Japanese Gull a Long Way from Home in Vermont

A black-tailed gull known as a "Japanese gull" has been seen and photographed in Vermont, thousands of miles from its Asian habitat. Noah Adams talks with Audubon Society member Carl Runge about the sighting, and how the gull may have strayed so far from home.

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

And now to the state of Vermont. Every fall people make pilgrimages there and the rest of New England to witness the autumnal splendor, but this year one visitor has come farther than most. A black-tailed gull, usually found in Japan and China, has been spotted and photographed on the shores of Lake Champlain at Charlotte Town Beach. It's the first time the bird, which is also known as a Japanese gull, has been seen in Vermont, and bird watchers there are thrilled. Among them is Carl Runge, a member of the Green Mountain Audubon Society in northwestern Vermont.

Mr. Runge, welcome.

Mr. CARL RUNGE (Green Mountain Audubon Society): Thank you.

ADAMS: When did the bird first show up at Lake Champlain?

Mr. RUNGE: The bird was first discovered by Julie Hart, a young woman from Chester, Vermont, on October 18th.

ADAMS: Was she in any way looking for such a gull?

Mr. RUNGE: Well, there's an interesting story there. She had gone to the beach to use her cell phone because she couldn't get any good reception elsewhere in the area. And while she was on her cell phone, she had her binoculars out and was scanning the area for migrating waterbirds. And she noted a gull associated with a flock of ring-billed gulls, which are very common in our area, but this one looked different. And she looked at it more and more closely, and she thought she might have had a rare sighting.

ADAMS: Now this is when a bird watcher's heart starts pounding a little faster, right?

Mr. RUNGE: Really. It sure does.

ADAMS: How different do they appear than the ones she's seen up there normally?

Mr. RUNGE: Well, the difference is pretty clear if you are looking for differences, but it could just blend into a flock of ring-billed gulls. But what she noticed was that the back was darker than the other gulls; it had somewhat longer wings, and it had a big, broad, black band on its tail, which you wouldn't see on a ring-billed gull. This was posted immediately on the Vermont bird list, and by the end of the day people knew that something was astir. And the next day people were coming from far and wide, and by the 23rd people had come from as far away as Virginia and Pennsylvania, I think.

ADAMS: Now would this be, Mr. Runge, to add this particular bird to their life list? Is that the reason they would come so far?

Mr. RUNGE: Yeah, there are people that'll come a long ways to see a rare bird. I went out there two days after it arrived on the 20th, and I was chatting with a fellow from just outside of New York City. And I said, `My goodness, it's a long way to come to see a bird.' And he said, `Well, I went to Alaska to see my last lifer.'

ADAMS: Lifer? That's the life list you're talking about.

Mr. RUNGE: That's right, a bird that he can add to his life list.

ADAMS: Well, how does the sea gull from Asia end up at Lake Champlain in the Northeastern US?

Mr. RUNGE: Well, who knows? I don't. But I do know that this bird is a very wide-ranging bird. It's generally along the whole coast of eastern Asia, all the way from the Aleutian Islands down to Australia, although it doesn't get down to Australia very often. And it comes down our West Coast occasionally. And actually there's quite a few of them seen in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea. But over the last several years, they've been spotted on the East Coast as well. And they probably come across northern Canada, but I don't think anybody knows for sure. But they've been seen now on the East Coast, all the way from Newfoundland down to Virginia and North Carolina. They've been seen along the Gulf Coast. They've been seen in Brownsville, Texas, and one even in Belize.

ADAMS: And will this one be going back to Asia, do you think?

Mr. RUNGE: I don't know. It's still there, by the way, and it may stay all winter. It's quite possible it'll stay all winter. There have been examples of birds along the East Coast. There was one--pretty well-known one at the northern end of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel in Virginia that was there a few years ago.

ADAMS: How many birds are on your life list?

Mr. RUNGE: Just under 500.

ADAMS: Well, you got lucky with this one as close to...

Mr. RUNGE: I did. I sure did.

ADAMS: Saved you some gas money.

Mr. RUNGE: That's right.

ADAMS: Carl Runge is a bird watcher and member of the Green Mountain Audubon Society in northwestern Vermont. Thank you for talking with us, sir.

Mr. RUNGE: You're very welcome. My pleasure.

ADAMS: More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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