A Bird’s Tale

More Greenland Connections

Posted:  Wednesday, November 7, 2018 - 10:15am
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We’ve never been to Greenland. We don’t anticipate that we ever will visit there. We’re guessing that the same is true of most Mainers. We don’t know much about Greenland, though we’ve read a little about how it was settled for over 400 years by Vikings (late 900’s until the late 1400’s) and that Inuit people never left and make up the bulk of the very small population (55,000 or so) today. We have always imagined it as an icebound land with a rugged, rocky, rather inhospitable coastline (it turns out that the western coast of Greenland has areas that are quite green in the summer, where it is even possible to grow crops. It is along this coastline where the few towns are located.

We’ve written in past columns about how recent advances in technology used to study bird migration have made the rather startling discovery that we here in Maine share birds quite regularly with Greenland. This includes harlequin ducks that have been documented moving from Maine to Canada and then over to the western coast of Greenland for part of the summer. Snow buntings, too, that migrate to or through Maine have been found to have summered in Greenland.

We’ve written about the rare (but increasing) geese, like pink-footed geese and barnacle geese showing up in Maine that are presumed to originate from increasing breeding colonies in Greenland. Finally we described the likely Greenlandic origin of the fieldfare that wowed the birding world by its appearance in Newcastle in spring of 2017.

One bird with a Greenland connection that we have not talked about is the lesser black-backed gull.

Yes, we know, we have prattled on about gulls more than usual these past few months but this story seemed too good not to share.

Anyone who has spent time on the Maine coast is familiar with hulking presence of great black-backed gulls—said to be the largest gull species in the world. Fewer people know its smaller cousin, the lesser black-backed gull.

The lesser black-backed gull has a black back, though not as jet black as the great black-backed and is closer to the size of a herring gull. The most distinctive feature of the adult lesser black-backed gull is the bright yellow legs, in contrast to the bubblegum pink legs of the great black-backed.

Lesser black-backed gulls have been long known as a European bird and were not even recorded from North America until 1934. The species remained a rare bird on this side of the Atlantic through the 1970s, when sightings began increasing. Maine’s first record of lesser black-backed gull was in 1968 followed by a couple of records in the 1970s, and then an increase in records beginning in the 1980s. The species began breeding in Greenland in the early 1990;s soon after, there was an explosion in numbers migrating through and/or wintering in eastern Canada and the U.S. For example, Christmas Bird Counts in North America went from registering a total of about 100 birds in 1990 to over 1,000 by 2005. At the same time the number of nesting lesser black-backed gulls in Greenland increased from a few hundred to a few thousand by around 2010. It is almost certain that the lesser black-backed gulls that we see here in Maine and other parts of the U.S. and Canada are originating from Greenland, just like many of the others birds that we have mentioned.

Most of us will likely never visit Greenland, but there is something kind of exciting to know that some of the birds we see in Maine make the trip back and forth there every year!

Jeffrey V. Wells, Ph.D., is a Fellow of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Dr. Wells is one of the nation's leading bird experts and conservation biologists and author of “Birder’s Conservation Handbook. His grandfather, the late John Chase, was a columnist for the Boothbay Register for many years. Allison Childs Wells, formerly of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a senior director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a nonprofit membership organization working statewide to protect the nature of Maine. Both are widely published natural history writers and are the authors of the book, “Maine’s Favorite Birds” and the newly published “Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao” from Cornell Press.