25 January 2011

BLKI at State Line Power Plant

I headed back to State Line Power to look for the Slaty-backed Gull, which coincidentally, was once again sighted for one day several weeks after it went missing. While there, I ran into several birders including John Kendall. We marvelled at the thousands of gulls along the horizon. This photo does not do the gull scene much justice as our estimates were between 5,000-6,000 gulls.

Looking east onto Lake Michigan from State Line Power.  23 JAN 2011.
We were treated to great views of a 1st winter Black-legged Kittiwake. The Kittiwake came in to feed behind the discharge and put on a great show in flight:

1st cycle Black-legged Kittiwake; 23 Jan 2011

We watched it successfully catch a couple of fish and off it went. I also spotted several adult Thayer's and this 1st cycle Kumlien's Gull:

1st cycle Kumlien's Gull. State Line Power, IN; 23 JAN 2011.
One interesting note is that 1st cycle Kumlien's were unusually scarce along the Great Lakes and in parts of Ontario this winter. I only observed 2 individuals this winter (one at Calumet Park on 30 Dec 2010 and this bird on 23 Jan 2011).

02 January 2011

Slaty-backed Adventures - The Illinois Miracle

An orange, 5-gallon Home Depot bucket, a pair of kneepads, three loaves of bread, a putty knife and a garbage bag - those were the "tools" that I packed in my car the night before as I brainstormed for a perfect tomorrow. I was very optimistic that the Slaty-backed would be seen in the morning. Despite my optimism, I had a couple of concerns that robbed me of a few hours of sleep: one, rain was expected through the night and so the snow on the rocks that acted as a barrier over the ice would be gone. I was sure to be very clear in my post about the risk involved with walking out on the ice. I started to have horror visions after reading John Kendall's description of this terrain: "The walk all the way to the discharge is not for most people--Be careful! The rocks at State Line Power are notoriously difficult to walk under normal conditions. Add a layer of ice and snow on top that hides slippery spots and you have potential disaster- You are walking along the edge of a 10' drop into Lake Michigan, as well". As if that wasn't enough of a concern, I also feared that the ice shelf on the lake would have certainly receded due to the rains and that meant the gulls would be farther out from shore.

I got to the power plant around 7:00 a.m. and just as I had anticipated, the melted snow now left a naked layer of ice on the rocks which made walking absolutely treacherous. Nonetheless, zealous birders were out and about. I found Jeff Skrentny, Bruce Heimer, Andy Sigler and several Indiana birders including the Grube's awaiting the gulls to come in. As predicted, the ice shelf on the lake had receded surprisingly farther than I had imagined, putting the gulls perhaps 1/2 mile out on the lake. I explained to everyone that the gulls were feeding behind the power plant the night before and so we cautiously moved south towards the discharge (the smarter birders stayed behind). I carried my bucket in one hand and my scope in the other and hoped my boots would keep me vertical. We stopped well before the fence that goes over the main discharge and we waited for at least 10 minutes before we realized that only Ring-billeds were feeding. I knew our chances of seeing the Slaty would increase as soon as the Herring Gulls came in to feed.

I took advantage of this time and walked out to the metal beams over the discharge with my bucket and putty knife. I began scraping up some of the dead fish that I noticed the night before. I filled up about 1/4 of my bucket before I noticed that it was raining - or was it? Hundreds of little concentric circles were being formed on the water's surface giving the illusion that raindrops were falling. I soon realized it was tiny fish darting in and out of the water as they came to their end. I stopped collecting dead fish to answer a call. It was Jeff Skrentny who was about 100 yards behind:  "Dave Johnson has located the Slaty-backed. He and Tom Kelly have it on the ice shelf out on the lake. It's being viewed from the Coast Guard station in Calumet Park". The Illinois birders headed to the other side (a 10 minute walk back to the cars and a 2 minute drive around to the Coast Guard station). The Indiana birders kept to their post and so did I. I had just spent the last 15 minutes slipping and sliding to get to the discharge and I wasn't ready to turn back - just not yet! I figured that the Slaty would continue to rest on the ice and that if it got up, it would come to feed at the discharge. I waited and waited and then started to fear that it could take hours for a feeding frenzy to develop. My worse fear was the 'feeding frenzy' being strictly a predusk event.

