04 September 2011

Miller Beach Laughing Gull

I participated in my first lakewatch of the season today at Miller Beach in Gary, Indiana. This site ranks among one of the best in the Midwest for jaegers and some of the rarer gulls such as Sabine's, Little and Black-legged Kittiwake. The only catch to birding here is that one may spend an entire day squinting at unidentifiable birds a mile out into the horizon and still not see anything rare. Although this sort of birding can be very challenging at times, the rewards are great for anyone wishing to work on their in-flight identification skills. Plus, there aren't many other places us urbanites can go without extensive travel to see some of the species I mentioned above. A key ingredient to great birding at Miller is a stiff north to northwest wind off of Lake Michigan, but even then, there's no guarantee. Bring a scope and overdress for cold weather!

After finishing up my lakewatch with the Grube party, I decided to walk the length of Miller Beach from the concession stand at Marquette Park to the USX impoundment - 4 miles back and forth. I've always wanted to try this walk, hoping perhaps something good would come in off the lake. I've been told by several people in the past that the beach proper is usually bereft of birds and staying stationary is the way to go when birding here. Occasionally, birds land on the beach, but overall, birding this site is strictly in the form of lakewatching. I went on with my walk and thought, if anything, I would at least have an opportunity to evaluate the local Ring-billeds and Herrings. About 80% of the adult Ring-billeds that I encountered were growing the outer 2-3 primaries. This molt stage gives the standing bird an interesting appearance. Some appear to have very short wing projections or zero wing projection such as this individual:

Coincidentally, this photo was taken on 09 Sept 2010 at Montrose Beach in Chicago but many of the
Miller Beach birds looked very similar. Could it be that Ring-billeds on Lake Michigan
conclude thier prebasic molt around September?

I stopped several times as I approached the USX impoundment and the walk took a bit longer than expected, but when I did get there, I found several jaegers (positively identified were an adult Long-tailed and 2 juvenile Parasitics), 4 Willets and 1 possible Marbled Godwit - one after the other. Nice sized flocks of Common and Black Terns were moving through which is always promising.

After about 45 minutes of scanning the horizon at the impoundment, a 1st cycle Bonaparte's gave me a good run. This individual had what seemed like no secondary bar (perhaps an illusion at such a distance). The ear spots appeared so large that they gave me the impression of what looked like a juvenile Black-legged Kittiwake's hindcollar. If it wasn't for this bird's weak M-pattern, I may have seriously called it a kittiwake - of course being in early September is reason for pause. Why would a juvenile kittiwake in September have a weak carpal bar? Generally speaking, September is for Sabine's and November is for kittiwakes. October is up for grabs. When viewing lone birds like this at almost a mile away, the imagination could easily spin out of control. My senses are usually recalibrated after the first few lakewatches of the year. This idea is very similar to how one has to retrain their ears to the various sounds of wood warblers when spring rolls around.

A few minutes later, a dark-mantled gull with narrow wings and pointed wingtips approached from the east some 400 yards from shore. I instantly ruled out the two common gulls that are found close to land, Ring-billed and Herring, based on the all dark primary tips. I stayed on this bird for a few more seconds as it continued to inch closer and closer (by the way, 400 yards is pretty close when doing a lakewatch). I thought the only thing this could be is a Laughing Gull, and sure enough, as it worked its way west past the impoundment, it proved to be a second cycle LAGU:

Unaltered image.

2nd cycle LAGU.  Miller Beach in Gary, Indiana; 04 Sept 2011.

Laughing Gull has never been common on any of the Great Lakes, but recently, it has become somewhat of a rarity on the Indiana lakefront with numbers declining over the last decade. An opposite trend seems to be in place on the Chicago lakefront as of 2005.

Table and data provided by Kenneth Brock.

Data compiled by Amar Ayyash. Source: Meadowlark.