22 August 2016

The Colonel Lives

The Colonel. That's the name we've given to the presumed hybrid Laughing x Ring-billed Gull that has frequented the Illinois/Indiana lakefront since at least 2004. After having searched for this bird a number of times this year, I finally tracked it down yesterday at Calumet Park in Chicago.

Putative Laughing x Ring-billed hybrid (adult). Chicago, Illinois. 21 August 2016.
It flew in from the old power plant property in Hammond, Indiana, landed on the pier after getting a bit comfortable, and then flew back whence it came from.

P10 mirror rules out pure Laughing Gull.

So how are we really sure this is a hybrid with Laughing and Ring-billed genes? We're not and probably never can be without genetic data, but the phenotype matches that mixture of parents well (more here). The working theory behind this bird is that back in 2002 - when a Laughing Gull successfully nested with a Ring-billed in the Lake Calumet colony in Chicago - hybrids were produced, and shortly after some "weird" Laughing Gulls started appearing near a Kentucky Fried Chicken on the Chicago/Hammond city limits. The KFC connection is where we get the name "Colonel" from. Incidentally, that breeding occurrence was the first state nesting record of a Laughing Gull in Illinois. Given those circumstances, and the appearance of this bird, I don't think it's a stretch to assume this hybrid candidacy.

Upperparts darker than a typical Ring-billed, and the build of the body is slighter. The bare parts are intermediate.

The pink blush to the white breast may be an external colorant from the slag piles in East Chicago.
It's always tougher spotting this bird in basic plumage, and I imagine it goes overlooked by some observers in the winter season. Here's what it looks like in fresh, alternate plumage:
Chicago, Illinois. April. 2014.

I have to admit that this is one of my favorite individual gulls of all time, now at least 13 years of age. It pains me to think that one year it'll just stop showing up...So. Is. Life.

11 August 2016

Juvenile Ring-billed Gulls

A small collection of hatch year Ring-bileds. Northern Illinois. Early August.

Ottawa County Michigan

Last week I spent a couple of days checking sites in Ottawa County, Michigan, mainly centered around Holland State Park. I was particularly interested in what Herring numbers were like and if any lingering "northern" gulls were to be found.

I stumbled on a couple of GBBGs (2nd and 4th summer type), 1 LBBG (1st summer) and, surprisingly, only 4 juvenile Herrings from some 275 individuals.

The single mirror on p10 and absence of a p9 mirror suggests a younger bird. The brownish greater primary coverts also point away from a definitive adult.

4th Summer Type GBBG. 

My only Lesser Black-backed Gull, a species that I thought I'd see more of on the west-central Michigan lakefront:

There was no shortage of 1st summer Herrings, including this individual retaining an all-black bill:

P1-P7 fully grown, P8 half grown, P9 dropped, P10 old. S1-S2 renewed, as well as most inner/mid secondaries. 03 August 2016.

Another 1st summer type with S1-S3, P1-P8 fully grown as well as all rectrices. The bi-colored bill is a much more expected look.

