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Rarity reported, rapid response required

On late Wednesday afternoon at about 4:30 p.m. I had just settled on my couch with my laptop as northwest winds were beginning to howl in Lincoln.  It was good to be home for good for the day.  Then, an expected email from the internet discussion group NEbirds arrived in my inbox at 4:27 p.m.  The message was from Noah Arthur and it read:

Right now there’s an adult BLACK-HEADED GULL just off the tip of Liebers Point at Branched Oak Lake, in with a flock of BONAPARTE’s [Gulls].   –  Noah

Black-headed Gull is a Eurasian species which has only been documented two other times in Nebraska.  It is a bird I’ve searched for many times over the years and never had success finding one.  After thinking it over for about 30 seconds, I jumped from my seat, grabbed my gear (binoculars, spotting scope and cameras) and headed out the door.  The opportunity to see a Black-headed Gull in Nebraska had never presented itself to me and may not again any time soon.  The decision was a no brainer.   I drove furiously to Branched Oak Lake.  I had done the math, it would take approximately thirty minutes to get there and with the sun going down at 5:30 or so, I would have only about a half an hour to search for and hopefully find the bird.  Luck would have to be on my side since Branched Oak Lake is a big place and conditions were lousy and were only getting worse.

I arrived at Lieber’s Point a little after 5:00 p.m. and found Noah and two other birders, Michael Willison and Ben Heppner.  I quickly ran over and asked whether the Black-headed Gull was still around.  It was, they had just seen it.  Conditions were terrible, but then Michael found the bird sitting on the water and allowed me to see it through his scope.   The Black-headed Gull eventually flew right in front of us for a few minutes. The time span from when I arrived to my final view of the bird was only about 15 minutes.  By 5:25 or so, it was already becoming too dark to see. But everything was all right, since my rapid response to see this rarity was a success.

Black-headed Gull
The Black-headed Gull at Branched Oak Lake on 12 November 2015. Yep, the photo is lousy but the bird remained far from shore.  The black underside of the wing is one key field mark that distinguishes this bird from Bonaparte’s Gull, which is common in our area during migration.   The Black-headed Gull was discovered by Noah Arthur

On Thursday morning I headed back to Branched Oak Lake and relocated the Black-headed Gull.  This bird could easily have been a one day wonder, so the additional views were a bonus.   I also ended up capturing some brief video of the bird, which is admittedly poor but shows the Black-headed Gull with the more common Bonaparte’s Gull.

Better photos of this rarity can be found on Noah Arthur’s Flickr page, HERE.  Many thanks to Noah for finding and reporting the Black-headed Gull.

When the rarity bell rings, you must answer!  Good birding!

Nongame Bird Program

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About Joel Jorgensen

Joel Jorgensen is a Nebraska native and he has been interested in birds just about as long as he has been breathing. He has been NGPC’s Nongame Bird Program Manager for eight years and he works on a array of monitoring, research, regulatory and conservation issues. Nongame birds are the 400 or so species that are not hunted and include the Whooping Crane, Least Tern, Piping Plover, Bald Eagle, and Peregrine Falcon. When not working, he enjoys birding.

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