This week’s heat wave doesn’t seem to have bothered one group of feathered friends, the gulls. We had quite a show of rare and unusual gulls on the Vineyard’s South shore this week. The first gull to catch birders’ attention was created by a blurry photo of a bird with a strong black/white and gray wing pattern and a dirty looking head taken on July 14. The gull had a fine bill with a yellow tip. Sarah Mayhew took the original photo at Quansoo which was used to identify the bird. Luckily, Sarah was able take more pictures of the gull sitting and then being chased off by a very territorial least tern. The gull in question was a Sabine’s gull. There are only three or four records of Sabine’s gulls on the Vineyard. I remember seeing my first ever Sabine’s gull off the Menemsha breakwater with Allen Keith in September of 1976. Eleanor Waldron spotted a Sabine’s gull in 1988. One can’t miss the bird with its striking wing pattern.

Lanny McDowell and Allan Keith hiked down to Quansoo the following day, July 15, to try to locate the Sabine’s gull. On their way down they counted seven semipalmated plovers, two short-billed dowitchers and a few semipalmated and least sandpipers. Lanny and Allan were unable to find the Sabine’s gull but were instead able to find and photograph six lesser black-backed gulls! Lesser black-backed gulls had not been seen on the Vineyard prior to 1979, and now are an annual occurrence in small numbers. Simon Perkins, as I had noted in an earlier Bird News, had counted 29 to the east of Quansoo in June which was an all-time high number. Simon noted there are large numbers (300 plus or minus) lesser black-backed gulls found on the shores of our sister island Nantucket in the winter months. So seeing six for Lanny and Allan was definitely a treat and probably some of the same birds Simon spotted earlier in the year.

Immature less black-backed gull with adult greater black-backed gull. — Lanny McDowell

Sabine’s gulls are considered arctic gulls and nest in Alaska, the Canadian Arctic and Greenland. These gulls are rarely seen on the east coast and then mostly offshore. The Pacific coast of the United States sees a few more Sabine’s gulls but it seems most of these gulls move from Alaska and the Arctic toward Greenland and then south to coastal West Africa for the winter. There is a small population of Sabine’s that spend their winters off Peru and Chile.

Lesser black-backed gulls are considered Old World gulls as they breed in Greenland and Iceland and NW Europe and then spend their winters off Africa. To my knowledge there are no records of the lesser black-backs nesting in the United States. Originally lesser black-backed gulls were seen further south in the States, but now good numbers are seen from Nantucket and Cape Cod down to Florida in the winter months.

Unfortunately, many birders do not take the time to look over flocks of gulls loafing on the beaches and as such frequently miss rare and unusual gulls. Thanks Sarah, Simon, Lanny and Allen for reminding us to take the time to look over that flock of gulls!

Bird Sighting:

Not much activity for birders this week due to the weather.

On July 10 Warren Woessner spotted an immature bald eagle as he was taking the ferry into Woods Hole. On July 13 Jeff Bernier photographed a black tern in its post-breeding molt and the next day an adult laughing gull both at Norton Point. On July 16 Jeff photographed a black skimmer at Edgartown Great Pond, a piping plover with two chicks and a flock of black scoters offshore.

Nat Woodruff sent several great shots of a great egret she took on July 15. Martina Mastromonaco sent nice photos of a killdeer she took at Lucy Vincent’s beach. Lanny McDowell and Pete Gilmore birded Chappaquiddick on July 13 and Lanny found and photographed the willet that the Biodiversity Works crew banded and fitted with a geolocator. The willet was alive and well and feeding on clam worms!

Sarah Mayhew watched a black skimmer flying between Quansoo and Black Point on July 13. The Vineyard birders are noticing that there are more roseate terns along all the Vineyard shores this summer.

Please report your bird sightings to the Martha’s Vineyard Bird Hotline at 508-645-2913 or email to

Susan B. Whiting is the co-author of Vineyard Birds and Vineyard Birds II. Her website is