01 August 2016

Monthly Notables July 2016


  • Franklin's Gull (adult). Rimouski-Neigette County, Quebec. 01 July 2016.
  • Herring Gull (4th cycle type). San Diego County, California. 02 July 2016.
  • Great Lakes Gull (adult type). Delta County, Michigan. 05 July 2016.
    • Putative Herring x Great Black-backed Gull, tending toward GBBG. Presumably reoccurring in the region since at least 2012. Noteworthy is that not many Great Lakes hybrids are seen/reported in the summer months. Initially reported as a Slaty-backed Gull.
  • Franklin's Gull (adult). Essex County, Massachusetts. 07 July 2016.
  • Laughing Gull (1st summer). Capital County, British Columbia. 08 July 2016.
  • Glaucous Gull (2nd summer type). Essex County, Ontario. 08 July 2016. 
  • Lesser Black-back Gull (1st summer). Cook County, Illinois. 11 July 2016.
  • Little Gull (adult type). Fulton County, Illinois. 12 July 2016.
  • Western Gull (adult type). Alamosa County, Colorado. 14 July 2016.
    • Continuing from June 2016.
  • Laughing Gull (2nd cycle type). Kiowa County, Colorado. 16 July 2016.
  • California Gull (2nd summer type). Kenai Peninsula County, Alaska. 17 July 2016.
  • Lesser Black-backed Gull (1st summer). Glaveston County, Texas. 18 July 2016.
  • Western Gull (2nd summer). Washington County, Colorado. 18 July 2016.
    • Continuing from June 2016.
  • Lesser Black-backed Gull (1st & 2nd summer). Washington County, Colorado. 18 July 2016.
    • Now with 2-3 birds summering in the state annually. 
  • Lesser Black-backed Gull (1st summer). Portage La Prairie, Manitoba. 21 July 2016.
    • Continuing from June 2016.
  • Slaty-backed Gull (adult). Pierce County, Washington. 21 July 2016.
    • Possibly summering. Presumed to be a reoccurring individual from the last several winters.
  • Mew Gull (1st summer). Humboldt County, California. 27 July 2016. 


  • A pair of Bonaparte's Gulls was documented nesting in far northeast Maine. Incubating was observed, but the nest failed. The site (undisclosed) is beyond the southeast terminus of the species' known breeding range. Bonaparte's aren't known to breed anywhere in the lower 48 states.
  • Up to 15 Black-legged Kittiwakes are summering in Barnstable County, MA. Although not as spectacular as last July, Cape Cod remains the farthest south this species summers - anywhere in the world! All of the MA birds are 1st summer individuals.
  • At least 2 juvenile Sabine's Gulls were seen on a pelagic trip in San Mateo County, CA on 16 July 2016. I was unable to find an earlier date for juvenile SAGU this far south in North America.
  • Indiana reported a record high of Bonaparte's for July (and the summer season in general): 133 - all but 2 adults - migrating on Lake Michigan. 30 July 2016. 

July 2016 Quiz

Berrien County, Michigan. 08 November 2015.


The immaculate, fresh, plumage is all juvenile (i.e., 1st basic). The pale edges to the upperparts and pointed primary tips reinforce the fact that these are all 1st generation feathers.


I don't blame those folks who identified this month's bird as a young Thayer's Gull - indeed, there may be some thayeri that match this. But this isn't a Thayer's.

I identified this month's quiz bird as a juvenile American Herring Gull. The bill seems petite and shorter than usual, although that's likely because it's still growing. Notice how the base of the lower mandible is paling - a subtle hint that this may not be a Thayer's as that species does a better job of keeping a black bill at this age than other large gulls (but it's not terribly uncommon for a 1st cycle Thayer's to show a paling bill, especially late in the winter season before departing north). In Thayer's, the outer primaries are typically paler than the "almost black" appearance seen here, and the edges to those primaries are paler - often more so than the quiz bird. Also, most juvenile Thayer's will show tertials that are a smidgen paler than this.

Here's a more typical appearance for a similar-aged Thayer's Gull:

LaPorte County, Indiana. 27 November 2014.
Note that the outer primaries are more brown (compare with the black bill), with paler proximal edges. The upperwing coverts, too, look more marbled and frosted than in most juvenile Herrings.

The reader will note that the plumage aspect seen on our Herring Gull is one that soon becomes uncommon as December approaches, and certainly so later in the season. We do, however, see some American Herrings that retain this fresh plumage aspect later in the winter, and it's believed these birds - with more durable juvenile plumages - have likely originated from more northern latitudes. Here's one such bird found all the way south in Florida in late January:

Brevard County, Florida. 25 January 2016.
Structurally, the bird is plump and the head is large and blocky, complemented by a heavy bill. The primaries are dark - darker than the bill. Not much about this bird suggests Thayer's Gull.

My purpose in selecting a fresh juvenile Herring for this month's quiz is two-fold: To point out just how immaculate some juvenile American Herrings can look in their hatch year, and two, to emphasize the importance of how a date can greatly aid in the identification process. Without a date, it's difficult to gain any appreciation for seasonal factors such as molt and wear.