While waiting, I took a few minutes to reply to several voicemails and texts. The last text was a pivotal one sent by Jeff Skrentny: "Bring chum, we can get this bird the 100-150 yds to IL". Lightbulb!!! This is exactly what I had fancied the night before! It was now or never. Naturally, I feared getting to Calumet Park only to have the Slaty get up and come to the discharge. I had played this game with the Colorado Ross's Gull the month before and I wasn't looking forward to another cat-and-mouse game. I called Jeff Skrentny back and asked for details. He explained that the bird was still put and it looked glued to the ice. I began walking back with all of my gear, 3 loaves of bread and about 25 dead fish in my bucket. I stopped to inform the Grube's (who had no idea the bird was being seen on the other side) and I told them of my plan to go chum the bird in. They, understandably, wished me luck and kept to the power plant.

I took a good fall on the ice as I made my way back to the car. The rocks do tend to get more slippery when you walk faster :) I had to stop to gather myself. I picked up the scattered fish and bread that I dropped when slipping. I decided to walk a bit slower. I put my kneepads to use and learned to land on them thereafter. I'm sure that if some of my nonbirding friends saw me walking out over the ice they'd think I was intoxicated or just simply insane. I made it off the rocks and got to the parking lot. I ran into John Kendall who was getting ready to walk out on the rocks and I informed him of my plan. I told him 'I have to go see about a state bird'. He laughed and told me he knows how that goes, but insisted he was going to the discharge.

As I drove around Calumet Park I received a phone call from Jeff who was worried about my slight delay. I told him I had a couple of minor setbacks but that I'd be there in 2 minutes. As I was making the loop around Calumet Park, I ran into Joe Lill who had been driving in the "wrong" direction. He made a U-turn and followed me. We passed the Coast Guard station and found a host of birders lined up with scopes along the street. This was one of those gatherings where you knew a good bird was being seen simply because of the birders that were present.
Calumet Park, Chicago IL, 30 December 2010. Photo by Jeff Skrentny.
I looked over the assemblage of birders who had been watching the gull in their scopes for the last 30 minutes or so:Walter Marcisz (IL), Bob Erickson (IL), Andy Sigler (IL), Joe Lill (IL), Terry Walsh (IN), Bruce Heimer (IL), Ken Brock (IN), Don Gorney (IN), and Michael Topp (IN) (other birders present but not in the photo: Jeff Skrentny (IL), Ryan Sanderson (IN), Mark Scheel (IN)). The distance they were viewing the bird at was despicable and unsatisfactory. There was an anxious but hopeful quality to their faces. I walked past them carrying an orange 5-gallon bucket wearing kneepads and a trooper hat. I must have looked absolutely ridiculous. It wasn't time for chatting but I did make one remark that made a lot of sense at the time: "Okay, who has the measuring tape?". One listing rule that has always struck me as silly is not being able to count a state bird if the bird isn't in that state's airspace. My personal view is that if a bird is seen from Illinois, for instance, then it should be counted. I had the bird in Indiana and now I felt like I needed to bring it home. This was an instance where I participated wholeheartedly in listing rules. It was about 9:00 a.m. and if the Slaty did decide to get up there was a big chance of it staying in Indiana airspace based on how limited Illinois waters are at this border.

I walked down to the shore and began to chum: 1 Ring-billed Gull, 7 Ring-billeds, 20 Ring-billeds, 50 Ring-billeds... It didn't seem like any of the gulls on the ice shelf were moving but it was difficult for me to see what was happening with the naked eye. Birders began to stir a little commotion and so I thought perhaps some of the Herrings on the ice shelf were responding. I then heard the famous cheer of Bruce Heimer: "YEAAH!". I'm very familiar with this cheer and so I knew the bird was close. I got rid of all the chum and started to scan. The Ring-billeds came in like a plague and much of my view to the lake was obscured, but I was looking too far out. Birders were cheering and high-fives were being exchanged. I yelled back to the group, "Are you guys seeing it?". Someone yelled back "the second post". I looked to my right and the SLATY-BACKED GULL was standing in the open within 100 ft from me! Oh, my time to photograph...

Adult Slaty-backed Gull. Calumet Park, Chicago IL; 30 December 2010
I couldn't help but release my stored up energy. I screamed like a maniac: "ILLINOIS!!!!!!". Birders responded with more cheers and clapping! Indiana's finest, Ken Brock, gave a big smile and a cheer. It was Illiana at its best! 

