Franklin’s Gull, Riverside Park

The Franklin’s Gull looks very similar to the Laughing Gull. Both are common throughout their ranges, with the former occurring in the central swath of North America and the latter along the East Coast. I see Laughing Gulls frequently during summer and fall, mostly on Randall’s Island and in New York Harbor, but occasionally even on the Reservoir. I had never seen a Franklin’s Gull.

In fact, prior to this year there had been only one eBird record of Franklin’s Gull in New York City, and only a few in the entire metropolitan area.

But a powerful storm in the midwest coupled with sustained, strong westerly wind flows extending to the East Coast set in motion an epic Franklin’s Gull flight last week that brought large numbers of the species to New Jersey, New York, and adjoining states.

The morning of Friday, October 13 is when the first observations arrived, from Staten Island and Long Island. I had seen the wind map and was thinking about the possibility of vagrants. I intended to search the North End of Central Park midday for land birds, but Andrew Farnsworth suggested visiting the Hudson River to try for the Franklin’s Gulls. Given how far away the reports were, I thought the chance for success was very low, but then more reports came in and it was apparent that a large flight was taking place. I needed to visit the places where gulls congregate, as this is where the Franklin’s Gulls were likely to go.

My plan was to check out the Reservoir first since it was nearby and it always has a large gathering of gulls. Then I would zip down on the subway to Battery Park — the closest accessible point in Manhattan to where the Franklin’s Gulls were being seen — and watch the harbor and the Hudson.

Shortly after I had run to the Reservoir, at 1 p.m., an alert arrived from Jacob Drucker: he had seen two Franklin’s Gulls moving south on the Hudson River from the 70th Street Pier at 11 a.m. (A dead cell phone battery had prevented an immediate report.) Now it made no sense to waste time going to Battery Park — I needed to run for the Hudson, which I could do in under 2o minutes.

Cold westerly winds gusting over 30 mph hit me as soon as I arrived. I figured these would help to push birds over to the Manhattan side of the river, and indeed many waterfowl were taking shelter there in the marinas and coves. I wanted to check these calmer areas, so I walked south along the shore to just past 59th street. The Franklin’s Gulls were unlikely to be resting, but if they were then I would have no trouble identifying them at such close range.

I was disappointed to see a fairly steady stream of gulls moving south along the western side of the Hudson, nearly a mile away. The tall cliffs just beyond the New Jersey shore appeared to be sheltering these gulls from the wind somewhat. I had no chance of identifying Franklin’s Gulls at that distance (though I could just make out some Great Black-backeds), and it would not have helped me anyway — I needed Manhattan birds, meaning those no farther than the midpoint of the river.

At 2:51 p.m. I saw two very small gulls flying low to water, moving slowly, rising and falling. I was on the shore and they were just beyond and south of the 70th Street Pier.  At first I thought they might be Bonaparte’s Gulls, but then I saw their dark upper wings and partial hoods. They were Franklin’s Gulls!

I felt fortunate to have the observation and to be part of this historic day for East Coast birding. Andrew Farnsworth would get his on the East River just as the sun was setting. No other subsequent reports came from Manhattan.