- Southeast Arizona Birding Guide, Richard Fray - https://www.arizonabirder.com -

Black-legged Kittiwake

News of a rare bird here in Arizona always gets my attention, but sometimes it leaves me with a dilemma. This was one such occasion.

The rare bird in question was a Black-legged Kittiwake, a type of gull. But unlike most gulls, which are perfectly happy inland (although not in a desert), this one is a genuine seabird and has no business being inland at all. It was about the 16th record for Arizona so the sort of rarity that the Arizona birder should go and see, because you don’t know when the next one will turn up.

That’s all well and good, and it’s exciting when the rare bird in question is an exotic species you’ve never seen before. But, whilst extremely rare in Arizona, Black-legged Kittiwake is a fairly common bird around Britain’s coastline. I spent my 29 years there living inland, but I’ve seen many thousands of kittiwakes in places like the Shetland Isles. So the dilemma… do I drive almost three hours north to Casa Grande, where the kittiwake was hanging out by a manicured pond next to a mall, to see a species I’ve seen many times before, just not in Arizona?

Well, after hearing day after day that the bird was still there, and seeing the frame-filling photos other birders were getting, I cracked, jumped in the car and got on the freeway. You knew that was going to happen, right?

It was a slightly anti-climactic experience, not only because it’s a bird I’m familiar with, but because I could see it resting with a few puddle ducks on the grassy shore before I even parked the car. To be fair, it was probably the closest I’ve ever been to a kittiwake and it was a lovely bird. But after about twenty minutes, having photographed it from every conceivable angle (in tricky light, as always) I’d had my fill and headed back south.


Black-legged Kittiwake


Black-legged Kittiwake


Black-legged Kittiwake


Black-legged Kittiwake


Black-legged Kittiwake

There was some controversy as to whether the bird was sick or not, whether it was feeding properly, what it was eating and ultimately, whether it should be caught and taken in for rehab. When I arrived the kittiwake was resting on the shore. It allowed me to approach within about ten feet and didn’t seem to mind my presence at all. At times its head was bowed with half-closed eyes, giving a distinctly sick impression.

Then a couple arrived at the pond with a toddler, looking as if they were about to throw bread to the expectant ducks. On seeing them, the kittiwake immediately woke up and flew straight over, plopping down in the water right in front of them. These folks didn’t actually have any bread so all the birds eventually drifted away. What others had witnessed was the kittiwake following the bread-feeders and seemingly pecking at bread on the surface, which is not a good food for a seabird. On closer examination, it turned out that the smart gull had discovered that small fish were attracted to the surface by the bread, and it was feeding on those.

So was it sick? Well, in my opinion, by definition a seabird that turns up in a desert has something wrong with it. Beyond that, who knows? It departed a couple of days later and hasn’t been seen since.