16 December 2011

Black-headed Gulls Like Ring-billeds

The 2011 Fall season is proving to be a great one for Black-headed Gulls in the Eastern United States. Between the Great Lakes region and the Northeast, there's been at least one Black-headed report every week for the last 8 weeks. Interestingly, 5 of these reports have been of Black-headeds associating with Ring-billeds. So, what's this "small" gull doing hanging out with the comparatively larger Ring-billed? Aren't Black-headeds supposed to be in Bonaparte's flocks? Yes and no...more on this later...

Here's the most recent example of this season's incursion of Black-headed Gulls:
Adult-type Black-headed Gull. Baltimore County, Maryland. 14 DEC 2011. by Amar Ayyash

This BHGU has been in the company of 40+ Ring-billeds at the Hunt Valley Mall in Baltimore County, MD. It was first noticed on 10 December 2011 by Russ Ruffing who momentarily thought he had a Bonaparte's in a Best Buy parking lot. After admiring the red bill, Russ did a double-take and properly identified it as a Black-headed (C. parkin lotus).

Chris West and I observed this larid early Wednesday morning after having driven overnight from the Chicago area. We watched it for about an hour before it picked up and flew a mile east to the Papermill Flats. We refound it on a small pond at Papermill, which coincidentally, held a Black-headed in December of 2010 and then another in February of 2011.

Black-headed Gulls are intermediate in size between Ring-billeds and Bonaparte's. Upperpart coloration matches Ring-billed but with a more silvery look. Although BHGUs closely resemble Bonaparte's, there are some obvious key-features that distinguish the two, especially adults. In addition to the reddish bill, note the blackish underprimaries that adult Bonaparte's never show:


Although outsized and outnumbered, the Black-headed did not have any problem competing for handouts in the mall parking lot:

In the Old World, Black-headed's demeanor is described as "not shy", and so its presence in a mall parking lot in the United States shouldn't be too confounding. Interestingly, David McGrath from the UK recently sent me this note: "Ring-billeds here also hang out in car parks chasing chips/bread often with Black-headed Gulls rather than Common Gulls, to which they are probably more closely related".  Both Black-headed and Ring-billeds naturally scavenge for food and readily gravitate towards humans. Unlike Bonaparte's, Ross's and Little Gull, these two embrace anthropogenic elements very well. Ecologically, Black-headed is very much a Ring-billed/Laughing Gull type larid.

I recently learned of a couple of breeding colonies in Western Newfoundland where 20-25 pairs of Black-headeds are nesting in mixed colonies with Ring-billeds (p.c. Dave Brown). Although the two don't overlap seasonaly in St. John's, when they do come into contact, they have no problem feeding side-by-side at sewage outflows. I'm convinced that Black-headeds are just as likely - if not more likely - to be found with Ring-billeds as they are with Bonaparte's; this seems to be the current trend and I imagine this association will only continue to increase. Thinking back to my lifer Black-headed, it too was an adult that spent the winter associating with Ring-billeds along the Chicago lakefront.

I can't help but wonder what sort of Black-headed numbers we'll see in the United States in the distant future. Although not yet with a prevailing presence in the states, it does seem to be increasing much faster than the still "vague" Little Gull.

I was able to capture a couple of amature videos of this bird. Note its kek-kek call which is considerably different than the smaller Bonaparte's:

Edit: it should be noted that individuals found in the St. John's area do not allow close approach by humans and are rarely found at the local landfill (p.c. Dave Brown).

05 December 2011

Little Gull and Lake Charleston, IL

Not too long ago, Little Gull was considered rare but annual in Illinois. I'm told that with enough effort, diligent birders were able to observe this species every Fall along the lakefront up until the early 1990s. Subsequently, lakefront records were supplanted by increased sightings on large lakes in the central and southern portion of the state. Lakes such as Clinton Lake became the more expected site for Little Gull, although its status was never elevated beyond rare to very rare.

Fall records have always been more numerous than Spring, and so when "zero" birds were documented in the Fall of 2000, Little's provisional status was revisited. Due to the paucity of records around the turn of the century, the IORC placed Little Gull back on the Review List in 2002 (click here for this list).

2010 and 2011 sightings from Lake Charleston in Coles County, IL - records pending.

