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  • Writer's pictureGregg Severson

Looking for a Lesser Black-backed Gull and a lovely Long-tailed Duck

Updated: Nov 25, 2019

After the double-success of the Iceland Gull and the White-winged Scoter on November 14th, I still had one outstanding gull to see: the Lesser Black-backed Gull. I headed back to Lake Harriet in the late afternoon on 11/16. Once I got to the edge of the lake near the Rose Garden, I could see that the flock of gulls was sitting on the water near the east shore of the lake. I went that way and soon found Frank Fabbro and Bruce Fall looking over the gulls. (Those two really like looking at gulls - I think they were out every day that week!) I set up my scope next to them and commenced reviewing the gulls. I was looking for any of the rarer gulls, but of course I was most interested in the Lesser Black-backed because that was the one I still needed for my year. Luckily, Lesser Black-backs tend to stick out from the flock pretty well because they have a much darker back than the rest of the gulls we see around here - hence the name! I felt lucky that I'd already seen the Iceland Gull, which is the hardest to pick out of a flock, but I was worried that the Lesser Black-backed might leave any day, so I was really hoping to get it soon!

After a short time of scanning there, Frank announced that he found it! I ran over to his scope and he let me look through to see a Lesser Black-backed Gull! Woot! Then I went back to my scope and quickly found it myself. After a little time studying it, I took out my camera to get some photos. The photo below gives you some sense of what it is like to go gulling at Lake Harriet.

A flock of gulls on the water at Lake Harriet.
Can you find the Lesser Black-backed Gull? It has a much darker mantle (back) than all the other gulls in this photo.

A view of the lake with no gulls on the water, but many flying overhead.
Can you find the Lesser Black-backed in this photo? Don't worry, I couldn't in person either! Shortly after we saw the Lesser Black-backed, the whole flock took to the air (likely because a Bald Eagle flew over).

I feel I very lucky that I saw it that day - as of the writing of this post (11/24), no one has posted a sighting of a Lesser Black-backed in the metro area since that day! Once I had seen that species, it was extremely unlikely that any new gulls for my big year would show up in the metro area. Of course, there is always the chance of a really rare gull like a Great Black-Backed Gull or a Slaty-backed Gull showing up, but that would be a real rarity, not something expected like these other gulls. However, Lake Harriet was not done being a great November hotspot for me!

On November 18th, Carol and William Beste reported a Long-tailed Duck on Lake Harriet! I knew that I couldn't make it there that same day - I was at work in Eagan, and I also was planning to go to Birds and Beers in St. Paul that night. (Birds and Beers is a monthly social gathering of birders - I try to go to both the Minneapolis and St. Paul versions whenever I can.) I made plans to go to Lake Harriet at dawn on the 19th - hoping that the duck would still be there the next day after the original sighting.

And enough time had passed since my hernia surgery that I could finally bike again - hooray! I biked down to Lake Harriet, and immediately found a group of Common Goldeneyes in the northeast corner of the lake. I watched them for a while to be sure that the Long-tailed Duck wasn't hanging out with them. (Long-tailed Ducks are a diving duck, and since they can spend a long time underwater, you have a watch an area for a while before you can be sure they aren't there!) I then continued down the east shore of the lake, biking slowly. I saw a woman heading the other way, walking her dog - but she had binoculars! I said "hi." She kept walking, but then after a few seconds, turned around and asked "Are you looking for the Long-tailed Duck?" I said "Yes!" and she told me that she had just seen it down on the southern shore of the lake with a large flock of Common Goldeneyes there. I thanked her and moved quickly to get down to that area. I got to the beach at the southeastern corner of the lake, near Minnehaha Creek, and I saw that a huge group of Goldeneyes had just flushed from near the southern shore and were flying out into the lake. I got my binoculars on them and was able to pick out the Long-tailed Duck just as it was landing! I pulled out my scope and got it on the duck, and was able to get good looks! Long-tailed Ducks are really stunning, and I moved down the shore to get closer looks, as well as a few photos. The light was quite poor - it was early morning on a dark, overcast day, so I didn't have a lot of light to work with. But the beauty of this duck shines through anyway!

Winter-plumaged male Long-tailed Duck
An OK photo of a stunning bird! This is a male in non-breeding plumage.

I was very glad this bird decided to stay the night! Many people saw it that morning on Lake Harriet, and then at least one person found it that afternoon on Bde Maka Ska. But then no one has seen it since - so it was good that I got out to see it as soon as I could.

Mile biked on the Long-tailed Duck trip: 15

Miles biked during this time (since the last new bird species): 15

Miles biked year to date: 3,186.9

Species count (MN): 232

Species count (overall): 233

My bike birding eBird profile: (Please note that you need a free eBird account to see profiles in eBird)

Fundraising links for the two organizations I am supporting with this green big half year. These causes are really important and they could really use your dollars to do a lot of good!

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