20 July 2016

Manitowoc: Putative Great Lakes Gull & Summering Franklin's

Wes Serafin and I ventured up to the Wisconsin lakefront on Friday to look for summer gulls. Our most interesting bird for the day was this putative 4th cycle type Great Lakes Gull (Great Black-backed x Herring).

Manitowoc, Wisconsin. 15 July 2016.

The darker Herring type on the left is our presumed hybrid/backcross.
There's at least one other theory beside the hybrid possibility: A sub-adult Herring that has darker upperparts than a definitive adult.
  • 3rd/4th cycle types (and even presumed young adults?) do at times show darker gray upperparts to some extent, although I've never seen one that was this obviously dark (see open wing photos). Martin Reid made an astute comment suggesting frayed and worn feathers also appear darker, and this is likely due to a collection of shadows that are combined for a darker effect.

A 4th cycle "type" wingtip pattern not out of range for Herring.

Size and structure wasn't too helpful as the bird was also within range for Herring, although a bit bulgy (think Great Cormorant bulgy...). But then again, the presumed Great Lakes Gulls I've seen have ranged in size from Herring to typical Great Black-backed...

I think it may be best to leave this individual unidentified.

Summering Franklin's Gulls

It's unusual to have more than 1-2 Franklin's on Lake Michigan in the summer months, and so the 7-8 birds that have been in the Manitowoc impoundment since late May are quite special. All appear to be 1st summer individuals (~ 1 year olds), undergoing their 2nd presbasic molts.

This individual nicely shows an "average" molt pattern seen on this contingent of FRGUs.

P1-P5 fully grown, P6 half grown. P7 dropped. P8-P10 retained (1st alternate).
The thinking behind 1-year olds like this is that they migrated to South America last fall, molted their juvenile (1st basic) flight feathers via a complete prealternate molt (PA1). Soon after acquiring these 2nd generation primaries (1st alternate), the 2nd prebasic molt commences, and viola, a 3rd generation of primaries (P1-P6) and secondaries are grown. It's possible that PB2 begins on the winter grounds, during migration stopover sites or once the "breeding" grounds are reached. This is what makes Franklin's Gull a standout gull - the flight feathers (especially in adult birds) are replaced twice in roughly 12 months!

But then there are Franklin's - for reasons we don't know, and probably will never know - that don't molt any flight feathers in PA1 on the winter grounds, or may have incomplete/suspended PA1 molts when we see them in their 1st summer.

Here's an example (Illinois. 04 July 2010):

3 retained juvenile primaries. P1-P7 new via 1st prealternate molt. Whether this prealternate molt is incomplete, suspended or ongoing isn't clear. Only two new outer secondaries (S1-S2) and retained outer rectrices. 
It's suspected these absent/incomplete PA molts are tied to the amount of food (or lack thereof) on the winter grounds, but I digress. Back to the Manitowoc birds...this one decided it wanted to renew p8-p9 before growing p6, or dropping p7 altogether! 

P1-P5 new (B2). P6 dropped. P7 old (A1). P8-P9 new (B2). P10 old (A1).
I've labeled what I presume is happening here:

Note it may be P6 that's retained 1st alternate and P7 dropped. Nonetheless, it's interesting to see P8-P9 have been renewed "out of order".

My favorite Franklin's of the group, this individual showing 3 generations of primaries.

P1-P5 new (2nd basic). P6 dropped. P7-P9 1st alternate. P10 juvenile (=1st basic)! 
P-molt in this age group of Franklin's Gulls in the summer months is somewhat variable. It's too bad we don't have more detailed profiles of known-age, banded, birds from the colonies they're born in. This would be a great project for anyone interested in molt and gulls!!

