The weather wasn’t too bad for mid-February. The sun was shining and although it’s always colder by the lake, the wind chill wasn’t prohibitive. Indeed, it was quite easy to spend more time outside.
As in the past few previous years, the better the weather for humans, the fewer gulls come to this event. But this year was exceptionally pretty gull-less. With virtually no ice on the lake, there was no reason for the gulls to come to the shore. A lot of bread was thrown into the lake that day, but even the Canada Geese weren’t interested in it.
It was good to see some people I hadn’t seen in a long time, and the talk was interesting and informative. If I had stayed the entire day I might have seen a male Harlequin Duck that was reported being seen first over the Wisconsin border. But I had a busy evening and next day ahead and knew I would need a nap after the long drive back home.
Much of the time I spent outside was looking at some ducks. There were several Common Goldeneye.
It seemed most of the gulls were out on the ice beyond the yacht club. But as birders with scopes examined the flock, nothing unusual was reported to have been seen.
So I took a few token photos of the Herring Gulls that came in for bread early.
In addition to the Common Goldeneye there were some Lesser and Greater Scaup. When I managed to capture some of them in flight, I looked them up and discovered that the easiest way to tell them apart in flight is the white on the wing, which is a longer stripe on the Greater Scaup.
It was a beautiful day, and from time to time I took a few photos just to celebrate the blue horizon.
February is almost over. We’ve had a little more snow, a lot more rain, blustery cold and warmer temperatures. A bit more like March, perhaps, minus the longer days, but those are on the way too. And those increasingly longer days are calling some birds back to their breeding grounds already. I am starting to see American Robins here and there – individually, not in flocks. And Red-winged Blackbirds are proclaiming territories. Here’s a little sneak preview.
When it occurred to me that nearly the entire month of February had gone by without another visit to the lakefront, I took advantage of last weekend’s beautiful weather on Sunday morning and went down to see the Crows and whatever else I could find.
In anticipation of however many Crows I could encounter and the chilly temperatures, I made a batch of Birdz Cookies to offer along with the peanuts in the shell. I was curious to see whether the Crows would remember the Birdz Cookies, which started out years ago as peanut butter-oatmeal-raisin and have gone through many healthier – and more delicious, I might add – modifications, while still remaining true to those three ingredients.
I didn’t see any Crows until I had walked past all of this.
I was nearly at the corner where I would cross Monroe and then Lake Shore Drive when the first Crow found me. I perhaps should mention that until I see a Crow, I don’t stop to take the offering out of my backpack. So the Crows recognize me before they see the food. Either they have x-ray vision (which I wouldn’t doubt), or I fit the description of Crow Feeder, or both.
It wasn’t long before there were three more Crows.
And then the Birdz Cookies became the preferred snack. I was thrilled.
I mean, really, is there anything more beautiful than a glossy black Crow with a Birdz Cookie? Yeah, maybe one who has figured out how to grab a piece of cookie and a peanut at the same time.
When it was time to cross Lake Shore Drive and continue north along the lake, the Crows followed me, of course.
Down to the last Snow Crow…
Unlike my previous visit at the beginning of January, however, the Crows did not follow me along the lakefront. Then one singular Crow apart from the group of four appeared. Peanuts were an acceptable offering.
This Crow did not seem so comfortable with me. Checking me out, so to speak. So I kept my distance and did not risk offering cookies that were likely unfamiliar to him or her.
That was it with the Crows. I speculated later that perhaps the longer days and sunshine were already distracting the Crows with thoughts of spring and many of them were elsewhere. So I turned my eyes to the birds on the water. They were far off and there was still plenty of ice. Most of the ducks were Greater Scaup. And there were the expected Canada Geese, Mallards and Herring and Ring-billed Gulls.
Ice in the harbor that caught my eye.
The gulls reminded me of the Gull Frolic two weeks earlier. That’s a whole other blog post – to come.
I managed to blow up a few individual duck photos.
The Mallard below was quite close.
Greater Scaup on the lake.
In all, it was gratifying to see Crows again on a beautiful day. But I had the problem of some leftover Birdz Cookies and there were yet more at home. I thought I would be trying to give them away, but after a few missed opportunities, I decided to simply eat them myself. I have managed, by devouring two a day, to enjoy them and not gain any appreciable weight in the process. But I likely won’t be making another batch once the weather warms up.
We had one very warm and later quite windy day yesterday. I met my dear friend Hannah for a walk at Columbus Park where we spent most of the time beginning to catch up on each other’s lives. It was still chilly enough for the water to be frozen. There also seemed to be a runners’ race of some sort going on. The songs of scores of Red-Winged Blackbirds filled the air.
