30 March 2014

Bucks County Lesser Black-backed Gulls

Bucks County, Pennsylvania is a well-known winter stronghold for Lesser Black-backed Gulls in North America. Late winter through early spring can be particularly good for high numbers of this species, as they presumably stage on some of the larger lakes in the northern part of the county, before heading north.

I recently spent a day between two of the more well-known sites for this species: Peace Valley Park (86 individuals) and Lake Nockamixon (107 individuals).

Roughly 70% of the birds that I observed were adult types. Further, I was surprised by the number of 2nd cycles present (far more than 1st cycles, which were notably scarce).

2nd cycle LBBG. Bucks County, PA. 28 March 2014.

Adult-type LBBG. Bucks County, PA. 28 March 2014.
Although the birds were somewhat distant, and the skies were gloomy with periods of heavy rain, one of the highlights for me was listening to the cacophony of sounds the Lessers produced. Their long calls are considerably different than American Herring, being deeper and lower pitched. In some ways, I was reminded of Yellow-footed Gull when listening to them.

As I wrote in Birding magazine last winter (2013), the presence of this species in North America remains an enigma. Where are they breeding? What subspecies is found on the west coast? And to what extent are they hybridizing with American Herrings?

26 March 2014

Baltimore County Black-headed Gull

For three consecutive winters, this adult type Black-headed Gull has presumably been returning to Baltimore County, Maryland, to spend the off-season with a congregation of Ring-billeds:

Black-headed Gull. Baltimore County, MD. 24 March 2014.
I've now observed it every year since its initial discovery in 2011. Little changes have taken place to the wingtip pattern:

December 2011
March 2013
March 2014
It seems like the small black mark on the outer edge of the outer web of P9 was absent in 2013, and now, small traces of it have returned in 2014.

I followed reports of this bird all winter long with hopes of stopping to see it during my annual trip to the East Coast. Amazingly, it had little black on its head all winter long and through the first half of March:
Showing very little markings on the head. 16 March 2014. Photo by Kathleen LaPore Miller.
In the photo above, the head pattern looks no different than it would in December. Here it is 8 days later:
Nearly full hood. 24 March 2014. Photo by Amar Ayyash
Evidently, it's not unusual for BHGUs to hold off on molting into their alternate hoods until March, and then rapidly do so when the process begins -- a reported 10-15% of the hood can be acquired in as little as one day. See this page for more on this fascinating phenomenon.

December 2011
One has to wonder why this individual chooses to associate with a homogeneous flock of Ring-billeds and no other larid species. Does it spend its summers in a Ring-billed colony? Is it hybridizing with Ring-billeds and producing some of the suspected Ring-billed x Black-headed Gulls that have been increasing throughout the Eastern seaboard?

March 2014

18 March 2014

Review of the Gull Section to Sibley's Guide to Birds (2nd Edition)

After 14 years, the 2nd Edition to David Sibley's Guide to Birds is finally on shelves. Exactly like the 1st edition, the 2nd edition covers 27 species of gulls. The genera have been updated to reflect current taxonomic nomenclature (from 5 genera to 8 genera). All of the tern-like gulls have been moved to the beginning according to their rankings (except Ivory Gull), while the large gulls are pushed to the back. Different than the 1st edition, the family introduction in the 2nd edition now displays the gull species on two pages (pp.196-197), and they now appear more proportionally drawn to scale.

Top: 1st Edition.
Bottom: 2nd Edition.
One minor mistake that should have been caught before going to press is the titles on Black-tailed Gull and Heermann's Gull being switched (on p. 197) -- no biggie. Note, Black-tailed was not included in the family introduction in the 1st edition.

Praise-worthy and a step up, I immediately noticed that most of the upperpart colors in the 2nd edition are more true-to-life, with truer grays, as opposed to the purplish-blue hues of the old edition. However, there are some color issues that are disturbing. The Laughing Gull appears too dark, as does the Slaty-backed and Heermann's Gull (which is also depicted as a bulky and blocky-looking bird). Frankly, I feel the 1st edition did these 3 species more justice.