01 July 2016

Monthly Notables June 2016

  • Little Gull (1st summer). Cayuga County, New York. 01 June 2016.
  • Western Gull (adult type). Costilla County, Colorado. 04 June 2016.
  • Lesser Black-backed Gull (1st summer). Portage, Manitoba. 07 June 2016.
  • Iceland Gull (1st summer). York County, Maine. 07 June 2016.
  • Glaucous Gull (1st summer). Pinelaas County, Florida. 10 June 2016.
  • Thayer's Gull (1st summer). Clallam County, Washington. 11 June 2016.
  • Franklin's Gull (1st summer type). Barnstable County, Massachusetts. 12 June 2016.
  • Western Gull (2nd summer type). Washington County, Colorado. 17 June 2016.
  • California Gull (2nd summer type). Kenai Peninsula County, Alaska. 17 June 2016.
  • Lesser Black-backed Gull (1st summer). Washington County, Colorado. 17 June 2016.
  • Franklin's Gull (2nd summer type). Barnstable County, Massachusetts. 23 June 2016.
  • Franklin's Gull (1st summer type). Leon County, Florida. 30 June 2016.

June 2016 Quiz


Both of our gulls appear to have mostly new upperparts, although notice some feathers have been dropped and others are actively growing (namely, lesser/greater coverts and lower tertials on the left bird). The tertial patterns appear to be 2nd generation on both individuals, but the outermost primaries that are visible have an old "brownish" aspect. These primaries are juvenile feathers (=1st basic). Therefore we can comfortably assume both birds are molting from 1st to 2nd cycle and are roughly a year old (2nd calendar year).


The disparity in size among these two individuals will most definitely be a deciding factor in assigning labels. The gull on the left has a genuinely hefty bill and legs with remarkable girth. The head is proportionally large and the body is reminiscent of a duck. All of these structural features, along with the ghost-white head and solid dark upperparts point directly to Great Black-backed Gull. The bird on the right looks like a mini version of the Great Black-backed but with a slimmer bill and more attenuated look to the rear - a classic Lesser Black-backed type. The heavy "grease" stain (or neck boa) on the lower hind-neck of the Lesser Black-backed is often present in this age group.

This photo was taken in Barnstable County, Massachusetts in mid-July. 

28 June 2016

Sheboygan Gulls - Late June

For a small Midwestern town that sits on the western shore of Lake Michigan, Sheboygan, Wisconsin can hold relatively nice numbers of larids in the summer months (primarily May-July). I recorded 7 species there on Friday, missing an 8th species (Franklin's Gull) seen by others.

  1. Little Gull (5-6)
  2. Bonparte's Gull (700+)
  3. Laughing Gull (2)
  4. Ring-billed Gull (200+). Breeder.
  5. Herring Gull (125+). Breeder.
  6. Lesser Black-backed Gull (23+)
  7. Great Black-backed Gull (2)

So what would attract these birds to Lake Michigan in late June? Sheboygan sits well south of the breeding grounds of species like Bonaparte's, Little Gull, and presumably Lesser Black-backed Gull. And aren't Great Black-backs and Laughing Gulls coastal species?

Eat & Molt - Simple

The majority of the unexpected gulls here are sub-adults that are in the midst of a complete molt (prebasic molt) and have no pressing reason to situate themselves among a colony of conspecifics. So long as a reliable food source is available - and a reliable food source there is - the gulls summer here under low-pressure conditions, and complete their molts.

LBBG. Sheboygan, WI. 24 June 2016.

This bird has begun its 2nd prebasic molt. Three inner primaries have been renewed, with the fourth primary about half grown.The greater upperwing coverts have been dropped exposing the white bases to the secondaries. A mostly complete set of new median wing coverts is visible too.

On a "good" year like this, the food source is no other than alewives. The young fish are stagnant near shore where they're either close to dying or already have perished. The gulls don't bother with the dead fish. Instead, they go for the "fresh" ones that are almost dead. This makes for easy pickins'.

A 1st summer Bonaparte's with a nice-sized alewife. In front sits a similar-age Little Gull.

Any bird coming this close to shore, allowing this sort of approach, must have something good it wants to eat.

This Lesser Black-backed Gull made the whole process look easy...

