A screech of gulls has local birders all aflutter

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The early birder catches the gull.

David Wilton woke up early yesterday to go bird watching where Pittsburgh's three rivers meet. Before he knew it, he was watching a species of gull probably never before seen in Allegheny County.

"This is like seeing a polar bear in Pittsburgh," said Mr. Wilton, 49, of Scott.

Mr. Wilton, a member of the Three Rivers Bird Club and the Pennsylvania Society for Ornithology, was joined by about a dozen bird enthusiasts who have flocked to the base of the Duquesne Incline for a week to gaze at gulls typically only seen in the arctic.

Normally at this time of year, Pittsburgh's rivers host two species of gulls -- ring-billed gulls and herring gulls. Before this weekend, the record number of species seen in one day was five.

Yesterday, bird enthusiasts counted a one-day record seven species. Since last weekend, they have seen eight in total.

"It's extremely rare," said Geoff Malosh, 31, of Moon. Mr. Malosh, who is on the Pennsylvania Ornithological Records Committee and has been bird watching for the last 23 years. "To see them in downtown Pittsburgh is a big deal."

Bird enthusiasts -- known as birders -- estimate that anywhere between 3,000 and 4,000 gulls landed in the Ohio River yesterday. Among those birds were an Iceland gull, a glaucous gull and a Thayer's gull.

It is these latter two that Mr. Wilton spotted last week. Neither species had been seen before in Allegheny County, according to records dating back from the 1870s.

The eight species birders have seen last week normally live in the Arctic and migrate during the winter to such places as the British Isles and Alaska. They often come as far south as the Great Lakes, but a recent cold spell has brought them to the city's three rivers. Most areas of open water between the North Pole and Pittsburgh are frozen, including Lake Erie, and the gulls have migrated here to find food.

Birders watch for such weather trends and stay alert for potential new bird sightings. When they spot rare birds, they contact other area bird enthusiasts through a phone chain.

Yesterday, people came from as far as Johnstown, Cambria County and State College, Centre County, including Ross Gallardy, a senior at Canon McMillan High School who is a youth champion in the World Series of Birding.

Mr. Wilton, meanwhile, is quite proud to add two birds to his list of sightings.

"When I saw that bird this morning, I had a stroke," he said, referring to the Thayer's gull. An avid bird watcher, he was able to distinguish the bird from other gulls by its two distinctive feathers and its darker iris.

The Thayer's gull most commonly migrates to the West Coast, especially Alaska, though they have migrated to the Great Lakes.

"To have one here in addition to the glaucous is completely unheard of," Mr. Malosh said. "We've got one bird from Alaska, one bird from Greenland, one from Europe, and they're all sitting here on the Ohio River."

Birders said yesterday's record-breaking event may have occurred before, but watchers were simply too inexperienced to spot the different species. Mr. Wilton said expertise in identifying birds and communication between avid birders have increased remarkably over the last 10 years.

Bundled up and huddled together for warmth, the birders said they plan to keep their post until the rivers thaw and these foreign birds fly away.

Geoff Malosh photo
Glaucous gulls (white bird at center) were spotted at the Point Downtown by members of the Three Rivers Birding Club and were photographed by one of its members, Geoff Malosh. The group says this is the first time this gull has been seen in the Pittsburgh area.
Click photo for larger image.

Brittany McCandless can be reached at bmcandless@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2533.


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