05 October 2015

First Weekend of October - Adult Thayer's & Juvenile Lesser

This first weekend of October was eventful and full of interesting gulls, to say the least. Let's start with the title birds - straightforward and no ID issues.

Somewhat of a surprise is this adult Thayer's. I have always looked for Thayer's in late October, but seeing that states to our north (particularly Duluth, MN) see them as early as late September, I purposefully decided to go looking for Thayer's this weekend.

Adult type Thayer's Gull. Lake County, Illinois. 04 October 2015.
This is now my earliest arrival for this species. Prior to this my earliest was 19 October 2013 in Illinois & 18 October 2014 in Indiana.
Notice p10 is still hanging on. Usually, when we see our first adult THGUs, they've dropped p10 and are about halfway done growing p9 with small hints of the tip to a new p10.

Next up was my first juvenile Lesser Black-backed for the season (adults and sub-adults have been here for at least a month):

It's interesting that sites to our east (southern Ontario and New England) begin reporting these juveniles the first week of September. I usually don't find my first juveniles until about mid-October.

Juvenile LBBG. 100% juvenile. New Buffalo, Michigan. 03 October 2015

The Weirdos 

Now for my "interesting" gulls. This first individual tripped me up for a few hours, leading me to think it may be a California Gull, but I've retracted that ID. I believe it's a somewhat atypical Herring or perhaps even a CAGU x HERG (a hybrid that's now being reported with some regularity in Colorado):

The medium gray scaps have dark-centered shaft streaks and overall did not look like any Herrings I've been seeing (until the day after, of course). The bicolored bill is small, the gape appears to frown down (like CAGU) and the tibia shows hits of blue.

Same individual above. LWHG. New Buffalo, Michigan. 05 October 2015.
I suppose everything on this bird can be found in typical Herrings, but there was something about it - an initial instinct - that looked different, structure and size too. Unfortunately, it was raining, windy and my autofocus wasn't working (and still isn't), so no flight shots. It did appear to have inner primaries that lightly contrasted with the outers, but not a full-blown pale window that is generally found in Herring Gull. I don't recall it having a strong "second" secondary bar formed by dark greater covert bases.

Some history: I've found 3 California Gulls at this site in the last few years (all in October). It seems this is the month they move in with the Herrings. I'm under the impression that there may be some young individuals that are hybrids/backcrosses (perhaps from Alberta or thereabouts) that are migrating with the larger parent species. This may all sound like a stretch, but if putative adult hybrid CAGU x HERGs are being found, I think it behooves us to put young birds on our radar. Here's an example of an adult hybrid:  http://goo.gl/Qmvwqh

More Weirdos

I've identified all of the individuals below as Herring Gulls, some less obvious than others. Al of these birds were photographed in Lake County, Illinois on 04 October 2015.

2nd cycle Herring. A very fine pattern of barring to the pale upperparts.

White head, frosty 2nd generation scaps.
White body, worn wing covets and dark 2nd generation scaps. The scaps are patterned with a medium gray color. Longer than expected wing projections.

Medium gray 2nd generation scaps. Wing coverts are plain and appear subdued (faded already?). The overall solid caramel color to this bird appeared different. The color to the primaries is lighter than the bill.
Again, medium gray color to the 2nd generation scaps. The fine "zig-zag" pattern to the wing coverts looks like something one would find on a Glaucous Gull (but of course much paler).
1 of only 2 birds with nearly all juvenile scapulars. It's fair to assume this individual is a late hatch. Or, does it have a more durable juvenile plumage and originates from a much more northern latitude than all of the early molters?
The 2nd bird of the day to have almost complete juvenile scapulars (less a few newers scaps growing in adjacent to the hindneck). This one looks like it could be siblings with the bird above.

The Weirdest

A one-eyed adult that was coming along, I guess.
A first for me, this bird has a leucistic left wing and a normal right wing. One would never know if they were only scanning from its right side.
Finally, a cross-dresser. Not doing a very good job of trying to disguise itself as a Ring-billed.


