A bird that normally lives its whole life above the Arctic Circle was spotted this week at Point Douglas, at the confluence of the St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers. The Ross’s Gull (Rhodostethia rosea) was first observed and identified by birder Ben Douglas on Saturday, Nov. 27. The bird was born just this year somewhere in the far north.
“It had a flight that was dainty and buoyant while it hunted for food under the nearby bridges (car and rail) spending the majority of time in Washington County, MN waters, but did circle in Pierce County, WI and later made brief flights over Dakota County, MN waters as well,” Douglas reported on eBird. It took a trained eye to pick the rare bird out of flocks of common gulls it was among.
Over the next few days, hundreds of enthusiasts visited Point Douglas Park, hoping to catch a glimpse. Many were rewarded.
“We watched it catch quite a few small fish (~15) in the evening before heading up the river to roost,” reported Steve Kolbe.
“As I came around [a] corner it was in flight over center of river banking behind trestle where it landed in water along shore,” wrote Sam S. “Bird and I were both then startled at same time by whistle of a train overhead. Imagine that! When flushed by the train it took a short flight and landed on beach. It did some relaxed foraging (and drinking?) along shoreline.”
Ross’s Gull at Point Douglas, Nov. 2021 (Matthew Thompson/iNaturalist)
The bird was noted for its small size, similar to a pigeon, and beautiful coloration, with striking contrast. Some called it “petite” or “delicate.” Its flight was described as “graceful.”
But there were also troubling signs.
“Lethargic behavior hanging around rocks on WI shore until it flew under the RR bridge to MN waters and the shore,” reported Tim Stuck. “Flight appeared relatively weak,” wrote Jim Strong. “Sadly the bird was drooping a wing and was overall lethargic; health not looking great,” observed Cory Gregory.
Then, Tuesday morning, the bird was observed among rocks at the water’s edge, not moving. Birders called the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Roseville, which advised them to bring the bird in. It was deceased on arrival.
Birds that are found far from their typical territory are called “vagrants.” They may be lost or looking or confused. They often do not survive when they’re away from their native environments.
Range data from IUCN Red List
This bird was truly far from home. Ross’s Gulls are native to the very northern latitudes of Earth, primarily in northern Canada and Siberia, with the closest known breeding location on the shores of Hudson’s Bay. For this reason, little is known about their lives.
Their population is estimated at somewhere between 10,000 and 70,000. Scientists think they mostly breed on wet tundra, in both northern Canada and Siberia, and winter among the sea ice of the Arctic Ocean. But the species’ remote range means much remains a mystery.
The recent sighting is only the fourth time one has been found in Minnesota, and the second time the species has been seen in Wisconsin. Flying around the confluence by Prescott, the bird set new state records for both Minnesota and Wisconsin, and made many life lists.