28 March 2010

A Laughing Ring-billed Gull

I guess a good name would be Laugh-ring Gull. For the last seven years, a presumed Laughing X Ring-billed Gull has entertained birders on Chicago's SE side. Walter Marcisz has observed this bird every year since 2004 and has usually found it hanging around with a bunch of Ring-billeds at the local KFC. I, on a whim, got my 3 year-old twins in the car on 25 March 2010 and tried my luck. The first group of gulls we encountered held this individual. We immediately pulled into the Jewel parking lot where this bird was resting.

Dorsally, this individual is a bit darker than a Ring-billed but paler than a Laughing Gull. Proportionally, it seems long-winged compared to the other Ring-billeds. The hood, especially around the bill and face, looks faded and I don’t think this is a function of the bird still molting. The eye is completely encircled by white feathers. The color of the iris is darker than the average adult RBGU but paler than an adult LAGU. Leg color is more of an orange than the yellow of RBGU. The bill color is also more of an orange and not the reddish color seen on a pure LAGU. All colors on this bird -- leg color, iris color and upperparts -- are intermediate between both parent species.

For what it's worth, I heard this bird vocalize last year at Calumet Park and it sounded like a nasaly Ring-billed. Would it be reasonable to say that this individual was raised in a Ring-billed colony rather than a Laughing Gull colony?

Howell and Dunn include a nice photograph of this hybrid combination on p. 14, photographed in Two Rivers, WI on 16 March 2003. It sure looks a lot like this individual. Seeing that the smaller Ring-billed colonies along the Great Lakes form one mega-colony that is reassembled with various populations every year, it wouldn't be hard to believe that this bird (or its siblings) has wandered along Lake Michigan. Based on Walter's observations, he does not have any evidence of this bird having ever been paired up. With that said, perhaps this individual freely wanders the western coast of Lake Michigan in the breeding season. Bruce Heimer photographed a similar individual at State Line Beach on 18 July 2009; It too had a faded hood appearance.

Howell and Dunn use the word "intermediate" to describe this hybrid combination. That is, most of its characters are a compromise of both parent species. I couldn't agree more!


10 March 2010

Twitching the Cape May Ivory Gull

I became interested in seeing an Ivory Gull almost immediately after my new found obsession with gulls began. Somewhere along the line, I convinced myself that the next Ivory Gull reported in the lower 48 would have to be twitched. It finally happened! On 26 Nov 2009 an Ivory Gull was reported in Cape May, New Jersey and it continued to be reported daily for the next week. I had never been to the birding capital of the east coast and so this was one more incentive to take on this mission.
I enlisted Bruce Heimer, the Gyllenhals and Wisconsin birder Chris West to join me in this epic twitch. The six of us met at my house on 4 Dec 2009 at 5:30 p.m., packed up, and we and hit the road. We were in my minivan and so naturally I began as lead driver.

I felt not an ounce of tiredness and wanted to get to Cape May before sunrise on Saturday and so my foot started to get heavy. We had one minor setback--I got ticketed for speeding in Ohio (80 mph in a 65mph). No big deal, just Ohio bringing in the revenue. For some odd reason, I was determined to drive the rest of the way to NJ. I insisted on driving. I drove for 13 hours straight and got us there by 7:30 a.m. I should take a second to thank Bruce for buying me a 5-hour power-shot energy drink. It really worked!

We were superbly pumped the enitre ride there - well almost the entire ride. About 45 minutes before our arrival, MI birder Allison Vilag texted Chris West explaining that she and her family were at the spot with no bird. Other birders were there as well and they were all waiting in the rain. Suddenly, everyone in the car became nervous and pessimistic. One disgruntled birder even said, "Well, the bird has to leave at some point and maybe today is the day".

The bird had usually been reported between 7:30-8:00 a.m and then seen for the rest of the day thereafter. We were still in the safe as far as the bird's usual time schedule but were rapidly approaching an irregularity which is never a good sign. We got there and the rain put a real damper on our arrival. I always keep a spare garbage bag in the car as a rain coat; I threw it on and got to searching.

Bruce Heimer and I became restless and so we decided to search the north side of the marina. We left the immediate area where the bird was expected to show. We spent about 10 minutes searching with no luck when Chris West calls. I knew it was going to be good news when I saw his number. "Where are you guys, the bird is here?!". Sure enough, the bird showed up within the expected window. We ran, knowing the IVORY GULL wasn't going anywhere...but you never know! We arrived, out of breath, and the IVORY GULL was perched, in the scope, and the mission was accomplished. As I was approaching the scope, I felt as if I was going to be handed an honorary diploma. I took it in stride....ah, MY IVORY GULL!

