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.

thgu-gull-frolic-2-11-17-8653

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

rbgu-gull-frolic-2-11-17-8396

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

hegu-gull-frolic-2-11-17-8634

Adult Herring Gulls

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

common-mergs-gull-frolic-2-11-17-8462

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.

AMCR 1-5-16-9468

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.

Mallard 1-7-16-9633

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.

All Thawed Out

Greater Scaup

Greater Scaup

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 3-9-15

Ice on 3-10-15

Ice on 3-10-15

Ice close to shore on 3-12-15

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

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, 2-12-15

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!)

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

Female Red-Breasted Merganser, 3-16-15

Greater Scaup 3-16-15

Greater Scaup 3-16-15

And Ring-Billed Gulls have started coming back in droves.

Ring-Billed Gull 3-16-15

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

Common Goldeneye 3-18-15

COGO 3-17-15-6598

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

Red-Breasted Merganser 3-18-15

The Ring-Billed Gulls are getting ready for the tourist season.

RBGU 3-18-15-6524 RBGU 3-17-15-6562And on land the only newcomer I saw last week was a Common Grackle, but all returns are welcome.

COGR 3-17-15-6648I 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..

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.

Ice from the Lake2-25-15-5222

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

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

White-Winged Scoters – Finally!

Male White-Winged Scoter

Male White-Winged Scoter

As if in answer to my prayer…the White-Winged Scoters that have been reported everywhere I have not been able to get to (namely the Chicago Lakefront where there is open water instead of ice) finally showed up in the Chicago River this week. Someone reported them at the North Branch but since the Loop is far south of that I didn’t know whether to be encouraged or even more frustrated.

Female White-Winged Scoter

Female White-Winged Scoter

But Wednesday morning I caught my first glimpses of them – they were catching naps all the way over on the other side and at first all I could see were small patches of white on their wings. But they eventually woke up and started diving. Still they were too far away to get decent pictures.

Female White-Winged Scoter

Female White-Winged Scoter

Yesterday I packed my better lens, and feeling optimistic (there was actually a little sunshine early in the morning) I attached it before I got out of the train station. I walked to the railing, looked over the side, and the White-Winged Scoters were there – on my side – as if they had been waiting for me. Even though the light was still a problem, the river being almost black, it’s so dark, and the birds being black themselves, I managed to get these few shots from some very cooperative birds.

Male WW Scoter 02-13-14 5129.jpg-5129

The Red-Breasted Mergansers are still in the river in numbers, too. Sometimes within good view.

Female Red-Breasted Merganser

Female Red-Breasted Merganser

And more often not.

Male Red-Breasted Mergansers

Male Red-Breasted Mergansers

And as it always is with diving ducks, they disappear.

Diving WW Scoter 02-13-14 5098.jpg-5098

Diving White-Winged Scoter

 

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe IMG_2941_1

Every spring I watch and wait for Horned Grebes to return to the lakefront. This afternoon, on an otherwise blustery, windblown day, the sun shown long enough to wake up a Horned Grebe taking a nap in Monroe Harbor.

Horned Grebe IMG_2900_1

He woke up and started swimming toward me.

Horned Grebe IMG_2909_1

And allowed me to watch him scan the water for places to dive.

Horned Grebe IMG_2934_1

Horned Grebe IMG_2959_1

Until he disappeared for the last time.

Horned Grebe IMG_2960_1