Despite the gulls being in basic plumage and non-breeding condition, the reds appear too dark and maroon-like (consider the gonys spots, for instance, or the bills on some of the hooded gulls). The pink legs on the large white-headed gulls are grossly washed out. Slaty-backed Gull and Thayer's Gull are shown with brownish-gray legs. These color problems will hopefully be restored in the next printing. It could be my personal copy, but I couldn't help but notice that the Iceland Gull now appears darker than the Thayer's to its left (when in fact it should be the other way around).

Appreciable, the hybrid plates of various large white-headed gulls are still included, but are now moved to the end of the gull section, which makes more sense. In addition, a plate depicting an adult Lesser Black-backed x American Herring (so-called Appledore Gull) has been added just below the Yellow-legged Gull plates. I thought this was much needed and I'm very pleased this increasing hybrid received more attention. With that said, the legs could stand to benefit from being a bit duller or even blended with pink tones. The bill looks akwardly small as well.

One thing I was hoping to see in the new edition was juvenile plumages that appeared more crisp, patterned, and checkered where appropriate (such as some of the northern breeders -- specifically the white-wingers and the black-backed gulls).

Lesser Black-backed plates. The underparts, tertials, upperwing coverts and scapulars
are rather messy on the juvenile. This is unlike their plumage aspect
in late summer through early fall.
Although I realize Sibley's need to depict wear and fading, and the difficulty in combining this effect with the "first winter" plates (as some species have already begun to show formative or alternate feathers), I feel a family such as the gulls is deserving of one extra plate. Overall, most of the juvenile plates look smudgy and more blotted when compared to the 1st edition (the same can be said about many of the intermediate ages as well). I must say, in general, I'm not very impressed by the gull plates.

American Herring plates. The head streaking (see 1st winter bird)
appears random and somewhat chicken-scratched. This is also the case on a good deal of the adult plates.
Much has changed in 14 years and the range maps keenly reflect this! The 2nd edition provides excellent updates to almost all of the range maps of our gulls, and keeps to the same, five-color, key as the 1st edition. Interestingly, Black-tailed, Kelp and Yellow-legged Gull have lost their range maps, and this is probably because they weren't helpful to begin with. A big welcome is the increased amount of notes regarding breeding-habitat preferences, migration patterns and behavior. Consider parts of the Little Gull accounts below:

1st Edition                                                                                       2nd Edition
I didn't notice any significant changes with the voice descriptions (or the "long call postures"), but the author can't take blame for this as there hasn't been much published on this aspect of gulls in the last few decades. New notes have been inserted in the species accounts where neccessary. For instance, Sibley now notes that adult Western Gulls can take on yellow legs in early spring -- a detailed observation that no general field guide has included before.

Overall, I feel the updated range maps, along with the pertinent notes and comments adjacent to the maps, should be reason enough to want this edition. The single column on "Gull Identification" on p. 200, along with the "Gull Topography" and "Bare Parts" plates (on pp. xxi and xxii) will be helpful for the beginning birder. But for identification purposes, and from a gull enthusiast's perspective, I don't feel the plates in the 2nd edition make gull identification any easier. In fact, in some ways, the average birder may feel the 2nd edition makes gulls appear even more intimidating.

I do want to end with emphasizing that this review is specifically on the gull section, and is not at all to be applied to the entire guide. Gulls could be a very tough family to draw and paint, and at the end, granted some color corrections take place, I think the gull accounts in David Sibley's 2nd addition are impactful. David Sibley's most recent work verifies that he's still one of the most impeccable artists of North American birds!

12 March 2014

Ring-billeds Return 2014

They're back! And more are coming back as we speak. On Sunday, 09 March 2014, I observed my first noticeable wave of returning Ring-billeds at Whiting Beach in Indiana. I sensed an increase at the Lake County Fairgrounds the day before and so I visited the lakefront to see what changes were taking place. Sure enough, some 250 littered the beach at Whiting, all mostly adults with only one 1st cycle and a handful of 2nd cycles. Compare this to just 50 reported the day before.

Adult Ring-billed Gull. Whiting, IN. 09 March 2014.
Ring-billed Gull is found in northern Illinois year-round, but decreases in the winter when, presumably, the breeding residents move south and are replaced by populations from northern latitudes. It's not unusual to only see 15-20 Ring-billeds in an entire day of winter gulling at some sites, with 30-50 being average.

