Sunday, November 15, 2009

7 species of Gulls simultaneously at the Landfill

Although seeing 7 species of gulls in many places along the Great Lakes isn't terribly difficult. It is a challenge along the eastern shores of Lake Superior. In mid-late November Ring-billed Gulls head for the southern Great Lakes and Lesser Black- backed Gulls are a rarity. In fact there is only two records ever from Whitefish Point making it rarer than Ancient Murrelet, Pacific Loon and Long-tailed Jaeger. Since 2005 I am aware of 4 records for the Sault Area. One from Whitefish Point seen by Karl Bardon ( the legendary waterbird counter), two ( an adult and a third winter bird) from the Landfills and a fourth (I think a first winter bird) seen by David Bell on the St. Mary's River. There are more records to the west of us but it remains a rare species on Lake Superior.

Seeing any small gulls locally in November is a difficult feat. On occasion a small flock of Bonaparte's Gulls will hang out on the sandbar off the Tahquamenon Rivermouth but small gulls have been virtually absent from the area this fall with no Sabine's Gulls or Kittiwakes being seen at Whitefish Point.

On Saturday I arrived at the Landfill at about 0930 and had seen 7 species and 2 hybrid taxa by 1030. I spent another 3 hours trying to pick out a California Gull (unsuccessfully) in the hordes of squawking Herring Gulls. I then combed the southern reaches of the eastern Lake Superior for a Bonaparte's Gull again unsuccessfully. I do enjoy the listing game and I had seen 7 species of gulls in a day previously in the area so I was kind of hoping to top that. Scott Hickman and the Hubinger's had recently seen 7 species of Gulls on Munising Bay on the south east lakeshore.

Juvenile Thayer's Gull with warm brown color

The first interesting bird I saw was a milk chocolate brown juvenile Thayer's Gull. This bird certainly contradicted my theory that juvenile Thayer's Gulls have cold brown plumage without warm tones (see post on First year Thayer's vs. Herring Gulls).  I subsequently had another Thayer's Gull which shows the standard cold brown plumage.

Juvenile Thayer's Gull with cold brown color

I then noticed a very crisply plumaged juvenile gull in the main garbage pile fighting it out with a bunch of Herring Gulls. It had big blck scapulars neatly outline with white. I could only see its back and initially I figured it was a Great Black-backed. A gull panic attack ensued and as happens about once every 15 minutes the gulls bolted flying off in unison. This can be a dangerous time at the landfill as a couple of thousand spooked gulls circle over your head. Its a good time to protect your camera.

Juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gull

Well  as usually the case panic was overcome by gluttony and the gulls returned promptly. Fortuitously the juvenile gull landed about 15 feet with and was clearly quite small and was obviously a Lesser Black-backed Gull. I was quite pleased as I had never seen this particular plumage before despite seeing many Lesser-black Backs on the lower Great Lakes and eastern seaboard.

Juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gull

The bird stuck around for several hours taking off and returning to the same spot repeatedly. This is a phenomena I have noted consistently and repeatedly. When the gull flock bolts in unison individual birds very often return to the very spot they were feeding previously. In this circumstance the bird returned to within 10-15 feet of me at least 4 different time. I suspect this theory works well for everything except "Press-Stoping" rarities which will typically land somewhere in the next county. Any how if you have an eye on a rarity and you lose it when the flock bolts it is well worth concentrating your search back were the bird took off from.

Juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gull in flight

While watching the Lesser Black-backed I noticed a couple of first winter Ring-billed Gulls working the edge of the garbage. Near by was a juvenile and second winter Kumlien's Gull. The latter being a particularly pale and petite individual.  The smaller gulls usually hang out along the periphery of the gull flock. Kumlien's very consistently does this and this often affords great photograpic opportunities.

Second winter Kumlien's Gull

The next interesting bird was a third winter Great Black-backed x Herring Gull that I had seen before a couple of weeks previously. This is an increasingly noted hybrid which I plan on devoting a subsequent post to. If anyone has seen a juvenile or first year example of this hybrid I would be most interested in a description or picture.

Third winter Great Black-backed X Herring Gull

Third winter Herring and Great black-backed X Herring Gulls showing identical primary pattern

I had studied this bird quite closely previously and had little doubt of its identity. I have never seen a first year bird of this hybrid which I find interesting as they typically outnumber second and third winter birds significantly. All the Nelson's Gulls (Glaucous x Herring) I have seen locally have been juvenile birds.

Juvenile Nelson's (Glaucous x Herring Gull)

The above illustrated "Nelson's Gull" was the other hybrid seen today although the picture are from last week. There is at least two other "Nelson's Gulls" and maybe three present locally- all juvenile birds. This is first time I have had more than one present in the same season. This above bird is more towards the Herring Gull (although still looking decidedly Glaucous Gull like) end of the spectrum than most I have seen.

The other two species present were of course Glaucous Gull and Great Black-backed Gull. Several juveniles of each were present along with a second winter Great Black-baked.  No adults or other age classes were present today.  The following pictures were obviously not from today but were both taken at Dafter Landfill. I like them because there is no garbage in them.

Juvenile Glaucous Gull

Juvenile Great Black-backed Gull

So Great Black-backed, Glaucous, Herring, Lesser Black-backed, Thayer's, Kumlien's and Ring-billed makes seven plus the two hybrids all present simultaneously. As I left the landfill the Lesser Black-backed Gull was still giving the Herring Gulls hell and the Great Black-backed X Herring Gull flew off into the sunset.

Juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gull

Great Black-backed X Herring Gull flying off into the sunset

The landfill can be a romantic spot.
I'll be back.
Comments always appreciated.


Juvenile Lesser Black Backed Gull and Fourth winter Herring Gull in flight


I forgot I was going to add a little photography tip today. For all the beginning photographers I urge you to take all your pictures in RAW (NEF for Nikon users). The ability to post process RAW images is truly remarkable and the ability to compensate for poor exposure and technique is miraculous. Due to a error in the use of Exposure Compensation I hideously overexposed several series of images today. The blown highlights would never have been recoverable in a JPEG.

Overexposed Juvenile Thayer's Gull

Corrected exposure Juvenile Thayer's Gull

I would never consider shooting in JPEG now after using RAW for the last couple of years and understanding the huge benefits this mode affords.

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