Photo by Clay Sutton

We spent the rest of the morning/afternoon getting lifers. Here's what I added to my life list in this order:
Eurasian Wigeon, Great Cormorant, Northern Gannet, Common Eider, Boat-tailed Grackle and American Oystercatcher. The drive home was a long and dreary drive. We encountered the first snow storm of the season in Philidelphia and it took us 2 hours just to get through the Philly-metro area. Oh well, it was well worth it. We got the Snow Pigeon!

08 March 2010

Another Hybrid?

After scoring for a second time with the Port Washington Black-legged Kittiwake, I decided to try my luck at Pugh Marina in Racine County WI. It was a wise decision. Let me start by saying the viewing conditions at this location are for the most part above average. Just like many other sites that harbor good numbers of wintering gulls, the lake should be iced-in and the birds will congregrate close to shore. About two-thirds of the gulls were within 100 yards and the rest were nestled on the break-wall about 300 yards away.

Immediately after getting out of my car I spotted a 1st cycle Iceland Gull (L.g. kumlieni) with the naked eye. Wisconsin birder Rick Fare was already watching the gulls when I arrived. I got him on the ICGU and what came out of my mouth next was completely unexpected. I said, "I think I have a Glaucous-winged Gull". I also apologized for showing up and abruptly calling a bird like GWGU within my first two minutes of arriving. We watched the bird for a few minutes and both of us agreed it was the size of an American Herring Gull or even bigger.

The bird is seemingly "okay" at first glance for a Glaucous-winged Gull but there are some particulars that become troubling after taking a close look. First, the bill is not much different than the AMHE to its left. That is, the bill is not massive and it lacks any noticable angle to the gonys. Yes, this may be overlooked in females and younger birds and although the bird does carry that bottom-heavy look of a Glaucous-winged, the wing pattern is not right for a pure GWGU. Here is a shot of the spread wing.

Notice the Herring-like window on the inner-primaries. Pure GWGUs should have an even, concolorous look throughout the entire primary panel, extending through to the secondaries as well. The contrast among the outter-primaries and the inner-primaries is a bit too strong. 

One birder, who I admire and look up to in many ways, told me to not be so critical and to accept the bird as a Glaucous-winged. I would have loved for this bird to be a pure GWGU but the fact of the matter is that American Herring and Glaucous-winged Gull commonly hybridize. Individuals like this can be easily found in the Anchorage Alaska region in summer and early Fall.

While resting, the bird clearly shows wingtips that are darker than the tertials and the rest of the body -- another minus for pure Glaucous-winged!

What I have learned, first-hand, is that this hybrid combination can be mistook for an "oversized" Thayer's Gull. This is mainly due to the the "venetian blind" effect on the outter primaries on the spread wing. One thing to note is that the inner-webs on the outter-primaries are a bit paler on Thayer's. The contrast between the inner-webs and outter-webs should be more exaggerated for a Thayer's Gull. Also, it would be very hard to make the case for Thayer's seeing that this bird's body size matched/exceeded all of the American Herrings around it. Although there is overlap between female Herrings and male Thayer's, there weren't any gulls on the ice that this individual was smaller than.

Note the inner-webs on the outter primaries. This is usually a reliable mark (until you run into the odd Thayer's that has an unusual amount of dark coloring spill into the inner-webs, see Howell p. 271, plate 36.39). The dark is restricted to the outter-web on Thayer's but usually blends into the inner-web on the hybrid. If any confusion does arise from the wing pattern, then body size, bill shape/size and the inner-primaries should help in making a final ID. CLICK ON PHOTOS.

2nd cycle Thayer's above. The presumed 2nd cycle GWGU X American Herring below.
Both birds were photographed in Feb. 2010 along Lake Michigan.

06 March 2010

The Port Washington Black-legged Kittiwake

A very cooperative Black-legged Kittiwake has been wintering in Port Washington, WI since early December, 2009. I observed this bird on 12 Dec 2009 and then again on 28 Feb 2010. It now holds the state record for the longest wintering BLKI at a single site in Wisconsin. Observers have had this individual land within 10 ft of them. The bird has allowed very close and extended views.

In December, this individual had an all jet-black bill with retained juvenile feathers covering some of the lower wing covert feathers.

In late February, the base of the lower mandible and parts of the culmen displayed an obvious faded gray appearance. The tailband looked somewhat reduced in flight and the wing coverts were a bit faded and worn.

Overall, no dramatic change was noted. Although, during my 2nd visit, it vocalized regularly everytime it lifted off and especially when landing. It did not vocalize once during my 3 hour visit in December. Perhaps after residing here for a couple of months, this juvenile to 1st winter has become a bit more assertive.

Aside from Black-legged Kittiwakes that tend to favor this location, Port Washington hosted an Ivory Gull in Januaray of 1998. The marina is always manned by fisherman who do indeed hook some nice catches.