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The Franklin’s Gull fallout of 2015

First-winter Franklin's Gull at Cape May, NJ. Note its well-defined half-hood, obvious white eye arcs, and white tail with crisp black terminal band. Photo by Tom Johnson.
First-winter Franklin's Gull at Cape May, NJ. Note its well-defined half-hood, obvious white eye arcs, and white tail with crisp black terminal band. Photo by Tom Johnson.

November 13, 2015, will go down in the history books as the (first?) day of the epic 2015 Franklin’s Gull flight to the East Coast of the United States. Franklin’s Gull numbers have been above average in the East over the past week, with flocks in the great Lakes, and as unsettled wet and rainy weather Wednesday and Thursday gave way to clear skies and strong West or Northwest winds overnight astute observers up and down the East Coast made sure to get out at dawn to bear witness. At Cape May, the flight began in the early morning and continued all day, with some flocks of 60+ being seen! The combined one-day total there was something like 315 birds. As the alert was raised more observers got out looking in time to find their own. Every coastal state from Massachusetts to Virginia was in on the action. It isn’t over yet! Go birding this weekend!

The eBird map is aflame with Franklin’s Gulls right now, as eBirders come home from their day and upload their photos and eBird editors busily verify well-documented records coming from all across the eastern half of the continent. Click around to see where they all have been.

So…what happened here? A strong storm swept across the upper midwest and Great Lakes on Wednesday, bringing with it lots of unsettled weather, raging winds at 50 mph or more in many places, and even a few tornadoes. BirdCast shows a nice animation with the storm and the winds for today (and its path out into the ocean over the coming days), revealing just how strong the winds were and how they provided a direct superhighway

Most of the birders that set an early alarm today did so hoping for a repeated of the 1998 Franklin’s Gull fallout. The situation was similar: a super-strong low pressure system brought howling hurricane force winds from the Great Lakes to the East Coast…and hundreds of Franklin’s with it. The timing was almost identical: 9-11 Nov 1998. Ned Brinkley provides a superb analysis of that system (and a couple hurricanes) in his Changing Seasons article, available for free online here. For those hoping to understand today’s invasion, this article is required reading: the overall picture is very similar.

One difference this time is the speed of information flow with eBird, abundant cell phones, active listservs, etc. The rapid spread of news around the Northeast surely led to dozens of Franklins being found if it were not for so many people sharing the news so quickly. Thanks to all who shared the news today!

Go birding this weekend! (and report to eBird, of course)

With continued Northwesterlies expected all weekend long there is every reason to expect many more Franklin’s to be found. These birds probably will move out quickly though. Franklin’s migrate from Canada to Chile, and don’t want to waste time. Many of these birds will rapidly get back on course and move south, so if you plan to look, don’t waste time. Most of the birds at Cape May were seen moving south in flocks, many right along the coast or a short distance offshore, many of the others have been found at dusk gull roosts, among flocks of Ring-billeds, Laughings, or Bonaparte’s sheltering in the lee of the wind. A few will probably linger, but this is one situation where going out birding yourself will be more fun, more rewarding, and maybe more successful than waiting for a bird to chase.

Eye candy from today

Check any state’s eBird Alerts to see where folks saw Franklin’s today–many with great photos. Special thanks to Tom Johnson for his great Franklin’s images that illustrate this article, all taken today in Cape May, NJ. Here are some other illustrated lists and highlights to check out.

  • Too many in Cape May to count. Check out the Cape May County Alert (you can always view these online if you don’t want to subscribe to the email alerts) for the many amazing lists and photos from the active eBird community there. Highest count on one list: 114.
  • A nice Ocean City, MD, seawatch to the south, with a state high count for Maryland.
  • Team eBird got in on the action in Plymouth, MA (eBird high count for MA), Seneca Lake, NY (first county record), and Manhattan (second or third county record…the first coming earlier in the day!).
  • Up to 12 at single location in Connecticut, and many others at many other Connecticut spots.


Questions and other thoughts

  • Atlantic Canada should be ready for birds tomorrow (14 November). Although the northernmost bird coastally was only in Gloucester, Massachusetts, today, the track of the storm seems favorable to bring some birds to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, maybe even Newfoundland.
  • It is an interesting question to wonder why some past storms have not had large loads of Franklin’s Gulls, but why this one and the 1998 did. Expect BirdCast to break that down for us in the coming weeks.
  • This year, and in 1998, it seemed like there were elevated numbers of Franklin’s Gulls overall. Was this a bumper year for them on their prairie breeding grounds?
  • Working out the age ratio in this flight will help us understand the above question a bit.For those that find Franklin’s Gulls, please use our new media uploader to add your documentation shots, and please do add notes about the age ratios (ideally using the age and sex grid, as well as adding age and sex info for the photos).
  • Will this system carry a few franklin’s all the way to the United Kingdom? Amazingly, Franklin’s Gull has turned up all over the planet. As one of the most migratory birds around, it turns up annually in Europe, and has reached South Africa, east Asia, and Australia. Impressive bird!

Other birds to watch for

Any system this strong has the potential to displace other birds from the Midwest or West. Cape May had over 100 Cave Swallows today and scattered other Cave Swallows have been seen, so that is one obvious bird to watch for, as is true on any period of November southwesterlies  (on the Great Lakes) followed by northwesterlies (on the East Coast). A Common Ground-Dove found today in Massachusetts was that state’s second and likely connected to this system. Townsend’s Solitaires have been popping up a lot, including one yesterday in Massachusetts and one today in Ohio that may well have been connected to this system. November systems like this often produce other interesting western species–Ash-throated Flycatcher, Townsend’s and MacGillivray’s Warbler, and Western Tanager are the more likely species on a long list of possibilities to hope for.

In short, this is a GREAT weekend to be out birding for North American birders from Ontario to Texas and especially in the East Coast states and provinces! Get out there and let us know what you see.

The images below capture more Franklin’s in a single image than have ever been seen over the Atlantic Ocean before!

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