As a whole, diminished sightings across the western Great Lakes region are said to be a result of a shift in breeding sites. The closest documented nesting site with respect to Illinois is Manitowoc County in Wisconsin - breeding has not been confirmed here for several years now. For reasons not fully understood, Little Gulls have minimal site tenacity in North America; rarely are they found nesting at the same location for more than several years.

With that said, this alluring, tern-like larid, has flared into a "nemesis" species for many listers. The ABA classifies it as a Code 3 species (this is the same code assigned to Ross's and Ivory Gull). It then comes as no surprise that tens of birders recently flocked to Lake Charleston in Coles County Illinois to observe this accommodating adult:

Photograph courtesy of Ron Bradley. Note the silvery primaries, faded black cap and pink suffusion to the underparts.
Ron Bradley found this bird the day before Thanksgiving on 23 November 2011. It was observed every day up until the 30th of November. Little Gulls are usually found associating with Bonaparte's and this individual was no different. I had the opportunity to observe it on 27 November and then again on 30 November where I consistently watched it catch and swallow up to 5 shads in the course of 30 minutes. Coincidentally, this was the last day birders saw it on the lake.

For me, the most intriguing aspect of this sighting is that an adult Little Gull was observed here last year as well! Yes, not many Illinois birders know of this record, but an adult was found here on 5 December 2010 by Jack Stenger. At the time, Jack was visiting Charleston Illinois with his fiance from Ohio. You can imagine his excitement when he stumbled upon a Little Gull during his first visit ever to this small lake that's no more than 350 acres in size. Jack reported his sighting on IBET that same night. I contacted him offline and got details - his description was exactly what I was hoping to hear. I got out there the next morning before sunrise and waited for my Illinois Little Gull.

Sure enough, at the crack of dawn, the Little Gull showed off its unmistakable underwings as it made a few rounds along the north side of the lake. It was in a tight flock of Bonaparte's that all moved harmoniously. I watched it for no more than one minute before it flew out of view. It came back into view for a few more seconds and then disappeared again. I never did see it after this despite hours of searching. It picked up and left along with 30+ Bonaparte's at sunrise. Suddenly the lake became desolate with very few small gulls at all. I distinctly remember telling birders who arrived afterwards that the absence of the Bonies was a really bad sign, and that proved to be true. Since then, I've gained a greater appreciation for Bonaparte's as with them come and go these rarer gems.

Adult Little Gull; NOV 2011. Lake Charleston, IL. Photo by Ron Bradley.
I jokingly requested that Ron send out invitations next year when the Little Gull returns, insinuating the 2011 bird may very well be the same individual from 2010. My simple mind is triumphed when I try to imagine that two "different" Littles visited this lake for two consecutive years. You never know...

03 December 2011

Montrose Lesser Black-backed and Glaucous Gulls

Chicago's lakefront received its first notable installment of northern gulls on Friday, 2 December 2011. A 2nd cycle Glaucous Gull was found at Monroe Harbor by Ari Rice and then shortly after, a 2nd cycle Lesser Black-backed Gull was found by Steve Spitzer at Montrose Beach. I arrived at Montrose around 2:00 p.m. hoping to photograph the LBBG, but immediately found a 1st cycle Glaucous Gull instead.

1st cycle Glaucous Gull. Montrose Beach. Chicago, IL. 2 DEC 2011. Photo by Steve Spitzer.
I ran into Leo Miller on the pier who was also looking for the Lesser Black-backed. I could see several large gulls feeding along the shore towards the Dog Beach and so we made our way down there. To our delight, the LBBG was still there with several Herrings:

2nd cycle Lesser Black-backed Gull. Montrose Beach. Chicago, IL. 2 DEC 2011. Photo by Amar Ayyash.

This fellow was on the large end, matching or exceeding most of the surrounding Herrings in body size. I recently wrote a piece on Lesser Black-backed's status in North America and speculated that if this species is found breeding in the states, it would do well side-by-side with American Herring. I stand by that statement and feel Lessers are more than capable of competing with that species. In fact, the only known nesting occurrences of LBBG in the United States is that of hybrid pairings with American Herring.

I recorded an amateur video of this individual fending off a handful of Herring's as it fed on a dead fish along the shore: