Franklin’s Gull Were Plentiful This Spring
by Ro Wauer
Migrating gulls, especially those some distance from the coast, are unusual. So seeing several large flocks of gulls over Victoria and Mission Valley last week was rather special. These were Franklin's gull, a laughing gull look-alike. I first observed a flock of about 40 individuals flying over my Mission Valley yard on April 24, and then on April 26 I observed three large flocks, each with 50 to 80 individuals, passing over Victoria between Citizens Hospital and the Holiday Inn. All were heading in a northwestern direction, and moving rather fast, but steady, buoyant, and easy. It seemed they all were anxiously heading toward their ancestral nesting grounds in the northern portion of the Great Plains, perhaps in Montana or North Dakota or Saskatchewan or Manitoba in southern Canada.
The Franklin's gull is one of our most beautiful gulls, especially in spring when they are in breeding plumage. From afar, however, they looks very much like our common laughing gull, with a black head, slate grey back and wings, whitish undersides, and all red bill. Up close, however, a Franklin's gull's breast is tinged with pink, or a blushing rose color, and its wingtips possess a white bar across the wing tips. The laughing gull has an all white underside and all black wing tips.
While laughing gulls are commonplace along the Texas coast and often congregate in parking areas, a good place to find handouts, some distance inland, breeding birds very rarely stray too far away from the coast. Franklin's gulls, on the other hand, are prairie birds, nesting in large, compact colonies in marshy habitats along northern lakes. Nests usually are built in water two to three inches deep, but anchored to large platforms of dead reeds. Nests are constructed of coarse vegetation and lined with finer materials. The nesting materials are enhanced throughout the nesting period, and it sometimes is stolen from other unguarded nests.
Because of their habitat preferences they are sometimes known as "prairie pigeons." Although migrants often rest overnight in fields and feed on various insects and crustaceans, they rarely stay very long before continuing their northward journey. There also are numerous records of feeding gulls following agricultural machinery to feed on flushed insects. Nesting birds feed on a wide variety of materials from insects to crustaceans and earthworms, to small fish, snails, and even eggs and baby birds such as those of nearby nesting terns. They also have been found landing on a pelican's head and stealing fish from the bird's bill pouch. Their foraging methods vary from plunging into the water, dipping on the surface, swimming and wading, or walking or running across the ground to chase down prey.
Most Franklin's gull sightings in the Golden Crescent occur in mid-April to late May during the spring migration, but they rarely are seen to mid-June. Post-nesting southbound birds begin to appear in the Golden Crescent in late September, are most numerous in October and until mid-November, and there also are rare sightings during the winter months. The southbound birds continue south along the coastal plain of Mexico, cross over to the Pacific slope at the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, and continue south to their wintering grounds in Peru and Chile.
Seeing migrating gulls, especially those with a blushing rose breast, are truly special!