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...