02 October 2015

Miller Beach Herring Survey

It's difficult to be certain when contingents of new Herring Gulls begin arriving on the very southern tip of Lake Michigan. Based on the last few years of monitoring this region, I'd put the date at about September 10th. The numbers slowly build throughout the month, but it's not until late October that a much more significant wave is noticeable. Interestingly, Lesser Black-backed Gull numbers nicely parallel the increase in Herrings. Maybe one day I'll try to calculate a constant of variation from season to season.

The challenge in getting an accurate picture of what's taking place is that the birds may be out feeding on the lake at different times of the day (or week) depending on weather conditions. Some are also tucked away at the local landfills.

So as I've tried for the last 4 years, I got out this week on 3 consecutive days (29-30 September and 01 October) and focused primarily on the beach gulls, each day for 2.5 hours, at the same time of day (late afternoon). This year I chose Miller Beach in Gary, Indiana, mostly because all 3 days would have the same weather pattern (temps in the mid-60s, with NE winds at 15-25 mph). On all 3 days I had "different" individuals that weren't observed on any other day. Numbers were higher on 30 September than the 29th of September or the 1st of October.

The numbers here pale to the hundreds of Herrings seen at Michigan City and New Buffalo, but still, I was interested in seeing if the constant northeast winds would usher in hoards of Herrings off the lake. Not so. My high count on 30 September was a meager 15 Herring Gulls (4 adult types, 2 third cycle types, 3 second cycles, and 6 first cycles). My 3 day total, counting new birds, was 31. Oddly, it seems the northeast winds moved the birds out, more than anything. Perhaps this is a "transitional period", where our Lake Michigan birds are moving out, soon to be replaced my northern Lake Michigan birds.

Speaking of northern Lake Michigan Herrings, I'm under the impression that the majority of our birds must originate from the Door County, Wisconsin colonies and points northeast of there, throughout the UP of Michigan. Indeed, most of the banded gulls I've found down here would support that. One conjecture I might make is that the colonies to our north are dense and so younger adults (non-breeders?) stay here near a centralized feeding hub (Berrien County, MI) and then relocate as they age. Beside the outlier (29 years and 3 months) that I found a couple of weeks ago, all of the other banded "adult" Herrings are relatively young (over 90% less than 6 years old).

On With Some Photos

Despite only having a small group of HERGs to work through, I did find 4 "cool" birds to share.

Bird #1

A hatch year individual with a completely bi-colored bill. The sharply demarcated black tip is an unusual pattern for September - maybe the first I've seen like this at this date.
Gary, IN. 30 September 2015.

Same individual above. Typical Smithsonianus tail pattern. First generation flight feathers. Nearly 100% post-juvenile scapulars.

Bird #2

A not so uncommon plumage aspect for this time of year, except for the very dark (nearly black) scapular centers. If this pattern was a bit more consistent throughout the rest of the back, one might start to think a black-backed parent was involved.

Bird #3

My favorite bird from the last three days. The wing coverts are faded and already bleaching. Some of the scapulars are showing very dark brown/black bases, and best of all, the pale primary tips make a bold statement. This looks much more like a "strange" Herring I'd expect to see on Florida's coast in mid-winter. I'm eager to see if this bird sticks around for a couple of months.

Bird #4

This one would not allow close approach. It's not so much the standing bird that intrigued me, it's the pale base to the uppertail coverts (see next photo).

Relatively narrow tail band and white ground color to the uppertail. Also interesting is the darker window on the inner primaries. The lack of contrast here can partially be attributed to lighting. Another reminder of how a single photo doesn't always reveal the entire "picture".
Same individual above. Still, a relatively dark window but the wing is closing (hence, the paler inner webs to the inner primaries are somewhat concealed). The uppertail pattern is not an illusion. This is a pale tail for any Smithsonianus. "Plain" and simple!