I'm always amazed by how my perception of this species' size varies depending on the season. When observing these birds on Sunday, I made a mental note of just how small they are when compared to the larger gulls such as Herring, Lesser Black-backed and Thayer's. After a month or so when our larger gulls move out, this species goes back to looking "big" again, to my mind.

At the time, most of the adults have pristine white heads and are in full breeding condition. A small percentage of adults do show light to moderate head streaking. All the 2nd cycles still show head streaking and so their prealternate molts may be later than adults. Why very few 1st and 2nd cycles are around is somewhat of a mystery to me. Are these ages still farther south on the wintering grounds with no urgent need to hurry back to the breeding grounds?

1st Cycle Ring-billed Gull. Whiting, IN. 09 March 2014.

One observation I made while watching them feed at my feet is just how similar to Laughing Gull some can sound when "laughing", especially as they land to feed among other feeding birds.

Wing structure can look considerably different in flight depending on the bird's thrust and speed.
Finally, I got out the next evening to listen for migrating birds, having read reports that they were moving north along major lakes and river-ways south of me. Sure enough, around 8:00 p.m., I began hearing their soft barks and yelps as they flew relatively low over the I-80 and I-57 corridor near the Will-Cook county line. It's said that spring migrants are rarely detected en route and just suddenly appear. I think it takes a little effort, but observable. The migrating flocks seemed to be flying in loose flocks of 2-3 birds and did not seem to be flying unusually fast. It was obvious that their calls were used to communicate with one another as they pushed through.

Some others from the next morning near my patch:

1st Cycle Ring-billed. Tinley Park, IL. 10 March 2014.
2nd Cycle Ring-billed. Tinley Park, IL. 10 March 2014.

10 March 2014

Second Weekend of March

Saturday, 08 March 2014. Lake County Fairgrounds.

Large gulls were holding steady this past weekend, with a more noticeable presence of Kumlien's. My working theory is that Kumlien's increases in northern Illinois towards the end of winter. Highlights today were 4 Kumlien's (including 2 first cycles together), and an adult Glaucous Gull. Of the 9 Thayer's that I observed, all were adults. Roughly 75% of the adult type Herrings were completely white-headed with a noticeable restlessness to them. They vocalized, displayed and faced-off with one another with a more aggressive touch than their typical "winter mode".

And now the two young Kumlien's together, displaying a typical ghost and chocolate type 1st cycle:

Left bird is more petite, bleached, and faded when compared to the bigger and "crisper" looking 1st cycle in the back.
Adult Kumlien's.
An intermediate-looking adult, but tending towards Kumlien's.
Adult Thayer's.
Adult Thayer's. 
Adult Thayer's.
Adult Thayer's.

05 March 2014

First Weekend of March Continued

Sunday, 02 March 2014. Lake County Fairgrounds.

A rather dark adult Kumlien's (front) with American Herring.

Adult Kumlien's Gull.

Adult Kumlien's Gull.

Classic female type (same bird above).

Adult Thayer's Gull.

Adult Thayer's with subadult-like bill pattern.

Sub-adult Lesser Black-backed Gull. Likely beyond 3rd plumage cycle.

To read about Saturday's birds, 01 March 2014, click here.

First Weekend of March: Thayer's and Kumlien's

I spent a good amount of time at the Lake County Fairgrounds this past weekend. I had some hope the Slaty-backed would reappear, but alas, not so (MIA since last Sunday when Nolan Lameka and Bruce Heimer photographed it). Instead, some 18 different Thayer's and 7 Kumlien's Gulls were to be recorded between Saturday and Sunday. I also had a nice assortment of adult and adult-like Lesser Black-backeds, and an awesome variety of American Herring Gulls to sort through.

Saturday, 01 March 2014. Lake County Fairgrounds.

Female-type Thayer's.

Thayer's with a bill I associate with Kumlien's.

Perhaps a young adult Thayer's with heavy head streaking and black smudge on red gonys spot.
Not a typical bill pattern for Thayer's, but everything else consistent for that species.

Same individual above.
3rd cycle Thayer's Gull (photo 1 of 4).

2nd cycle Thayer's.
Retarded 2nd cycle Thayer's (photo 1 of 2)
See separate post on ageing this individual which has some 1st cycle-like features.
3rd cycle Kumlien's Iceland Gull

Click here for Sunday's birds: 02 March 2014