When I got home I saw one male House Finch showing off the buds on the flowering crab.
I keep resisting temptation to revisit photos from last year before I archive them into perpetuity on an external hard drive, but even after missing a few morning walks this week or next, the immediacy of spring will tempt me back into the present. So either way, I will be back. We’ll see what happens next.
My last trip to the lakefront was at the end of November. I intended to post some pictures from that visit closer to the time they were taken but the holidays and impending travel plans got the better of me. So in between the Mexico trip posts here’s a little nostalgia from home.
Above and below, a very cold-looking Golden-Crowned Kinglet I encountered in the plantings outside the Columbia Yacht Club. I confess to seeing his fiery crown first before I eventually saw the entire bird.
I miss the lakefront for these little guys, the Horned Grebes, that tend to hang out conveniently near the shore. There were also a few closer ducks that day, in between dives.
The Crow Crowd I expected was not present, but I did find a small but enthusiastic group at my last stop, Lake Shore East Park.
I don’t remember exactly where this very young Cooper’s Hawk was.
Predictably, a Herring Gull and a White-Throated Sparrow…
I’ve been trying to keep up with the Mexico pictures and hope to manage another post in a couple days. If for no other reason than to take a break from the cold, gloomy weather and news cycle, if you can even call it that.
After reading one birder’s report of McGinnis Slough being nearly under water, I decided to go see for myself. It was after 11:00 when I got there, so I didn’t expect to see many land birds, but you don’t necessarily go to McGinnis for land birds anyway.
The parking lot wasn’t flooded, in fact there were more cars there than usual. I got out of my car and started walking toward the water, and I saw the two Trumpeter Swans swimming slowly by – right in front of me. Normally these birds are way far away on the other side of the slough, visible only with binoculars if not a scope. I suppose they were checking out the other side of the pond now that the water had deepened it.
No sooner did I start taking pictures of the swans than I heard a commotion from behind where I was standing. Thus began several hundred if not eventually a couple thousand Sandhill Cranes passing overhead. This was the magical part. I am invariably stuck in the office when cranes are flying over, and now I had them practically all to myself.
There were a few ducks close to the western edge, too, that I normally would not see.
I walked as far as I could around the flooding and made it to the usual overlook where there were several young women who appeared to be part of a class outing. That explained the extra cars in the parking lot. They were absorbed in their conversation and I did not interrupt them. After my feast of birds I was not interested in trying to make out the usual dots on the water.
I have to start going back to McGinnis more often. It just occurred to me that on my last visit, there was hardly any water!
Last weekend I attended the Gull Frolic in Winthrop Harbor, for the usual reasons: something birding-related to do during the winter and an opportunity to see some people I haven’t seen in a long time.
So yeah, it was cold. And windy. And there were a couple gulls that weren’t Herring Gulls. And some ducks here and there. One turned out to be rather rare – a female Long-Tailed Duck, formerly known as Old Squaw. Maybe there were more gull species later, but I had to do my Saturday food shopping and cleaning and get up early Sunday to sing in the choir, so I left in the early afternoon.
There was a lot of ice on the lake, which you might be able to see in some of the longer shots. And it was cloudy overall. Sunshine might have made me feel a bit warmer.
So I’m amazed I got any shots at all. I remember only trying to hold onto the lens and stay focused, come what may. Removing my gloves now and then to sharpen the focus and then giving up. But the camera caught enough of the action and I’m thankful for that. I find the gulls entertaining, even if they’re practically all Herrings!
However windy and cold it was last weekend is nothing compared to today’s wind storm that has been going on since this morning and will continue into the wee hours of the night, with gusts up to 60 miles per hour. Every once in a while the wind positively roars. I don’t know how the birds in the yard managed it but they eventually emptied the feeders today. Battening down the hatches and thankful we are safe and sound. Looks like the wind is ushering in very cold weather again. Oh, but the days are getting longer, right?
Quipped attempts to describe Illinois Ornithological Society‘s Saturday’s 16th Annual Gull Frolic were “Duck Frolic” and perhaps “Herring Gull Frolic.” To paraphrase the observation of Amar Ayyash, our local gull expert extraordinaire who organizes the event, when the weather is good for people, it’s bad for gulls. In other words, there wasn’t enough ice on the lake to draw the gulls in to the shore. We can be fairly positive the rarities were somewhere out in the middle of Lake Michigan, if not totally on the other side of it.
Even with only a few species present, I have to review and refresh my sparse knowledge of gulls again because often this is my only chance to see anything other than a Herring or a Ring-Billed.
So disinterested were the birds in us, at one point there was more bread floating around in the water than gulls.
The first bird I photographed was a male Common Goldeneye, below.
And as for other ducks, there were a few here and there, although none too close.
