Freezing at the Frolic

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.

Herring Gulls with a Glaucous Gull
Glaucous Gull
Greater Scaup
Herring Gull and Thayer’s Gull

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?

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.

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

Ice and Eagles

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

My very first birding field trip six or so years ago was through the Morton Arboretum. It was billed as “Ice and Eagles.” That particular trip entailed a bus drive to Starved Rock State Park where, as best as I can recall, we must have seen a few Bald Eagles. Oddly enough, I remember being more impressed seeing a Red-Bellied Woodpecker for the first time.

Juvenile Bald Eagles on the ice

Juvenile Bald Eagles on the ice

Sunday I joined the DuPage Birding Club on a day trip to the Mississippi River to see eagles, waterfowl, and whatever else was present. At our first stop, Lock and Dam 13 near Fulton, Illinois, it was estimated we had more than 250 Bald Eagles. But all day the weather was the catch. When we got there it was pouring rain. While we escaped the predicted thunderstorms, when it wasn’t raining it was drizzling and foggy. Not exactly ideal conditions for photography.

Eagle on the Ice IMG_0381_1

So I’ve been poring over the pictures I did take, to see if there was anything clear enough to publish. If nothing else, maybe I can convey what a grey, miserable day it was. Nevertheless, it wasn’t all bad.

We saw two Red-Headed Woodpeckers.

Red-Headed Woodpecker

Red-Headed Woodpecker

And a couple Eastern Bluebirds.

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

Hundreds of Gulls, mostly Herring and Ring-Billed, but we did manage to find a Lesser Black-Backed Gull and a Greater Black-Backed Gull mixed in after careful perusal…

Gulls on Thin Ice IMG_0651_1

and a Thayer’s Gull or two.

3rd Cycle Thayer's Gull

3rd Cycle Thayer’s Gull

Among other waterfowl, an estimated 7,000 Canvasbacks, too far away to photograph, but here are a few thickening the air.

Canvasbacks IMG_0633_1

And we managed to find Eurasian Tree Sparrows hanging out with House Sparrows where they have been located before, at someone’s feeders. I never did get close enough for a decent photo, but it’s a life bird for me, so this is for the record.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

Above all, wherever we went, Bald Eagles reigned supreme.

Eagles IMG_0541_1

My last chance for Bald Eagles this winter is on the 24th. DuPage Birding Club is featuring a field trip at Starved Rock. I think it will be the first time I’ve been back since, well, my first field trip.