Something About Gulls

Heermann's, Western and Herring Gulls 9-17-15 -2367

I’ve been gone from this page far too long. Life has gotten in the way. It’s also been a time of reflection whenever I’ve had a chance to reflect without falling asleep.

Over a week ago when I went back to the pictures from the ABA Olympic Peninsula trip, I was determined to make sense out of the gull pictures, at least, even if I still didn’t have the official lists of what we saw.

A couple days ago copious emails hit my inbox with invitations to accept ebird lists from the ABA, and I haven’t had time to review them after accepting them all.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

While I was away, my Zebra Finches managed to reproduce and I have two more. The juveniles were finally weaned last week and they are just starting to show color in their beaks.

A week ago Tuesday night I had a hunch, called up PetSmart and went out to find Dudlee Ann a male Diamond Dove, whose name is Drew. I also picked up a budgie that appears to be a female, for Jeremy Casanova Green, to distract him from chasing the Zebra Finches. The experiment seems to be working out. I hope to have an update on the indoor crowd in the coming weeks.

Poss Western Gull 9-17-15 -2172

Possible Western Gull 9-17-15

California Gull

California Gull 9-19-15

Perhaps my favorite gull pictures were those taken from the boat when we came upon large mixed flocks of them feeding in the water. If you click on the picture to enlarge it, you will get the feeling that you are right in the middle of this gull gregariousness.

Gulls2 9-17-15-1590Barely two days before I left for the Pacific coast, I was watching this Ring-Billed Gull fly over the Chicago River on my way to work.

Ring-Billed Gull 9-14-15 -1701

Ring-Billed Gull over the Chicago River

Ring-Billed Gull 9-14-15 -1686Ring-Billed Gull 9-14-15 -1673The gulls of the Olympic Peninsula were generally much larger than Ring-Billed.

Western Gull 9-17-15 -2187

Western Gull 9-17-15

We saw large groups of Caspian Terns as well. In general it was gratifying to see large numbers of any species.

Caspian Terns 9-17-15-2265

Caspian Terns 9-17-15

Gulls 9-17-15-1590I am proud of myself, I managed to figure out the hybrid gull below before the official list confirmed my ID.

Hybrid Glaucous Wing-Western Gull 9-17-15 -2255

Hybrid Western-Glaucous Winged Gull 9-17-15

Gulls 9-17-15-1589

First-Cycle California Gull 9-17-15 -2188

First-Cycle California Gull 9-17-15

Maybe I have been overreacting to the shorter days, the cooler weather, or the quadruple dose flu shot…or maybe I’m just trying to fit in more than I have energy for. I keep waffling about the choir commitment even though I have missed only one rehearsal when I was away, and have sung in three choir Sundays. I keep waffling about whether I want to continue. It’s been a challenge to find time for the blog and playing my renewed guitars.

Back to the Pacific coast pictures…

Adult Non-Breeding Glaucous-Winged Gull

Adult Non-Breeding Glaucous-Winged Gull

Of course there were other birds and I have thrown in a few pictures…

Common Raven

Common Raven

Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican 9-19-15-2664Brown Pelican 9-19-15-2663Marbled Murrelet is a new bird for me.

Marbled Murrelet

Marbled Murrelet

This Red-Throated Loon was distant but if you click on the picture maybe you can see just a little red on its throat.

Red-Throated Loon

Red-Throated Loon

Our last day we saw many shorebirds but they were generally quite far away. I was glad to be able to get on this flock of Western Sandpipers.

Western Sandpipers

Western Sandpipers

I have not been birding a lot but I have been lucky the last two weeks taking pictures here and there of more migrants. Migration is not over yet! I will try to be back much sooner with birds I’ve seen locally.

Briefly from the Olympic Peninsula

Pacific Loon

Pacific Loon

Getting home late one week ago from the American Birding Association Olympic Peninsula Birding Rally, I went straight back to work the next morning after making a quick run to the grocery store for a few perishables to tide us over. I am still reviewing all the pictures to clarify gull and shorebird species identification, and I hope to post more seaside pictures later in the week, but I wanted to at least gasp quickly while coming up for air.

