On 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.
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.
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.
Below 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.
We 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.
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…
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.
I 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.
I 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.
Likely the last Golden-Crowed Kinglet I will see before spring.
A Gray-Cheeked Thrush…
And a more ubiquitous 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.
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.
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.
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.
I 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.
A 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.
On Friday afternoon, I decided to go down to the lakefront again. Predictably, the birds were far out.
But I did manage to get up close and personal with a Mallard in the harbor.
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.
Hoping 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.
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
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.
Confirmed Coots on 2-10-15 when they were a little bit closer
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.
The lake is frozen close to shore, and ice flows into the river where it joins the lake.
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.
Female Red-Breasted Merganser
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
Third Cycle Herring Gull, Chicago River
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
Second Cycle Herring Gull, Chicago River
Winter continues, we just can’t seem to get enough of it.
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.
It almost seems impossible that we went from 50 degrees Fahrenheit to freezing and back out again last week. Especially as I sit inside today avoiding a wind-chill of 7 degrees F. below zero. I visited the lakefront almost every workday this past week, monitoring the thaw. Although the weather in Chicago is still a primary topic of conversation, it is clouded by the perception that with climate change, anything could happen and whatever it is, it will most likely be weird.
Here is a Ring-Billed Gull testing the ice closer to the shoreline.
A little piece of ice made for two Canada Geese.
And here’s the same Ring-Billed Gull joined by a Herring Gull (yawning in this picture), who was kind enough to stand close enough to offer a credible size comparison.
A couple days later, the ice had melted enough to accommodate Red-Breasted Mergansers closer in.
Male Red-Breasted Mergansers
Friday morning I went down early before work, and I always see the sun just starting to come up over the lake before I get to it. For the heck of it I stopped in the breaking dawn to see if I could get a picture of the sun coming up through the trees. Without a tripod this shot was never meant to happen, but I kind of like the surreal effect anyway.
A Common Goldeneye male…
The picture I did finally get of the sunrise…
A crow over the water…
and several Common and Red-Breasted Mergansers in flight.
These three Herring Gulls in various stages of plumage complement the ice in various stages of thaw. That’s a female Red-Breasted Merganser in the background.
And here’s the White-Throated Sparrow who hangs out in the hedges by the yacht club.
Well, I was writing this post, and just as I added another picture I lost the whole thing, so let me start over. I think I started out by saying I can’t believe it’s July already, although we’ve had July-like weather for weeks.
Trumpeter Swans and a Great Blue Heron
I went to McGinnis Slough early this morning, just to see how the habitat and the birds were faring with the drought and the heat. The water level is so low, the Trumpeter Swans that are usually way over on the far side were in what is now the middle of the slough, so I was able to get some sort of picture even though they were still far away. I think I like the reflection in the water about this shot, and the fact that they had the Great Blue Heron between them.
When I first ventured from the parking lot, this juvenile Barn Swallow was waiting to be fed by a parent. Unfortunately I wasn’t fast enough to get that shot as the parent swooped in to drop off a bug and kept going.
Also found these Cedar Waxwing kids holed up in a nearby tree.
Walking down the mowed path in either direction summoned deer flies, which I was forever swatting. I wished I was a horse with a tail I could switch at them (in which case then I would have called them horse flies). Stopping along the way was prohibited.
Great Blue Herons
I saw easily 30 or more Great Blue Herons, most of them in the water, although these two are in the trees. The only Great Egret I found was in a tree also. Normally when the water level is higher, I have seen what seemed like hundreds of Great Egrets at McGinnis. I suppose that could still happen, summer has a long way to go.
There were a lot of Caspian Terns but they weren’t close enough for a picture, unlike this Herring Gull.
My reward for enduring the heat this morning was getting to see a Marsh Wren singing. I heard at least 10 of these guys in the grasses along the path, but hearing Marsh Wrens is always easier than seeing.
I stopped at the Portage on my way home. Here’s a House Wren for comparison.
And now a word of thanks to all who follow this blog! I apologize for not responding immediately to your likes and comments. At the same time, it occurs to me this blog is almost one year old. So I guess my “new year’s” resolution is to try to be a more conscientious blogger.
And to remember to save every draft so I don’t have to start over!