of Bald Eagles, which were also interested in the fish. Photo courtesy of

We stood and waited, and happily our patience was not well tested. The bird glided in, looped above the fish as if to check if it was safe from Common Ravens and Bald Eagles (both of which were in the neighborhood and would startle it), and then settled down to eat. Many of us took long series of photos in the gray and snowy conditions. It flew off and then soon came back, looping yet again on its landing. This went on a few times until the gloom of darkness began to creep in and most folks left – a few of us remaining to come inside and happily share our individual stories from the day as we celebrated. Wren and I would have a night walk when all was finished.

The Gull Continues

My friends from Cornell stayed in Tupper Lake, finding the bird the following morning. In fact, it has been seen every day since, even after it gave the mobs of birders who traveled from states like Indiana and Maryland a scare on Saturday morning. On that day it initially failed to show at the private residence, but was found late in the morning at the public boat launch on Tupper Lake along Route 30. It has been seen there regularly since. After all, given the number of fishermen spread across the ice on the frozen lakes, it will hopefully be able to earn a cold and fishy living from the scraps they leave behind. And if it sticks around through this week it may have a bounty of food thanks to the upcoming ice fishing derby – if only there was a way to let it know that plenty of food is coming.

There have also been other birds of interest in the neighborhood, including a Northern Shrike across from the OWD tower. Photo courtesy of

And while it remains to be determined how our upcoming week and predicted cold temps will impact this bird, birders who want to see it shouldn’t wait to make the trip. Opportunities like this are as rare as the species they represent, and they don’t last for long. Finally, as almost an afterthought, the flood of birders to the area has also turned up a Northern Shrike across from the OWD tower, as well as small flocks of Snow Buntings and Pine Grosbeaks in the area. Add to these the boreal species which can be found just south of Tupper Lake in places like Sabattis Bog, and there are good birds to be found even without the gull.

For help planning your trip to find the gull, check out our outdoor recreation, lodging, and dining pages.