It was clearly a first-year bird, probably a Black-legged Kittiwake! It wasn’t until back in Winnipeg and after studying fieldguides and sharing my photos with more knowledgeable birders that I was certain. (I’ve always liked gulls, but their identification I find tricky.) This is only the third record for southern Manitoba! There are fewer than ten records for the province and most have been during the summer along Hudson Bay. The kittiwake is one of the more pelagic (ocean-going) gulls, breeding on cliffs along northern and temperate oceans of North America, Eurasia and the high Arctic, spending the remainder of the year at sea. So it is not surprising it is such a rarity in southern Manitoba.
So where did it come from? Hard to say, but there have been a surprising number of kittiwakes reported from the midwestern states this last fall and early winter. In November, Nebraska and Minnesota each had one bird, and South Dakota had two at Pierre through at least the Christmas season. There was even one as close to Manitoba as Grand Forks, North Dakota in November (maybe, like some Manitobans, getting some early Christmas shopping in). It is possible that the Manitoba kittiwake was driven north by the incredible blizzard that hit North Dakota and Minnesota and was nipping at the heels of my family and I as we raced home that day to beat the weather.
Because the kittiwake looked a little out of sorts, was clearly lost, and no one had managed to find the bird subsequently, a little less than a week later I thought I’d see if I could find its carcass to add to the collection. Looking for a mostly white bird in the drifting snow is worse than looking for a needle in a haystack, but I felt it to be a couple of hours well spent – we have no Manitoba specimens of this species in the Museum collection. So I was back in St. Jean on a bone-chilling morning on a fool’s errand.
I knew exactly where I had last seen it sitting on the snow, and I searched a large area on foot, checking every suspicious snowy mound and looking for a few telltale feathers. I had no luck, but perhaps that meant that the bird had had some. I did flush a snowy owl and discovered instead a true winter wonderland of snow-capped cattails with their shadows stretching over pristine snow, interrupted only by stories told by rabbit tracks.