25 March 2011

Franklin's & Black-legged Kittiwake Day!

The end of March is usually the end of "winter gulling" for me and so I made one last effort today to get out and find a white-winger. Steve Spitzer was having a good week at Loyola Park with Thayer's, Kumlien's and Glaucous Gulls and so I thought I would make my way up north. As I was driving to Loyola, I read a post by Kanae Harabayashi reporting a Black-legged Kittiwake at Montrose Harbor in Chicago. I stopped at Montrose and found the BLKI resting on a dock slip after about 10 minutes of searching. Rob Curtis and I approached the bird from a good angle and fired off some shots:

1st cycle Black-legged Kittiwake. Montrose Harbor. Chicago, IL; 25 MAR 2011.
Black-legged Kittiwake is a rare spring migrant in Illinois and so I have my doubts about this bird being a spring transient. It very well may be one of the several Black-legged Kittiwakes that presumably wintered on lower Lake Michigan this winter. The last such BLKI was seen was on 9 FEB 2011 at Montrose. To read more about this winter's great number of BLKIs, click here: http://anythinglarus.blogspot.com/2011/01/black-legged-kittiwakes-on-southern.html

After scoring the kittiwake, I made the 10 minute drive up to Loyola with Rob. This was my first time birding this location and so it was nice to have someone with me who knew the site. We searched for Steve's white-wingers, and despite getting the Ring-billeds up in the air for some bread, not a single Thayer's, Kumlien's or Glaucous Gull was to be found. We walked north along the beach where I soon spotted a hooded gull. I spent a minute or so trying to decide whether it was a Franklin's or Laughing Gull. We inched up a bit and settled for a Franklin's (Laughing Gull is a rarer gull in Illinois):

Near-adult Franklin's (2nd PA?) with adult Ring-billed. Loyola Park. Chicago, IL; 25 MAR 2011.
 The Franklin's came in for bread a couple of times and was even successful at picking some off the surface of the water in between the lager, ravenous Ring-billeds. As always, the rarer gulls come in briefly and make an abrupt exit.

The pink suffusion on the underparts is very common in Franklin's Gull. One of the first things that I noticed as I made the ID on this individual is the contrasting pink tones to the underparts of the body. I aged this bird as a 2nd cycle, although I do admit that I'm regularly rethinking Franklin's molt strategy - it's not an easy one as this species does all sorts of interesting  things with its two "complete" annual molts.

Franklin's commonly suspends its primary molt. Many times the prealternate molt is NOT complete and several outer primaries are retained for an entire season. To my eyes, it seems that the inner and mid-primaries (P1-P6) have just been renewed. The result is an "incomplete" prealternate molt as the outer primaries (P7-P10) are retained feathers from the previous molt. The big question is whether those outer primaries are retained juvenal feathers or retained 1st alternate. My guess is that they're retained 1st alternate feathers. That would imply that the new inner and mid-primaries are 2nd alternate.

The alternative would be a 1st alternate bird with retained juvenal outer primaries. I think the other features on this bird - all-white tail, extent of black on the hood, and lack of extensive markings on primary coverts - help support 2nd cycle. One thing that is troubling me is the lack of white tongues on any of the outer primaries and the abraded white tips to these same feathers. My only explanation for this is that the first prealternate molt was incomplete, leaving 3-4 old primaries that have by now become worn at the tips. I would approximate the age of this bird to be 18-20 months.

18 March 2011

Ring-billed X Laughing Gull Returns

The hooded gulls are among the most beautiful gull species in the world. Picture a Laughing Gull taking on a few traits from a Ring-billed Gull. Now picture this individual living in a Ring-billed Gull colony. Should it sound like a Ring-billed or a Laughing Gull? The southeast side of Chicago has hosted this putative Laughing X Ring-billed since 2004.

Putative Laughing X Ring-billed adult. Calumet Park; 6 MAR 2011.
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 but a close-up of the face reveals the eye-crescents of LAGU. 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.

In flight, P10 shows a medium-sized mirror and the adjacent primary tips are with white terminal tips.
In the bay north of State Line Power. 11 MAR 2011.
I watched this bird for a couple of hours and was able to get nice flight shots as it came in for chum, mixing in with the other Ring-billeds. It also spent a good amount of time vocalizing and giving its long call on the island of pilings that sits in the bay. It's voice is a bit higher pitched than a pure Ring-billed and it had a somewhat nasal quality to it -  Laughing Gull influence for sure
There is no evidence that this bird has ever paired up with a Ring-billed in the Chicago colony, although there is a well documented, first state record, of a Laughing Gull nesting with a Ring-billed in this same colony. The hybridizing did preceed the appearnce of this bird in the Chicago area. It's interesting to know that several of these hybrids have been spotted along the Lake Michigan shoreline. Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan have all reported this hybrid combination. Howell and Dunn include a photo of one from WI on p. 14.
I've often wondered when our Ring-billed Gulls begin to return to the Great Lakes area from southern latitudes. This individual may be a good gauge for monitoring this as it sticks out like a sore thumb.  The week I first relocated it brought with it a new wave of Ring-billeds - the kind that start hovering over your head before you even start to chum! Our wintering Ring-billeds (probably those that summer a bit north of us) like to keep a respectable distance between themselves and humans.

