This morning I stopped by Lyme's Post Pond boat launch for a brief scan of the waters, principally to see how our loon family was doing but also to see whether there were any unexpected visitors. On the pond’s far side in its southwest corner I saw what appeared to be a gull at rest on the water. Gulls are not a common occurrence at Post Pond. I got my spotting scope out for a better look. The bird had the same coloration as a herring gull, but its bill was black. A herring gull’s bill is yellow. I went to my bird guide and sought out a match. To my surprise, the closest one in appearance was a laughing gull. This would be highly unusual if it were true. Laughing gulls typically are coastal birds almost never occurring this far inland. Suddenly, I was faced with the nettlesome problem that occasionally bedevils birders, the reporting of a rare or unusual bird.
NH Audubon Bird Records defines a rare or unusual bird as one that “may be extremely early or late, far away from their usual range in the state, or simply not supposed to be here under any circumstances.” For example, last May there was for several days a northern wheatear on the grounds of the White River Junction VA. This is a bird of far northern Alaska and Canada almost never occurring in the “Lower 48.” Making the ID was straightforward. Numbers of people saw and/or photographed the northern wheatear leaving no doubt about its ID.
Often times, however, getting a positive ID is more difficult. In those instances, the sighting record may be given over to the NH Rare Birds Committee (NHRBC) for scrutiny and an eventual “yay” or “nay” vote. Operating independently of NH Audubon, the NHRBC is tasked with reviewing “unusual sightings in an effort to maintain accuracy and scientific integrity of the bird records in NH.” The notes go on to say that each unusual sighting is evaluated based on the information submitted. Further, “ A rejection is not necessarily an indication that the identification was incorrect but the information received was not sufficient to allow its inclusion in the state record.”
An example of a sighting that did not make the grade? A northern hawk owl sighting was reported on December 12, 2010 from Meredith. In rejecting it the NHRBC panel said, “Insufficient details were submitted. Also, concern was expressed that the sighting was recorded without optics and while driving.”
Back to the alleged laughing gull? Because of the viewing distance involved, discerning key coloration patterning features was nigh impossible. With no camera along, documenting the bird’s presence with a photo was not an option. Certainly, that created ample room for doubt about the bird’s identity. For outside input, I e-mailed fellow birder George Clark, the area’s “go to guy” for ID questions. He responded that an immature ring-billed gull, a species common to the Upper Valley, was the more likely option. That certainly made sense to me. Given the shaky evidence, no need to submit a laughing gull record. That would go nowhere.
On a happier note, there was time when still living in the Boston area that I looked out my kitchen window on a gloomy, mid-November and saw a Baltimore oriole sitting on my fence. No mistaking those brilliant orange and black markings! That chance sighting stood for some time as the latest Baltimore oriole sighting recorded in Massachusetts. A rare bird indeed.