black-headed gull rio del mar state beach
A rare black-headed gull dropped by Rio Del Mar State Beach last week that has birders' attention. Photo: Tarmo Hannula/The Pajaronian

Bird enthusiasts got a dramatic treat at the year’s end when an extremely rare black-headed gull dropped by Rio Del Mar State Beach. 

While common in Asian countries and along the Eastern U.S. coast, the gull, largely white, with red legs, red bill and a black dot on each side of its head, is creating enormous waves in ornithology with perhaps its first-ever appearance in Santa Cruz County.

Abram Fleishman, research scientist at Conservation Metrics, Inc., said he was stunned by the news.

“My first reaction was ‘wow!’ I haven’t seen one of those before,” he said. 

“There’s another type of gull that is similar called the Bonaparte’s gull, but it has a black bill and this one has a red bill and red legs; so I figured someone better go check that out. I zipped down here and it wasn’t here when I first got here. We ended up chasing it for a couple hours and then it suddenly appeared here at Rio Del Mar right at the main beach.”

Fleishman added that the birds breed in Europe, but do show up along the Eastern seaboard of the U.S. 

“It’s a very rare sighting here,” he said.

Janny Tillman said she and her husband drove north from San Luis Obispo in hopes of spotting the gull. 

“We checked into a room for the weekend and we’re hoping to add it to our life bird list before the close of the year,” she said. “This is very exciting. We’re just keeping our fingers crossed that it makes an appearance.”

Elias McKown, 13, showed up with his dad, Matthew, after Elias caught wind of the bird online, and noted that it didn’t fit any profile for such a gull in the region.

“So I was heading to Watsonville with my dad to go birding when this image popped up on a website,” he said. “That’s when we decided to go check it out at Rio Del Mar. I saw a picture of a black-headed gull somewhere else and I sent this one to other birders and we found out what it was. That’s not a common thing to see. I was also looking for another bird people were reporting in this area called a laughing gull, so I was interested anyway and then this gull came up.”

Fleishman said birders were responding to the appearance of the gull.

“Who knows why it is here,” he said. “Vagrant birds are hard to predict. As far as I know it has never been found here in Santa Cruz County. It was first photographed on the 27th (December). They’re a common bird in Europe but not here. This will draw people from around California who want to add to their life bird list.”

The gull was spotted by birders and Pajaronian photographer Tarmo Hannula on the shoreline directly out from the restrooms at Rio Del Mar State Beach.

rio del mar state beach elias mckown matthew
Elias McKown, 13, and his dad, Matthew, are delighted to have spotted a rare black-headed gull at Rio Del Mar State Beach. Photo: Tarmo Hannula/The Pajaronian
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Tarmo Hannula has been the lead photographer with The Pajaronian newspaper in Watsonville since 1997. More recently Good Times & Press Banner. He also reports on a wide range of topics, including police, fire, environment, schools, the arts and events. A fifth generation Californian, Tarmo was born in the Mother Lode of the Sierra (Columbia) and has lived in Santa Cruz County since the late 1970s. He earned a BA from UC Santa Cruz and has traveled to 33 countries.



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