08 March 2011

GBBGs and Glaucous Gulls - Calumet Park

An interesting observation that I've made for several years now is the tendency for Great Black-backed Gulls and Glaucous Gulls to be found together along the southern lakeshore in Illinois. Locally, GBBGs are best found at Calumet Park and other adjacent lakefront spots in Indiana such as Hammond Marina and Whiting. Coincidentally, the state's premier gull-watching hotspot, "North Point Marina", harbors a greater amount of Thayer's and Kumlien's Gulls, whereas the southern lakeshore is best for the bigger species -GBBG and Glaucous. I've inquired about this phenomenon of GBBGs favoring the southern lakeshore and the best explanation I've received is that it must be "food-related". Perhaps the aquatic makeup along the northern lakeshore differs from that along the southern lakeshore. Perhaps water-temperature variation plays a role in the selection of wintering sites. After all, the distance from one site to the other is about a 60 mile stretch. One thought that I'll personally offer is that the smaller species, Kumlien's and Thayer's, deliberately choose not to winter alongside the larger species for obvious reasons such as having to forfeit some of their catches. It's my opinion that the larger species have acquired "prime" wintering quarters along the lakefront, as the warm water discharges at State Line Power and the BP Refinery in Whiting afford them a constant supply of fish. Could it be that the Glaucous Gull is the only white-winger that can regularly stand side-by-side with the sometimes ravenous GBBG?! More evidence will be needed to verify these thoughts.

Adult Glaucous Gull larger in body size than the two GBBGs on right. Calumet Park, IL; 6 MAR 2011.
It's not often that these larger species (GBBG and Glaucous Gull) allow close approach on Lake Michigan. I've often wondered about the summering locations of our GBBGs. Why is it that wintering GBBGs in Cape May allow close approach but those that winter on Lake Michigan flee as soon as humans step on the beach? Perhaps our birds summer in locations where humans are perceived as a threat. Perhaps our wintering population has had negative encounters with banders in their breeding colonies.

An adult GBBG fleeing as I approach the beach - a typical behavior on Lake Michigan. Calumet Park 6 MAR 2011
I was quite pleased with how close I was able to get to several GBBGs on this date. Some - usually 1st cycles - allow me to get within 30 ft if I spend 5-10 minutes slowly inching up while chumming the more common Ring-billeds. The larger species sometimes feel more at ease once I get friendly with the Ring-billeds, although I've yet to have an adult GBBG come in for chum:

2nd cycle GBBG. Calumet Park, IL; 6 MAR 2011.

My first 3rd cycle to have ever come in for chum. Whihala Beach, IN; 6 MAR 2011.
 The Glaucous Gulls on this day were very cooperative at Calumet Park, allowing me to get within 20 ft of them. There was a nice-sized algae mat forming on the beach and many Herrings Gulls with American Coots, Mallards, American Black Ducks and even an American Wigeon were out feeding on the shore. The Glaucous Gulls were aware of my presence, but the evident food supply presented along the shore and my slow approach and chumming of the Ring-billeds seemed to put them at ease:

A great day for Glaucous Gull! I got the impression some of the birds had just arrived from other wintering locations.

Adult Glaucous Gull with adult Ring-billed Gull. Calumet Park, IL; 6 MAR 2011.

2nd cycle GLGU. 6 MAR 2011

 1st cycle GLGU. 6 MAR 2011.
The highlight bird on this day was this putative Laughing X Ring-billed hybrid that just appeared on the beach right before my eyes:

It's believed that this is a reoccurring individual that has bee seen in this area for the last 7 years. Here is a more detailed write-up:  http://anythinglarus.blogspot.com/2010/03/laughing-ring-billed-gull.html

01 March 2011

Hammond Marina - Adult Kumlien's

I don't typically think of our wintering gulls as holding firm to winter territories, but for the first time, I've personally witnessed this. An adult Kumlien's Gull has been regularly seen perching on a sign at the harbor entrance at Hammond Marina in Indiana for several weeks. This is believed to be the same bird that has been sighted here since the winter of 2008-2009 (see photos)

Hammond Marina harbor mouth seen from fishing pier at north side of Whihala Park; 27 FEB 2011
After personally observing this behavior during two consecutive visits, I decided to test this observation. I approached the Kumlien's as closely as I possibly could and then began to chum in other gulls. As the Ring-billeds entered the harbor mouth, the Kumlien's became aggressive and it started to chase the intruders away from the harborh. It did this repeatedly and purposefully. Once the Kumlien's became overwhelmed it retreated to its perch as if to gather itself and reinforce its stance. It then came in for bread but I got the impression that it was doing this only to demonstrate to the other gulls that they were not exclusively entitled to feeding on its territory. Again, it would return to the harbor mouth and chase away any gulls that came too close to is quarters.

Adult Kumlien's Gull (L.g. kumlieni). Hammond Marina; 27 FEB 2011.
Later on this same day, I observed a 2nd cycle Thayer's Gull at the nearby fishing pier at Whihala Beach. I chummed the Thayer's in and when it was done feeding, it flew northeast towards the harbor.

                                       2nd cycle Thayer's Gull exiting the harbor, 27 FEB 2011.

It was quickly chased off by the Kumlien's. Once the Kumlien's escorted the Thayer's out of the harbor vicinity it returned to its perch, verifying for me an established winter territory. The Thayer's returned again and was chased off a second time!

I returned to observe the Kumlien's Gull for the next couple of weeks and on my last visit for the winter season, sure enough, it was still present holding firm to its perch. I tempted it one last time with some bread in which it sampled with little interest. The Ring-billeds came in as well and much of what happened a few weeks prior took place again, but with much less intensity on the Kumlien's part.

                                         Adult Kumlien's, Hammond Marina; 13 March 2011.

I'll be looking forward to seeing this guy next year - same time, same place! If I might add, the color and extent of gray on the outer webs of the outer primaries on this bird is my favorite stage for Kumlien's. It reminds me of my lifer adult Kumlien's that I observed on a very memorable day of watching gulls on Lake Michigan.