I got 13 life birds on this trip, I think, at least that’s the number that’s sticking in my mind at the moment. George Armistead from the ABA promised to send us all complete lists which will be helpful, as I kept somewhat of a list from memory only each day, which is never entirely reliable.

There were life birds that I did not get pictures of, but here are a few ones I did. Light conditions were generally miserable (overcast, drizzly, backlit) but I did the best I could. I’d like to go back someday, spend a little more time and have more lenses ready for different situations. The plant species…trees, shrubs, mosses and fungi to generalize a few…were amazing.

Townsend's Warbler

Townsend’s Warbler

I was very happy to get a good look at the Townsend’s Warbler, especially because it still looks similar to a few other species I don’t know well!

Hutton's Vireo

Hutton’s Vireo

I have seen Hutton’s Vireo before, but never got a picture of one, so this was a lifer for the lens.

Red=Bellied Sapsucker

Red=Bellied Sapsucker

The Red-Bellied Sapsucker kept darting around the tree trunk to the other side but I did manage somehow to capture him and lighten him up enough…

Harlequin Duck

Harlequin Duck

I wasn’t sure if I’d ever seen a Harlequin Duck. I thought perhaps I might have, but now I am 100% certain that I can add to my list as there were several. Not in breeding plumage, but still a remarkable bird.

Thousands of Sooty Shearwaters

Thousands of Sooty Shearwaters

Standing on the beach watching gulls and shorebirds, when suddenly a seemingly endless stream of Sooty Shearwaters flew by over the space of several minutes. The trip leaders estimated 50,000. So I guess I can never say I barely saw this bird if I saw thousands of them!

Juvenile White-Crowned Sparrow

Juvenile White-Crowned Sparrow

The White-Crowned Sparrow is not new on my life list but I heard murmurings that this could be a subspecies to eventually be split. Whatever, I don’t care, it was nice to get a picture of a lovely young cooperative bird.

Heermann's Gulls

Heermann’s Gulls

I know I said gulls will come later, but the Heermann’s Gull is definitely a life bird for me, and what a beautiful bird with the distinctive orange-red bill. Here’s what Cornell has to say about it on their All About Birds website:

“This gray-bodied, white-headed gull breeds in Mexico and then moves north along the Pacific Coast to southern British Columbia.”

White-headed must refer to the adult breeding plumage of this species. I did find the gray bodies to be distinctive too. It’s always a pleasure to get to know an easily identifiable gulls species. I should never have to worry about confusing this bird with any other gull!

Generally the trip was brief but enjoyable, and I will be back with more pictures and thoughts as soon as possible. I also have some catching up to do with a little midwest passerine migration.

Gulls at The Frolic

Gull Frolic 2-14-15-3226Last weekend, on Valentine’s Day, I attended the 14th Annual Gull Frolic, convening at the Winthrop Harbor Yacht Club. The last time I went was something like five years ago, my excuse either being that I was not in town or I didn’t want to drive the distance in my old car, but the still new Prius and I need to get out more, and I decided it was time to attend, if for no other reason than to see people in the Chicago area birding community that I have not seen for a while.

Gull identification is a fine art practiced by a select few. I do not count myself in that number, and yet by virtue of taking as many pictures as I could while freezing on the lakefront last weekend, I feel obliged to try to identify these enigmatic and entertaining birds. I should mention that one could go inside and be warm at any time, and there was plenty of food and hot beverages to keep us going, but the action was all outside.

Adult Non-Breeding Herring Gulls

Adult Non-Breeding Herring Gulls

Herring Gulls

Herring Gulls

First Cycle Herring Gull

First Cycle Herring Gull

First Cycle Herring Gull

First Cycle Herring Gull

Second Cycle Herring Gull

Second Cycle Herring Gull

Second Cycle Herring Gull

Second Cycle Herring Gull

Second Cycle Iceland Gull and First Cycle Herring Gull

Second Cycle Iceland Gull and First Cycle Herring Gull

Adult Non-Breeding Herring Gull

Adult Non-Breeding Herring Gull

Since the majority of the birds were Herring Gulls, the first order of business was to identify them all in the pictures until I came across something that didn’t fit the m.o. The most reliable field mark in most cases is the amount or lack of black on the wing.

