Birdwatching Canada

A voice for the northern birds

Gull Acrobatics

Well I’m a happy camper today. Bird watching yesterday gave me my first look at returning gulls. Granted, they were too high for me to make a species identification, but they were definitely gulls. And right on schedule. As I live next to the Bow River in Calgary, Alberta, I’ve been tracking their return dates for many years. With very little variation, they return every March between the 11th and the 15th.

Their numbers will gradually increase on the river, with much squawking and squabbling. If things proceed as they have the past few years, in a couple of weeks there will be hundreds of them, and then they partake of a strange ritual that has intrigued me every year.  Starting around dusk, huge groups will start circling over a particular area, calling all the while. Multiple circles rise, then drop down but continue to circle for hours. Their loud noise generally forces nearby home owners to grab their earplugs, as the birds keep this up until the wee hours of the morning.

Ring-billed gull

Ring-billed gull

I’ve been down there birdwatching at 3:00 am, watching circles and circles of hundreds of white birds going round and round in a black sky. I eventually decided it was far easier to just lay down on the ground and watch that way. Not to mention you don’t get dizzy when lying down.

These birds are noisy! More than once during my nocturnal birdwatching I’ve seen men in their housecoats & slippers walk over to see what the commotion was about.  And forget about sleeping with any open windows.

This gull ‘festival’ goes on for a couple of weeks, then as quickly as it started, it’s over and things are quiet again. I’ve checked with many experienced birders regarding this event, and most are as puzzled as I am. One hypothesis though, makes a lot of sense. It was suggested the returning birds are re-forming pair or group bonds after their long migration in the spring. Once the flock cohesion has been established, they then fly away to various breeding locations. This could also explain all the different circles, instead of there being just one big one.

It is most definitely an unusual birdwatching experience, but a sure sign of spring for me.

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