Greater Lessers than All the Land of Great Lakes

Speaking of Lesser Black-backeds, I know of no other site on the Great Lakes where one can easily find 20+ individuals loafing around on one beach in the breeding season. In one scan I counted 23 birds (all 1st and 2nd summer), but I'm sure I saw over 30 on this day (photographs show unique 3rd summer types that weren't counted with the 23 scan).

Yes, Lessers! How many? My count is 15.
Young Lesser Black-backs can be a bit tricky to nail, especially since many of the 1st summer Herrings can show solid, dark upperparts on their 2nd generation feathers.

How many Lessers in this image? I can't confidently make out a single one.
Many 1st/2nd summer Lessers retain more black on the bill, like this one of the left (although NOT always). Also note the longer wing projection and attenuated look to the rear. The other two are Herrings (notice the right bird has lighter gray scapulars that have recently grown in).
From left to right: Herring, Herring, Lesser, Lesser, Herring, Herring, Lesser. The stuctural clues on the LBBGs is primaries that project farther pass the tail, smaller heads and straighter bills (but not necessarily shorter).

Little Gull numbers here aren't too shabby either. Sheboygan and Manitowoc, Wisconsin are among the top 5 sites on the Great Lakes to see this species in summer.

Two Little Gulls with similar-aged Bonaparte's in the background.

Little Gull with new greater coverts grown in. Two Bonaparte's in the back.
Soon the alewives will be virtually non-existent on the lakefront...by late July/early August most of these birds will have moved on.

07 June 2016

Turning Point Herring Colony

Myself & Tim working on PINK 86.
Photo by Bruce Buckingham.
Last Friday, Cleveland wildlife rehabber Tim Jasinski and I joined Bruce Buckingham, a research technichian with USDA Wildlife Services, for a morning of Herring Gull chick banding at the Turning Point colony in Sandusky, Ohio.

The colony, which holds about 900 pairs, sits slightly off shore on Lake Erie. Bruce has been banding birds here, and Herrings in particular, since the early 1980s. Very exciting is his recent use of "pink" field readable bands on some of his HERGs. Color bands are proven - for obvious reasons - to yield greater resights.

Keep your eyes peeled for these pink bands.

The colony's breeding progression was all over the place in terms of egg-laying, incubating and feeding young. More than half of the adults appeared to already have chicks running around, many with 3 chicks. But still, there were a number of late nesters still on eggs.

Turning Point Colony. Multi-tier colony with egrets and cormorants nesting above in the trees and Herring Gulls on the ground beneath the canopy.

Adult Herring with federal band.
Photo by Tim Jasinski.

Tim was very keen on finding previously banded adults. It takes some finesse and a fair deal of patience to record an entire band sequence. Fortunately, the birds aren't very inclined to take off or abandon the site.

Adult with what is likely Chick A (still incubating). Photo by Tim Jasinski
Parent with, presumably, its 3 chicks. Leftmost chick is likely Chick C. Photo by Tim Jasinski.
 Photo by Tim Jasinski.
Ouch! Watch the eye...Photo by Tim Jasinski.

The next few photos demonstrate varying fledgling stages:

Likely a day or two old. 
Maybe 5-6 days old.
One of the more advanced chicks we spotted. This bird
is showing many "true" juvenile scapulars and wing coverts (1st basic).

Same individual above. Rectrices still haven't
unfurled from their sheaths.
Bruce wins the "best t-shirt" contest.

Tim in the zone with Pink 86 (er, 98...)
The colony here is one of the neatest I've had the pleasure of visiting. I found the terrain really enchanting. The gulls are perfectly fine living in the "basement" with their neighbors "upstairs" (cormorants and egrets) occasionally dropping fish parts, and even entire fish from above. That wasn't the only thing they were dropping from above...

So much to observe. So much to learn. So little time. Yours truly waiting on a banded adult to come a bit closer. Photo by Tim Jasinski.

A big thanks to Bruce for his invite and generosity. His dedication to understanding these birds and his curiosity is contagious and admirable!