Slaty-backed Gull came well into Illinois waters and gave everyone present great looks.
The chum had worked. The SBGU looked around for about 45 seconds without ever attempting to eat any bread. It got up and lazily flew back out to the ice over the lake.

Leaving Illinois airspace and entering Indiana.
I was later told that the SBGU was the only bird that got off the ice shelf and came straight in to see what the Ring-billeds were excited about - a real birding miracle!

Thanks to Jeff McCoy for finding this bird and diligently working through all of the field marks. Thanks to John Kendall for alerting me and to Dave Johnson for relocating it the next morning. Most people present earned a life bird; Illinois got a 3rd state record and a 1st Cook County record (if accepted).

01 January 2011

Slaty-backed Adventures - Day 1

On Wednesday, 29 December, I headed out to the Port of Indiana in search of a pair of Black-legged Kittiwakes that had been sighted by Jeff McCoy the day before. I got to the Port and found at least one BLKI (1st c) along the outer breakwall and I was content with the distant scope views I got. I had been searching for kittiwakes for the last week or so and now the monkey was off my back.

Nothing wowing but it's still a BLKI.
I was already having a good day and any bird after the kittiwake would be considered a bonus. My plans were to next meet up with John Kendall at Michigan City Harbor to see if we could pick out any interesting gulls with all of the recent fish die off. When we got to Michigan City, we found that much of the beach was still covered with packed snow and there wasn't much gull activity. I spotted an adult black-backed gull swimming about 100 yards out on the lake and we subsequently spent the next 10 minutes or so trying to figure out what it might be. We were joined by a couple of birders from Massachusetts who thought it was a Lesser Black-backed Gull, but it seemed too big and chunky! We kept at it, and during our analysis, John made an interesting statement that foreshadowed what the end of our day would bring: "We just have to make sure this isn't a Slaty-backed Gull". I liked his attitude. I was impressed that he would even consider SBGU and this really speaks to the mentality of some of the Indiana lakefront birders. The bird took wing and was eventually relocated on the west side of the harbor. We agreed that it was one of the hybrids (not the putative Kelp X Herring) that was being consistently seen for the last couple of days:

Presumed black-backed hybrid of unknown origins, Michigan City, IN; 29 Dec 2010
Other than the hybrid which sat at a distance in terrible lighting, we found a Long-tailed Duck (fm) and a young Great Black-backed Gull (1st c). We called it quits and proceeded to head home. About 10 minutes later, John called me back to tell me that Jeff McCoy and Michael Topp just called and that they have a "probable" Slaty-backed Gull at Calumet Park. The only details he had is that it was drifting east towards Hammond Marina. I set my GPS for Calumet Park and got in "Indy-500 mode". I immediately called Greg Neise to get the word out and he did. The Illinois Birders' Forum was updated within 20 minutes of Jeff McCoy's phone call to John Kendall.

I arrived at the ComEd power plant at approximately 3:30 p.m. and wondered whether or not those I-Zoom tolls really have the ability to average my speeds from one toll to the next. I had driven from the east end of Indiana's lakefront to the west end in less than 30 minutes. I parked, grabbed my gear and briskly walked out to the lake. The rock boulders were covered with snow, concealing an inch of ice that glazed the surface. My walk in was a long 5 minutes of mixed feelings and crazed emotions. I kept thinking about the key identification features expected on a Slaty-backed while trying to keep a solid footing. When I arrived, Jeff, Michael and John were watching a large gull flock engaged in a tight feeding frenzy directly behind the discharge at the power plant. By my estimate, there were 400-500 gulls with Herrings greatly outnumbering Ring-billeds. The vortex of the frenzy was no more than 150 yards out from where we were standing.

I stood and scanned quietly without giving any formal greetings and without even asking where the bird was. It took me less than a minute to find a dark-backed gull low over the water in the feeding frenzy. It was clustered in with Herring Gulls, flying right above the water's surface and below eye level; it didn't seem any bigger or smaller than the surrounding HERGs. The first mark that grabbed my attention was the broad trailing edge - much broader than I've ever seen on a Great Black-backed or Lesser Black-backed Gull. The flight pattern was wrong for GBBG and so was the body size. The upperpart coloration seemed different than the graellsii LBBGs I'm familiar with. My first impression was promising and I was convinced it wasn't a GBBG or LBBG. The first words to come out of my mouth were, "Hey, Jeff. I saw it! I just had it! It looks good, brother. It looks really good! Are you sure the legs are pink?" Jeff replied that he was sure the legs were pink. I then asked him if he had confirmed it - in which he replied with confidence - "Yes, it has to be a Slaty-backed".

