This adult Ring-billed Gull is undoubtedly people watching as it forages along the Salmon Arm Wharf. 
(John G. Woods photo)

This adult Ring-billed Gull is undoubtedly people watching as it forages along the Salmon Arm Wharf. (John G. Woods photo)

Column: Latest count shows healthy ring-billed gull population in Salmon Arm

Nature Watch by John G. Woods

With reports of population declines of birds and other animals constantly in the news, I was happy to learn that a recent survey of the ring-billed gull nesting colony in Salmon Arm Bay found a high number of active nests.

In fact, on May 22 of this year, a survey led by local biologist Mandy McDiarmid tallied more than 1,000 nests on Christmas Island just north of the Foreshore (Raven) Trail.

Volunteering on behalf of the Shuswap Naturalist Club, Mandy and her assistant Paivi Sarre carefully segmented their nest search within the colony area and tallied each nest along with its contents amidst thousands of noisy gulls. We’ve all heard how loud gulls can be. Now think of being in the midst of giant flock of protesting birds – hearing protection was essential!

The resulting count produced a minimum of 1,063 active nests containing between one and five eggs. Mandy reports that most of the birds almost immediately returned to their nests and that the few hikers they saw had minimal affect on the gulls. The Foreshore Trail and adjacent Christmas Island is managed for conservation and recreation under the watchful eye of the Salmon Arm Bay Nature Enhancement Society (SABNES) and closed to all dog-walking during this critical time for bird nesting.

Since each gull nest represents a pair of birds, the minimum estimate of the number of ring-billed gulls using this tiny man-made islet this year is 2,000!

While I’ve often looked from the end of the wharf across to the colony, my best estimate of the number of birds is typically about 200, an order of magnitude too low.

Read more: Column: Shuswap winters brighten with the song of black-capped chickadees

Read more: COLUMN: Appreciating the bird-watching bounty of Salmon Arm Bay

To my eye, ring-billed gulls are one of our most elegant birds with bright yellow bills boldly marked with a black ring. Their body and wing plumage is a study in whites and grays, with black wing tips punctuated with windows and edgings of white. This fine plumage almost led to the demise of Ring-bills between 1850 and 1910 when they were killed to supply feathers for the fashionable lady’s hats of the day and to harvest their eggs. In recent times, strict protection has allowed Ring-billed Gull numbers to rebound across the continent.

As we know, the level of Shuswap Lake has been dramatically rising through May and June so Christmas Island is shrinking. Undoubtedly, some of the nests seen on May 22 are now underwater, but their owners may have been able to find a higher location to renest. For the gulls, changing water levels are an annual challenge with some years better than others for nesting success.

You can best view the colony with binoculars from directly across the channel now separating Christmas Island from the trail. Most of the gulls will be hidden under the shrubs, but you should see many adults milling about. For a close look at an adult ring-billed gull, a wharf stroll will give you face-to-face encounters with foraging adults from the colony. You’ll know you’ve had a close look if you can see the yellow of their red-rimmed eyes!
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