01 October 2015

Monthly Notables September 2015

  • Slaty-backed Gull (3rd cycle type). Potter County, Texas. 01 September 2015.
    • Observer field notes and photos all point to this species. 
  • Slaty-backed Gull (adult). Pierce County, Washington. 02 September 2015.
    • Unprecedented for the lower 48 states, this individual is thought to be a returning bird since 2012.
  • Western Gull (1st cycles). Imperial County, California. 02 September 2015.
    • 5 individuals. Good count for Salton Sea. Slowly increasing here.
  • Glaucous Gull (2nd cycle). Grays Harbor County, Washington. 04 September 2015.
  • Little Gull (juvenile). Roseau County, Minnesota. 05 September 2015.
  • Laughing Gull (juvenile). Iowa County, Iowa. 07 September 2015.
  • Lesser Black-backed Gull (3rd cycle). Imperial County, California. 13 September 2015.
  • Little Gulls (adult and juvenile). Porter County, Indiana. 08 September 2015.
    • The same two individuals (presumably) were sighted again, in Berrien County, MI on 12 September 2015. Adults are rarer on the southern edge of Lake Michigan.
  • Red-legged Kittiwake (adult type). Callam County, Washington. 08 September 2015.
    • 11th State Record.
  • California Gull (1st cycle). Douglas County, Wisconsin. 16 September 2015.
    • A very cooperative bird associating with Ring-billeds for several days.
  • Glaucous Gull (2nd cycle). Ottawa County, Michigan. 19 September 2015.
  • Ross's Gull (adult). Les Escoumins, Quebec. 19 September 2015.
    • Likely the same individual that was recorded in this area last month on 04-06 August 2015.
  • Laughing Gull (adult). Monterey County, California. 20 September 2015.
  • Herring Gull (adult). Berrien County, Michigan. 20 September 2015.
    • New longevity record. A banded adult found in New Buffalo has been identified by the Bird Banding Lab as the oldest known American Herring Gull in North America: 29 years and 3 months.
  • Black-headed Gull (adult). Barnstable County, Massachusetts. 20 September 2015.
  • Thayer's Gull (1st cycle). St. Louis County, Minnesota. 24 September 2015.
  • Black-legged Kittiwakes. Barnstable County, Massachusetts. 27 September 2015.
    • Seen all throughout September. High count 50. Mostly adults. Juveniles began arriving as early as 16 September 2015. Also sightings in both Suffolk and Norfolk Counties.

September 2015 Quiz


Age: This gull is undergoing its 2nd prebasic molt. The 9th primary is about halfway grown out, while the tip to the 10th primary is barely peeking out next to the greater primary coverts. About half of the secondaries (outers) have grown out and the other half (inners) are dropped.

The upperwing is dark and solidly filled. At first glance one might consider a 2nd cycle Lesser Black-acked Gull or even 2nd cycle California Gull, but there are a few problems for those species.

The tail band is wide (especially along the outer tail feathers) and this isn't very typical in LBBG. The pink-based bill is okay for a California Gull but it would be unusual for a Lesser molting into 2nd basic, particularly the sharply demarcated black tip. The inner primaries are a silvery gray and show strong contrast with the rest of the wing (often found in Herrings). Both California and Lesser Black-backeds show less contrasty inner primaries. Zooming in, one can see new pale gray mantle feathers right down the center of the back. This contradicts a black-backed species and rules out LBBG.

Our quiz bird is a 2nd cycle Herring Gull. The take-away here is that 2nd cycle Herrings can have really dark upperparts in their 2nd plumage cycle. In the summer months some can have very dark plumage aspects. The resemblance to a 2nd cycle Lesser Black-backed is only superficial, though.

Here's a 2nd cycle Lesser Black-backed in a similar molt state for comparison:


Notice how the inner primaries don't contrast with the rest of the wing as much as the quiz bird. The gray on the scapulars/mantle is more of a slaty-charcoal color and not pale gray. Most of the bill is still black, although it could be partly black and partly pale in LBBGs at this age.

