The River’s Edge

RBGU 03-22-18-7362On workdays, I can take a short walk along the Chicago River downtown sometimes in the early afternoon, weather permitting. Invariably there are always a few gulls. Herring Gulls watched over the river all winter, and now the Ring-Billed Gulls like the one above are coming in. I have decided it can’t hurt me to get better acquainted with them.

With the change of seasons other birds show up as well. Last week one day there were about twenty Red-Breasted Mergansers. I first followed one female fishing alone in the water right outside my office building.

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When she took off in a northerly direction, I followed her and soon found the rest of the group. Several of the males were hanging around together.

RBME 03-29-18-8403RBME 03-27-18-8390Also going on the last couple weeks, demolishment of the General Growth Properties building. The low-rise structure broke up the dominant high-rise footprint but predictably, a huge development devoted to office space is going in its place.

General Growth demolition 03-22-18-7386

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A Herring Gull that hadn’t left…yet

 

It was nice to see the Red-Breasted Mergansers well one more time before they take off for their northern breeding grounds. They were busy disappearing quickly into the water for fish, and try as hard as I might, I could never capture the actual dive.

The light made interesting reflections on the water and the buildings. I have to wonder how it looks to the gulls that navigate this corridor daily.

Reflections 03-22-18-7411Reflections 03-22-18-7408Below is one of the Canada Geese that likely breed somewhere along the river this time of year. I keep thinking I see the same couple every year, in which case I imagine this could be the gander who swam off too far from wherever his beloved is nesting while patrolling the river, and is in a hurry to get back.

CAGO 03-27-18-8343We are still enduring a blustery chill, but the sun is out today, at least for a while before the cloud cover comes back and the predicted rain will turn to snow. I doubt there will be much accumulation, and we may finally get a spring warm up toward the middle of next week. Migrant passerines are starting to show up, the cardinals were engaged in a sing-off this morning, and I am thankful life still has a reset button.

Frolicking with the Gulls

Frolicking HEGUs 02-17-2018-6217I 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.

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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 Frolicking 02-17-2018-5900

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.

Frolicking 02-17-2018-5865It might be a good idea to revisit my last day in Ecuador to brighten up my next post…

Down by the River

BCNH 10-12-2017-6467

Juvenile Black-Crowned Night-Heron

I miss my crows. Terribly. I miss their inventive, gentle camaraderie and sense of humor. And their joy for peanuts. I will have to see if I can find them one of these weekends when I’m not conscripted to be elsewhere and it’s not pouring rain.

Crow LSE 06-27-2017-0782I started writing this in the midst of a constant downpour. Contemplating how I am getting more used to the new workplace. My mood improved about the new gig after managing to get out for a couple short walks along the river last week. Birding along the river wasn’t half bad.

It turns out the Black-Crowned Night Heron at the top of this post was a rarity for this time of year. I had no idea what it was when I took the picture, I only pointed my camera lens at it and followed it as it flew by. It was darker than a first cycle gull and that’s all I knew about it until I took the picture. And then checking it on the camera when I got back into the office I misidentified it, but kept thinking it over and later it occurred to me that it was a juvenile Black-Crowned Night Heron.

Below, a more likely suspect for a darker bird – a first cycle Herring Gull.

Not to be confused yet, at least, with the more prevalent adult Ring-Billed Gulls that have not yet left the area.

RBGU 10-12-2017-6332I got over to the Boeing garden a couple times last week. On Thursday I was faced with convincing two security guards that I was not taking pictures of the building, but of birds. Not sure if showing them my American Birding Association cap helped, but they left me alone after kindly admonishment.

I pondered a spy novel about a terrorist disguised as a bird photographer but decided it wasn’t worth the effort. The Yellow-Rumped Warbler above was still hanging out in one of the young oak trees. (No suspense in that sentence.)

Below is one of my favorite migrating sparrows, a Lincoln’s Sparrow. This one has been hanging out by the train station.

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Lincoln’s Sparrow

Likely the last Golden-Crowed Kinglet I will see before spring.

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Golden-Crowned Kinglet

A Gray-Cheeked Thrush…

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Gray-Cheeked Thrush

And a more ubiquitous Hermit Thrush…

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Hermit Thrush

The White-Crowned Sparrow below flew into a plexiglas barrier and then I found it hiding in a dark spot by some low vegetation on Friday morning. I called Chicago Bird Collision Monitors and then, following their instructions, dropped it off in their parked vehicle, after placing the bird in a paper sandwich bag I have been carrying around for weeks just for this very purpose. It was taken with other survivors to Willowbrook Wildlife Center for rest and rehabilitation.

WTSP taken to CBCM 10-13-2017-6473

White-Throated Sparrow requiring help

Below, another White-Throated Sparrow and a Hermit Thrush foraging in the not-so-pristine leaf litter at Boeing.