We briefly lost the bird and I mumbled some words to Jeff: "Okay, I just...I just have to...have to scan for a dark bird!". My statement was unneccesarily obvious but these were words of encouragement for myself. I had the enthusiasam of an 11-year-old boy and I loved every second of it.

A couple of minutes later, I spotted the dark-backed gull coming right for us - much, much, closer than I was anticipating. "HERE IT IS, HERE IT IS, RIGHT HERE, RIGHT HERE, CIRCLING STRAIGHT OUT IN FRONT OF US". It had abandoned the vortex, making a wide circle that allowed views in the open at close range. Jeff and Michael were able to get on the bird as it looped around, coming within a couple hundred feet. I took a good look through my binoculars and soaked in the "string of pearls". I vividly remember a primary pattern dotted with white and a deep navy blue tinge to the blackish mantle; this is what distinguished the upperparts from LBBG for me. It was exactly like the photos I had spent countless hopeful occasions pondering over. There was no doubt in my mind that the bird was indeed a Slaty-backed Gull! 

John Kendall was a ways out almost directly over the discharge and the bird was quickly approaching him, "JOHN, IT'S COMING FOR YOU, IT'S CLOSE, RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU, RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU, RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU", I screamed at the top of my lungs as it lazily flew in front of John. I think I may have momentarily confused him with just how loud I projected. "It's in front of you above your head!". He took a few flight shots and then it retreated.

Adult SBGU, note the "string of pearls", broad trailing edge and brighter pink legs. Photo by John Kendall, 29 Dec 2010

I gathered my thoughts and called Greg Neise back. I told him to scratch "probable", reassuring him that it was for sure a SBGU. I walked over to John in hopes of getting closer to the bird but we lost sight of it. Less than 10 minutes later, Jeff and Michael relocated it on the ice shelf farther back to the northeast. It was now closer to Illinois but, as far as I know, it never entered Illinois airspace. John and I walked back to get scope views. We watched it preen on the ice next to a couple of Herring Gulls at about 300 yards out. The scope views we enjoyed were fairly decent given the rate at which we were losing light:

Adult SBGU next to American HERGs.
The legs were a deep pink, or at least the leg color of the surrounding Herrings gave me that impression, and it had a front-heavy look that added to the "pot-belly effect". Size was considered again and we agreed it didn't stack up to what a GBBG should next to a Herring. It looked squat and the legs seemed short. We all started discussing the possibility of a hybrid and what else it may or may not be, but we could not find a reasonable substitute. I commented that there is 1/1000 LBBGs with pink legs, but that I was sure the upperparts and the 'jizz' were not consistent with Lesser Black-backed.

Michael Topp then spotted it back in the feeding frenzy. The Herring Gulls were diving head first into the lake like terns. I can't recall ever seeing a Herring Gull plunge into the water using this diving technique. This behavior, along with the hundreds of dead fish at the discharge, led me to believe that the gulls would continue to favor this area in the immediate near future. The Slaty-backed seemed discouraged by the Herrings and soon flew out of the frenzy and landed in the water. I walked out as far as I could to try to obtain photographs. It floated along for the next 15 minutes or so and allowed nice binocular views without drifting far from the discharge. The broad tertial crescent, "mascara" surrounding the pale eye and even-sized bill were noted.

Adult Slaty-backed Gull, Hammond IN; 29 Dec 2010.

Daylight had escaped us and there was really no point in taking any more photos. We headed out with a difficult walk back. I almost took a good fall but luckily landed safely on my hands. John commented that I was "a bit" younger than him and that I could easily get back up. I dusted the snow off of my gloves and thought nothing of it -I had just scored my lifer Slaty-backed Gull!

Rock pilings behind the power plant in Hammond, Indiana, looking across into Calumet Park in Chicago, Illinois.
I knew the bird would be present the next day so long as there was some ice left on the lake. This bird was now Indiana's 2nd Slaty-backed Gull. I mentioned to Jeff that I wanted it for Illinois. He said, "It's going to take a lot of bread to get it over". Coincidentally, Illinois was at two records as well. Tiebreaker?

Read Day 2 here and see if this bird graced Illinois or not.