25 September 2015

New Longevity Record for North American Herring Gull

While searching for banded gulls on southern Lake Michigan on Sunday, 20 September 2015, I spotted this adult Herring Gull with a silver band on its right leg:

Banded Herring pictured next to a 2nd cycle Lesser Black-backed Gull.
Berrien County, Michigan. 20 September 2015.
As I started moving about and recording the numbers on the band, the bird sensed my presence and walked off to the shoreline:

When gulls move to the water's edge like this, it usually means they're nervous and are ready to fly off. So I backed off, giving it a few minutes to relax and take to me, all the while without making any eye contact. As it started to loosen up I went back to photographing:

I reported the following sequence to the Bird Banding Lab that night: 0846-10957.

Data Submission

All the Herrings that I've submitted to the Bird Banding Lab (BBL) in the past have been between 1-12 years old. So you can imagine my surprise when the following banding date came back: 28 June 1986. 29 YEARS AND 3 MONTHS OLD!!

Coincidentally, I had two other banded birds on this day and reported them too. The next morning I received Certificates of Appreciation for these two gulls, but not the 29-year old. It was flagged due to its old age. The BBL asked for more details as to how I retrieved the band number and requested photos from me. This is standard protocol for older birds. But not just "any old" bird. Little did I know that my report was going to set a new Herring Gull longevity record in North America.

I submitted the entire set of photos showing the numbers and this is the reply I received:

"Hi Amar, Excellent photos, thank you for sending them.  This confirms 0846-10957, 29 years 3 months old, and the new longevity record for the species.  It's a good thing the bander used a hard metal band!  You'll have to keep an eye out for this bird in the future.  This record will get posted to our longevity website, which I'm coincidentally working on updating this week so it should show up soon. This is actually the first time this bird has been reported to us.  Banded as a "local" or still dependent bird on 6/28/1986 in the 10 minute block designated as Egg Harbor, WI.  The permit is still active that banded it, St. Mary's University of MN, Dr. Raymond Faber."

Jo Anna Lutmerding
Supervisory Biologist / Encounter Data Manager
Bird Banding Laboratory
Patuxent Wildlife Research Center
12100 Beech Forest Rd
Laurel, MD 20708

The bander, Dr. Raymond Faber, who I've spoken with on several occasions regarding his banding work, sent me this reply as well:

"Amar, this is fantastic news!  A new record for longevity in North America!  I banded the bird on Hat Island (which is nearest to Egg Harbor) on June 28, 1986 as you reported.  Wow!  Keep looking for it. Thanks so much for your tireless devotion to the gulls."

Ray Faber

And so there you have it. A simple field observation has added a tiny bit of enrichment to our knowledge of Herring Gulls in North America. I'm confident that there are older Herrings on this continent - and surely in Europe - we just have to get out there and spot them! I'm looking forward to relocating this bird...maybe on its 30th birthday?

Below is a list of the 4 oldest American Herrings in the BBL database, with my bird now being the oldest. What makes this individual even more special is that it was alive and well (whereas the others were found dead).

For photos and histories of banded American Herring Gulls, visit the Gull Research page:

20 September 2015

Banded Herring Gull: 29 Years Old

I spent several hours searching for banded Herring Gulls today in Michigan City, Indiana and New Buffalo, Michigan. My painstaking work was not left unrewarded.

Of the 3 bands I was able to fully read, one return was of a 29 year-old! To date, this is now the oldest gull that I've personally recorded. Needless to say, I'm stoked!

Adult Herring Gull. Photographed in New Buffalo, MI (20 Sept 2015).
Fed Band #0846-10957. Banded as a chick in Egg Harbor, WI on 28 June 1986.
American Herrings are said to average 15-20 year lifespans in the wild, but 30+ years have apparently been recorded, and 40+ have been recorded in captivity.

I also had two other adults, which coincidentally came from the same colony, banded on the same day:

Adult Herring Gull. Photographed in New Buffalo, MI (20 Sept 2015).
Fed Band #1106-13326. Banded as a chick, East of Chambers Island. Wisconsin. 20 June 2009.
Adult Herring Gull. Photographed in New Buffalo, MI (20 Sept 2015).
Fed Band #1106-13485. Banded as a chick, East of Chambers Island. Wisconsin. 20 June 2009.