Thursday was the last time I saw the Blackpoll Warbler that was there for a few days.

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Blackpoll Warbler

At last we are experiencing fall-like weather, finally, following the spate of weekend thunderstorms. As the weather changes, so will migration. I hope to find more birds following the river’s path.

RBGU 10-12-2017-6457

Ring-Billed Gull

Gull Frolic 2017 – More Frolic than Gulls

find-the-thayers-challenge-gull-frolic-2-11-17-8476Quipped 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.

goldeneye-gull-frolic-2-11-17-8084And as for other ducks, there were a few here and there, although none too close.

greater-scaup-female-and-redhead-gull-frolic-2-11-17-8095

Female Greater Scaup and Redhead

bufflehead-and-goldeneye-gull-frolic-2-11-17-8175

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.

hegu-gull-frolic-2-11-17-8684Of 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.

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Below is one of only a few Ring-Billed Gulls.

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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-gull-frolic-2-11-17-8158

First Year Herring Gull

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Adult Herring Gulls

I was happy to see this shot of a female and male Common Merganser in my pictures.

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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.

Crows and A Bit of Lakefront

AMCR 1-5-16-9458I got out after last week’s snow to visit the Millennium Park Crows and they were happy to see me. But only after I managed to take enough pictures of a Cooper’s Hawk that was sitting in one of their trees. The hawk was not very cooperative with me.

COHA 1-5-16-9394A few more photos of my always cooperative Crows. One Crow in particular was determined to see how he could fit more hot dogs into his bill.

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On Friday afternoon, I decided to go down to the lakefront again. Predictably, the birds were far out.

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But I did manage to get up close and personal with a Mallard in the harbor.

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And then as I walked around the side of the Columbia Yacht Club where some people were fishing off the docks, I found some Red-Breasted Mergansers. But they became less than interested in me quite quickly, so I took out my photographic frustration on a willing first cycle Herring Gull.

HEGU 1-7-16-9727Hoping to get out before the end of this week, depending on the weather and work. We have been very cold the last couple days, making it tempting to stay indoors.

Down by the River

Herring Gull

Herring Gull

It’s been a busy week, so I haven’t gotten out too much and, in spite of that, it’s taken me days to carve out a post.

Two American Coots on 1-29-15: this was the view without binoculars

Two American Coots on 1-29-15: this was the view without binoculars

Freer souls have been out in the cold finding the rarities, some of which have been seen on the Chicago River. As a matter of course, since last winter’s freeze of the Great Lakes, I make a habit of peering into the Chicago River every morning when I get off the train and look into that section of the River to see if there’s any bird life in it. Seeing as how last year at this time I was counting White-Winged Scoters…that species and even less likely birds have been showing up in other sections of the river, but downtown there isn’t much going on.

AMCO Chi River 2-10-15-2213

Confirmed Coots on 2-10-15 when they were a little bit closer

AMCO Chi River 2-10-15-2236

The Coots are long gone and nothing else has taken their place outside the train station. Ah, the frustrations of sitting inside an office all day…

So late in the cloudy, snowy afternoons of Tuesday and Wednesday this past week I walked north to where the river joins Lake Michigan to see if there were any waterfowl at all. I was delighted to see Red-Breasted Mergansers as I am accustomed to seeing them on the lakefront but had not yet seen any this year.

Red-Breasted Mergansers

Red-Breasted Mergansers

The lake is frozen close to shore, and ice flows into the river where it joins the lake.

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Tuesday it was snowing, Wednesday just cloudy. Tuesday there were also a couple Mallards and one pair of Common Mergansers, along with a dozen or so Red-Breasted Mergansers and primarily Herring Gulls.

RB Merg Fem Chicago River 2-24-15-5050

Female Red-Breasted Merganser

Mallard Chicago River 2-24-15-5070

Mallard

Common Mergansers

Common Mergansers

Since, the Gull Frolic, I now pay more attention to gulls and find most of them to be Herrings (we’ll see how long that lasts when the Ringed Bills return by the thousands).

Herring Gull flying past an office building near Union Station

Herring Gull flying past an office building near Union Station

3rd Cycle Herring Gull Chicago River 2-25-15-5184

Third Cycle Herring Gull, Chicago River

Adult Herring Gull Chicago River 2-24-15-5198

Adult Herring Gull Chicago River

But there are still Ring-Billed Gulls around, like the one below. I think maybe if I’m not seeing much else yet this year I’ll get better at identifying these guys at a distance…

Adult Ring-Billed Gull

Adult Ring-Billed Gull

Second Cycle Herring Gull, Chicago River

Second Cycle Herring Gull, Chicago River

Red-Breasted Merg Chicago River 2-25-15-5246

Common Merganser

Winter continues, we just can’t seem to get enough of it.

First Cycle Herring Gull

First Cycle Herring Gull

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

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Glaucous Gull

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Glaucous Gull with friends

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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