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?
I confess that I always look forward to this annual event, the Gull Frolic up in Winthrop Harbor near the Wisconsin border, with some ambivalence. Admittedly, it is as much a gathering for the local birding community as it is for the gulls themselves. The drive is long. The weather, when good for seeing gulls, is challenging for humans. Maybe ambivalence is more prevalent these days for just about anything that takes up my “free” time. But then I tell myself, you never know what or who you’ll see until you go, and the car could probably use a drive on the tollway (is that still a thing with a hybrid vehicle? I don’t know), and any excuse to sing along with Peter Mayer (from Minnesota) is a good reason to go anywhere anyway.
1st Cycle Iceland Gull (left) and a 3rd Cycle Herring Gull
So there I was an hour early, thinking I was late, remembering I had seen the email about the later start time but didn’t check it before I left, so I appeared, I suppose, to be a die-hard gull fanatic by arriving so soon with my monster lens attached to the camera and hanging off me like a third limb. There was plenty of ice and the gulls, mostly Herring, were congregating on it. The challenge was to recognize gull species other-than-Herring and all their myriad plumage cycles. I thank Amar Ayyash, gull expert extraordinaire, for graciously pointing out the first-cycle Iceland Gull captured in the above photograph, as appearing more evenly brown in plumage. The narrow all-black bill helps too. So maybe I will remember this next year. Or maybe not.
Glaucous Gull (left) and below with geese
After years of hearing people swear by hand warmers, the cold winter inspired me to try a pair in anticipation of the Gull Frolic. It’s reassuring to know that there is nothing sinister contained in the ingredients that cause a chemical reaction to create heat when iron powder is exposed to air (sounds a bit explosive, though, doesn’t it?). Although the heat never really reached my fingertips, it was nice to have that little hot pad in the palm of my hand in the glove. Trying to manage the camera with cold, gloved fingers is challenging, so if my hands were a little warmer it likely didn’t hurt.
The Canada Geese weren’t exactly invited but they were enthusiastically crashing the party when the chumming of (albeit whole-wheat) store-bought bread began. I’m sure the bread isn’t good for the gulls either but it doesn’t hurt them once a year, and the whole purpose is to take advantage of their propensity to engage with anything that hits the water, or in this case, the ice, to bring them in closer so we can see them. Gulls aside, I found it a bit amusing to watch this particular goose try to land gracefully on the ice.
Unfortunately, I didn’t stay for lunch or the lecture. My right knee was bothering me (I might revisit this thought in a future post, now that I am seeking a remedy), I was tired of the cold, and I had the usual myriad weekend chores listing up in my brain. Basically, beyond Herring Gulls, I think the only other species observed were the Iceland, Thayer’s (even though Thayer’s has been lumped with Iceland, there’s an effort to re-split again), Glaucous, Great Black-Backed, and a Lesser Black-Backed I did not see. I find the Herrings in their various plumages entertaining anyway. But by the time I left I was beyond entertainment and eager to survive the long-ish drive home. Second-cycle Great Black-Backed Gull below.
There is one thing I will never be able to test and that is how gulls would respond to music. Indeed the thought had never occurred to me until I was driving home. That would certainly be another kind of frolic.
There’s no reason to believe gulls would not respond to music, but it’s beyond my ability to design an experiment. I leave the option open to anyone who wants to try it. Of course gulls don’t “sing” per se, but who knows, they might dance, or they are certainly capable of something resembling dance in flight. I have seen pigeons and doves dance, and cranes too, flamingos, parrots…so I am not being altogether fanciful in my musings here.
Beyond the Thayer’s Gulls above, here are a few more pictures of frolicking gulls, for the record. While I’m looking forward to next year’s event and hope to be in better shape for it, these cold winter memories are a bit much. Bring On Spring.
It might be a good idea to revisit my last day in Ecuador to brighten up my next post…
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.
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.