Female Greater Scaup and Redhead
Bufflehead and Common Goldeneye
Above, a female Bufflehead on the left and more Bufflehead and a Greater Scaup on the right. Below, Mallard and Bufflehead flying.
The Common Mergansers were perhaps the most numerous. Two shots of a close female below and more flying.
Other waterfowl present but not photographed were American Coots, a few Long-Tailed Ducks I did not see, and a very distant group of White-Winged Scoters.
Gulls were quick to seize the opportunity to stand on whatever little ice there was. Among the Herring Gulls below there is one Thayer’s, if you like a challenge.
Of the two Thayer’s Gulls spotted, I was fortunate to get a shot of the one below when it finally decided soggy bread was worth bothering with. There was a flyover Great Black-Backed Gull I did not see because I was inside attending one of two lectures given by Jean Rice regarding her study of shorebirds in St. James Bay. At some point a Kumlien’s Gull appeared, but I was not seeing it. Maybe the camera saw the Kumlien’s but if I’m not aware of it, I prefer not to go back over all my pictures to find one. Perhaps an expert can spot this gull in the grouping at the very top of my post, but I suspect there is not enough information in a static shot.
Below is one of only a few Ring-Billed Gulls.
So I decided to survey the gulls present and make it an exercise in photographing different Herring Gull plumages. The darker they are, the younger.
First Year Herring Gull
Adult Herring Gulls
I was happy to see this shot of a female and male Common Merganser in my pictures.
We appear to be continuing with warmer weather, which is neither here nor there as far as birds are concerned, but the wintering avians are starting to think and sound a lot like spring. And no matter how bad things seem to get, spring will always feel like renewal.
Even though last week was consistently warmer than the weeks before, it still took a long time to turn the lakefront from ice to water. Some smaller bodies of water are still frozen, but Lake Michigan, at least on the Chicago shore, is now open to ducks. However, as soon as they leave, if not before — although I’m sure the presence of ducks is not the trigger for this event — the yacht club will start putting out the buoys for the boats.
Below is a little photographic ice check timeline.
Ice on 3-9-15
Ice on 3-10-15
No ice this part of the harbor on 3-12-15 (same dock as 3-9 above)
But ice still farther out on 3-12-15
Of course the light was great on the days when there was not much to photograph but ice.
Canada Geese on the ice, 3-12-15
And even as the ice seemed to be melting steadily all week, on Friday the 13th, as luck would have it, the ice was right up to the shoreline again. I suspect that all the ice that was farther out had floated in to the harbor.
Ice on 3-13-15 (right up to the shoreline!)
After the warming weekend, though, ducks were beginning to show up close enough to look at, even if the light wasn’t so wonderful.
Female Red-Breasted Merganser, 3-16-15
Greater Scaup 3-16-15
And Ring-Billed Gulls have started coming back in droves.
Ring-Billed Gull 3-16-15
By the middle of the week there were some more ducks in the harbor.
Common Goldeneye 3-18-15
A pair of Common Goldeneyes.
I’ve taken better photos of Red-Breasted Mergansers but I like these guys so much I can’t resist posting this one anyway. After all, I’ve likely never taken his picture before.
Red-Breasted Merganser 3-18-15
The Ring-Billed Gulls are getting ready for the tourist season.
And on land the only newcomer I saw last week was a Common Grackle, but all returns are welcome.
I haven’t been able to get out every day this week but I’ll continue to go when I can and I look forward to documenting whatever arrives..
Last 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
First Cycle Herring Gull
First Cycle Herring Gull
Second Cycle Herring Gull
Second Cycle Herring Gull
Second Cycle Iceland Gull and First Cycle 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 – compare with the Herring Gull behind it
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.
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 with friends
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
Second Cycle Thayer’s Gull
Adult Non-Breeding Thayer’s Gull
Second Cycle Lesser 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.
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.
Greater Scaup with ice on its face
It’s hard not to wonder if the gulls mark their calendars every year for this event.
The day before the blizzard warnings began, last Friday, was a calm, if cloudy day. I managed to get down to the lakefront and even though it was overcast, a few ducks swam obligingly close enough for photographs.
Common Merganser Female
Now it’s pretty hard to go anywhere without encountering mounds of snow to traverse, or icy and sloshy paths forged by foot traffic. It was hard to imagine being enveloped by snow until we were. I haven’t been out to see birds the past few days, only to shovel snow or trudge on in to work.
I wonder where these birds went during the storm. Maybe they were thinking of taking off like these Common Mergansers.
In all, there were not a lot of birds, not even many Ring-Billed Gulls.
I hope to get back down to the lakefront sometime this week to see what it looks like and what birds are in the water, if any.