Adult Non-Breeding Thayer's Gull

Adult Non-Breeding Thayer’s Gull – compare with the Herring Gull behind it

Possible Glaucous-Winged Gull

Adult Non-Breeding Glaucous Gull

Without the pictures I would be at a loss, as the gulls fly by so quickly if I didn’t stop them in time I would not have managed to study them as well. Although it was challenging enough just to hang on to the camera, and I often photographed the nearest subject which left me with a lot of Herring Gull pictures I probably do not need, at times it was fun. I think the gulls’ enthusiasm becomes infectious. Even with the pictures I am still often stymied by identification. It helps to know what gulls were identified that day, because it narrowed the possibilities down to seven species, six of which appear here (Herring, Glaucous, Iceland, Thayer’s, Lesser Black-Backed, Greater Black-Backed). Oddly enough, I have not one picture of a Ring-Billed Gull. I don’t recall seeing them either. This is one case when they were outnumbered by all the larger species.

Iceland Gull

Iceland Gull

Iceland Gull

Iceland Gull

Herring, Thayer's and Iceland Gulls

Herring, Thayer’s and Iceland Gulls

As if to reassure us that we were not crazy, or if we were, we were in good company, gathering to watch gulls dive for bread in 45-degree below wind chill on Valentine’s Day – Ted Floyd of the American Birding Association and a million other affiliations gave a great talk on the phenomenon of crazy, or as he put it, “interesting” people who gather to identify gulls which, given their various plumages and tendency to hybridize, not to mention individual variation, unlike a male Northern Cardinal, for instance, that always looks red – making the challenge seem even more worthwhile, and now I’m thinking maybe I won’t wait another five years or so before I do this again.

Glaucous Gull on the Ice

Glaucous Gull on the Ice

Glaucous Gull 2-14-15-3597

Glaucous Gull

Glaucous Gull 2-14-15-3559

Glaucous Gull with friends

Glaucous Gull 2-14-15-3555

Glaucous Gull

One thing is certain: I know more about Herring Gulls now, after studying 1,000 pictures, than I did before, and this is the first time I have paid attention to cycles. This is no doubt the first symptom of Gullmania.

Adult Non-Breeding Thayer's Gull

Adult Non-Breeding Thayer’s Gull

Second Cycle Thayer's Gull

Second Cycle Thayer’s Gull

Adult Non-Breeding Thayer's Gull

Adult Non-Breeding Thayer’s Gull

Second Cycle Lesser Black-Backed Gull

Second Cycle Lesser Black-Backed Gull

First Cycle Great Black-Backed Gull

First Cycle Great Black-Backed Gull

First Cycle Great Black-Backed Gull

First Cycle Great Black-Backed Gull

Unfortunately I did not get pictures of a few individuals that would have been easier to identify, such as an adult Great Black-Backed Gull, which is a bird that I have been able to recognize for years, but it has been nice to study the Glaucous and Iceland Gulls and to finally track down the nuances that distinguish Thayer’s from the Herring Gulls. I referred to the Peterson Field Guide, Gulls of the Americas by Steve N.G. Howell and Jon Dunn, and also Sibley Birds iPhone app.

Peterson Reference Guides: Gulls of the Americas

Normally there are plenty of ducks to look at too, but it was so cold and there was so much ice, the ducks that were there were pretty far away. I only managed to capture a few Common Mergansers in flight and one Greater Scaup who was definitely “iced.” Click on the pictures to get a better view.

Common Mergansers

Common Mergansers

Greater Scaup with ice 2-14-15-3581

Greater Scaup with ice on its face

Greater Scaup with ice 2-14-15-3592It’s hard not to wonder if the gulls mark their calendars every year for this event.

Gulls flying in sync

Gulls flying in sync

Herring Gull w Bread 2-14-15-2730