15 September 2015

Confusing Plumage on a 1st/2nd Cycle Type Herring

This past weekend Alvaro Jaramillo and I found this Herring Gull on the Saginaw River in Bay City, Michigan (13 September 2015):

Scapulars could pass for a retarded 2nd cycle, as well as the tertials. But the outer primaries appear pointy.
Note the tips to P6 and P5 are dark gray (adjacent to the tertials). These feathers were not grown at the same time as the outer primaries. See below.

Overall, the plumage looks more like a 1st cycle, but P5-P6 are confusing, as are the outer greater secondary coverts.

Three of the central tail feathers appear to be from a different molt.
A close up of the above image. Beside the 3 central tail feathers that show notable contrast and worn tips, a few of  the lower scapulars have marbled tips and aren't from the same generation as the scaps with notched edges.

Pointed outer primaries and 2 rounded primaries (P5, P6). The wing linings and axillaries resemble a 1st cycle.

I've seen retarded 2nd cycle Herrings, but this one would be pushing the limits. On the other hand, it's hard to imagine the oddities with P5-P6 and the inner rectrices on a HY bird.

EDIT: Thanks to useful comments by Mars Mussee, I've been reassured this is a hatch year bird. 

I'd love to hear of a hypothesis for the two newer primaries on the left wing, and the 3 older rectrices.

07 September 2015

Two Banded Adult Herrings: New Buffalo, Michigan

From all of the banded Herrings that I've found in New Buffalo, Michigan, only one has originated from somewhere other than Door County, Wisconsin. So I was very happy when I learned today that both adults that I recorded on 07 September 2015 were from other surrounding Great Lakes colonies - one from Michigan and the other from Ohio.

Adult Herring Gull. New Buffalo, MI. 07 September 2015.
Banded as a chick on 06 June 2007 in Barbeau, MI (Upper Peninsula). Fed Band #1116-38317.
Adult Herring Gull. New Buffalo, MI. 07 September 2015.
Banded as a chick on 11 June 2010 in Sandusky, OH. Fed Band #1106-03794.
Other highlights for the day included 5 Bonaparte's Gulls (including FOS adults) and 2 Lesser Black-backeds loafing on the hill at the landfill. The Lessers were a 3rd/4th cycle type and a 2nd cycle type.

05 September 2015

Advanced Hatch Year Ring-billed Gulls

Last year I wrote about tertial replacement in late winter/early spring Ring-billed Gulls (1st cycles in their second calendar year). Traditionally, the literature has held that this age group seldom replaces tertials in the first plumage cycle. Interestingly, though, I found 32% of May birds (n = 194) had completely renewed tertials before dropping P1 (i.e. the onset of PB2).

After documenting these birds with photographs and a short write-up, the question then became, "Are these tertials late 1st alternate feathers, or, early 2nd basic?". Peter Pyle, who I've found to be an invaluable resource while investigating these sort of questions, suggested the newer tertials may be part of the first plumage cycle and should be considered late 1st alternate. I was pleased with this reply, but thought it was odd that some of the last feathers to be molted in a prealternate molt were technically "flight feathers". However seeing that lower scapulars are sometimes replaced in late winter/early spring, it could make sense that some tertilas (which act as coverts to the bases of the primaries on the closed wing) would need renewing via PA1 as well.

But what about hatch year (HY) RBGUs that replace tertials very early on, before the Fall season even hits?

The Plot Thickens

Last weekend I photographed a very advanced HY Ring-billed Gull on Lake Michigan that showed the oddest of tertial patterns:

Ring-billed Gull (formative plumage). Chicago, IL. 29 August 2015.
It's not at all the new lower tertial (T5?) that intrigues me, instead it's the 3 tertials sitting above - they have advanced, adult-like gray bases. What took place during feather-growth for this bi-colored pattern to form? I ask this rhetorically.

The tips have a juvenile pattern, but the bases look like what would be seen on 2nd generation tertials.