Status and Occurrence of Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus) in British Columbia
by Rick Toochin, Don Cecile and Jamie Fenneman
Read the full article with photos here.
Introduction and Distribution
The Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus) is a medium sized gull found as a breeding species in Europe (Jonsson 1992). There are three subspecies of the Lesser Black-backed Gull. The nominate subspecies, often considered by many experts to be its own species, sometimes called the “Baltic Gull” (Larus fuscus fuscus) is rare and declining with birds numbering at only about 20,000 pairs (Olsen and Larsson 2004). This subspecies is found breeding in Finland, the Baltic Sea, west to the Danish Islands of Bornholm and Hano Bukt, Sweden, very scarce in Norway, south to Tarva, very local breeder in Russia (at Onezhskii and Kandalaksha Bay) and in Poland (Olsen and Larsson 2004). The second subspecies of the Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus f. graellsii) is more widespread in Europe with birds breeding from Greenland (small population), Iceland, Great Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Norway and Sweden (Olsen and Larsson 2004). The third subspecies of Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus f. intermedius) is found within the range of the Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus f. graellsii) range with colonies in Norway, Denmark, The Netherlands, Belgium and Scotland (Olsen and Larsson 2004). The nominate subspecies of Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus fuscus) migrates through the Eastern Mediterranean countries and the Middle East; and winters along the coast of East Africa from Somalia, Kenya, south to Mozambique, and occasionally South Africa (Olsen and Larsson 2004). Some 1st cycle birds end up in West Africa in Mali, Gulf of Guinea and Ghana (Olsen and Larsson 2004). There are records of this subspecies from the Red Sea, Yemen and the Persian Gulf (Olsen and Larsson 2004). The second subspecies of the Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus f. graellsii) migrates throughout Western Europe, and winters in some of its breeding territory such as in Great Britain with most of the population wintering along the coast from western France, south to North Africa and Mauritania including offshore Islands; and out into the mid-Atlantic Ocean (Olsen and Larsson 2004). They also winter in the western Mediterranean region along the coastline of North Africa to Tunisia (Olsen and Larsson 2004). The third subspecies of Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus f. intermedius) migrates and winters in the same regions as (Larus f. graellsii) (Olsen and Larsson 2004).
The first record for North America of the Lesser Black-backed Gull was in 1934 (Edwards 1935). Over the next few decades records slowly increased until the mid-1970s when numbers began to rise rapidly (Post and Lewis 1995). Today the numbers of Lesser Black-backed Gull seen each year in Eastern North America have increased dramatically with this species being seen east of the Rocky Mountains on a regular basis (Post and Lewis 1995). The subspecies of Lesser Black-backed Gull that now regularly occurs in North America is Larus f. graellsii (Dunn and Alderfer 2011). This subspecies is regularly occurring in the winter along the east coast from Newfoundland to Florida, and south through coastal Texas (Post and Lewis 1995). Birds have also been found in Mexico in the winter, and are increasingly found along the Atlantic coast as far south as Tampa, and also have been found wintering in the Yucatan Peninsula (Olsen and Larsson 2004, Howell and Webb 2010). It is found in ever increasing numbers in the Great Lakes region, and is slowing increasing each year along the Great Plains to Colorado (Post and Lewis 1995). It is still a rarity in all parts of Western North America, but, like everywhere else in North America, the rate of detection is slowly increasing (Post and Lewis 1995). The subspecies of Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus f. intermedius) has been recorded infrequently along the east coast of North America, but it is the subspecies of Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus f. graellsii) that wanders throughout North America (Post and Lewis 1995).
Along the West Coast of North America, the Lesser Black-backed Gull is still considered a rare vagrant; however, it is increasing every year in California to the point that it is a rare regular species since there are 112 accepted records by the California Bird Records Committee (Tietz and McCaskie 2014). It is a very rare bird in Oregon with only 3 accepted records by the Oregon Bird Records Committee (OFO 2012). In Washington, there are many more records with 25 accepted records by the Washington Bird Records Committee (Wahl et al. 2005, WBRC 2012). It was recently removed from the state review list (Wahl et al. 2005, WBRC 2012). In British Columbia, the Lesser Black-backed Gull is a rare to casually occurring species that is increasing each year with over 40 Provincial records from many different regions of the Province (Campbell et al. 1990b, Toochin et al. 2014). In Alaska, the Lesser Black-backed Gull is a casually occurring species with records of the subspecies (Larus f. graellsii) scattered from all over the state (West 2008, Gibson et al. 2013). There is one record of an adult bird that has returned for many years to the Juneau area (West 2008). Of note, there is a recent specimen record from Shemya Island on September 15, 2005, in the Aleutian Islands, of the similar looking Asian Lesser Black-backed Gull, often considered its own species, called by some authorities “Heuglin’s Gull” (Larus heuglini) (Dunn and Alderfer 2011). Observers in British Columbia should be on the look-out for “Heuglin’s Gull”, but the taxonomy and identification of this bird is complicated and is beyond the scope of this article.
Occurrence and Documentation
The first record of the Lesser Black-backed Gull in British Columbia was an adult winter- plumaged bird photographed in Revelstoke from October 26 to November 10, 1989 (Campbell et al. 1990b, Toochin et al. 2014, see Table 1). Since that time, the species has increased in frequency and distribution around the Province. This increase in observations follows the overall explosion of sightings from across North America since the mid-1970s (Post and Lewis 1995). There are now 46 records in British Columbia which gives the Lesser Black-backed Gull the status of rare too casual in occurrence (Toochin et al. 2014, see Table 1). This dramatic increase in records over a short period of time is mirrored in California where, up until 2003, there were only 23 accepted state records by the California Bird Records Committee (Hamilton et al. 2007). As of 2014, there are now over 110 State records with the bulk of the records occurring since 2004 (Tietz and McCaskie 2014). The Lesser Black-backed Gull today is almost an annually occurring species in the Okanagan Valley with anywhere from 1-3 birds occurring in a given winter (Toochin et al. 2014, see Table 1). The Lesser Black-backed Gull has been recorded once on Vancouver Island, five times in the Vancouver area, four times in the Upper Fraser Valley, four records for the Queen Charlotte Islands, and 32 times in the interior with the majority of these records coming from the Okanagan where some records are likely returning birds (Toochin et al. 2014, see Table 1). Though many sightings have been of adults or near adults, it is hard to know if there are even more Lesser Black-backed Gulls occurring in British Columbia, since younger plumages likely go under reported. As identification knowledge has increased in recent years, it is likely that in the future more younger birds will be found. As with any rarity, it is important to get as many records as possible photographed. There is always the possibility that in the future a Heuglin’s Gull from Asia could be identified from past photographed records or found by knowledgeable observers. The pattern of vagrancy of the Lesser Black-backed Gull in British Columbia involves arrivals in October with records found through mid-to-late February (Toochin et al. 2014, see Table 1). This date range is clearly reflected in California where the bulk of the state records occur from September to March with a few summer records (Hamilton et al. 2007, Tietz and McCaskie 2014). To date, there is only one summer record for British Columbia, and it comes from the Okanagan for the month of August (Toochin et al. 2014, see Table 1). Given the recent rise in the frequency of records, the Lesser Black-backed Gull should be considered possible anywhere in British Columbia. If the current trend continues, it is possible that this species will become a regular rarity throughout the Province.