A favoritie pastime of us Notheast birders is the wintertime study of ‘white-winged’ gulls, which we have in recent years begun to take for granted. Then last year, some devastating nonbirding-related news shocked the very core of our community – the old, inefficient warm-outflows at E 72nd St. and Eastlake Power Plant were to be shut down for good. Whaaat? What could we say? What could we do? These coal-burning monsters while not necessarily great for the environment provided some of the best gulling in the Great Lake region…talk about an environmentally-unsound dilemna.
This third weekend of January, those fiending for gull study got their wish…as a “semi”-brutal weather front pushing from the north began to “semi”-ice the lake, and pushed waterbirds into a “semi”-inviting Lorain Harbor. While there are no billowing smoke stacks warding the ice off here – the thorough breakwalls and attached Black River , and ample supply of gizzard shad, minnows, and other freshwater creatures makes for a dynamite environ for Lake Erie waterbirds, weather-permitting. This weekend, all factors collided, and the result was astounding.
When Emil Bacik and I arrived before dawn Sat. morning, it was crystal clear that there were clearly more Common Mergansers assembled here than I have ever seen in my freakin’ life! The river mouth was crowded with salmony-chested males, and their gray-and-purplish mates. The Goosander is one of our favorite ducks, and it was clear that this was going to be a special day. We started at the river bridge and moved north toward the harbor, section-counting along the way, before these birds headed out to the open lake for the day. 3100 was the final tally – and there were probably a few more than that, but we headed out to check the Bonie flock which was resting on the water late Fri. evening.
Nothing was found among the 700 Bonies in the harbor, but we were happy to bump into old chum John Pogacnik at this point. John and I kept in contact and this helped us flesh out where the good gulls were hiding. Emil I had vacated the premises in hopes of padding the ‘ole January list, when a a call from John drew us right back…he had found an ad. California Gull along the Black River, and we abandoned our quest and headed right back. When we found John, we found ‘white-winged’ gulls, and they were thick along the western edge of the river, an area we had neglected while Bonaparte’s Gulls earlier. Our morning culiminated when John, Emil, I viewed FOUR ADULT Thayer’s Gulls feeding withing a 50-foot radius at point-blank range within the shadow of Lorain’s historic drawbridge…astounding! I’ve never seen adult Thayer’s Gulls in this quantity and at such diminished range.
Fast forward to this morning…I met up with Emil and it was clear that the quality of today’s birds was not much diminished from a fortnight ago. The Common/Red-breasted Merg hoards still dominated the scene. Emil had a second-cycle Glaucous Gull pinpointed when I arrived, and it lingered along the river today. We began to pick out Iceland Gulls, as well, and there were at least four individual birds present today. One of the second-yr. birds was distinctively unique from yesterday’s making for five total…and not one first-cycle bird at all. Note to self…don’t take gull shots across the river with the car running…the exhaust fumes severely test your poor pointy-and-shoot’s limited capabilities. Note to others: STAY IN YOUR CAR when viewing the merg/gull flocks across the river…even the slightest movements cause these fidgety birds treat you as a Pererine and clear the entire scene for 10-20 min at a time.
The most interesting to me was the final bird depicted – a heavily-marked third-cycle “Kumlien’s” – barely discernable from the accompanying Herring Gulls. At rest, this bird featured a paler mantle, browner (not black) wintips, and larger discernable spots in the primaries (compare with Herring Gull in rear). Here we throw in one shameless Lesser Black-backed shot, just ‘cuz…
And finally, the star of the day…The first-yr. California Gull was spotted quite close to shore, and observed at length for ~45 minutes or so. This bird immediately caught me as a young California and I followed, lost, photographed, lost, and refound this bird extensively for some time. California Gull is an extremely variable gull, especially at a young age (much as our Herring) and there are a multitude of field marks which need verified on these out-of-range larids before even venturing a possible ID. This bird popped immediately on several size & structural accounts while resting on the water. It was small-headed, long-necked, longer-winged-and-billed, and of course, structurally-smaller than our ever-present Herrings, immediately. And, they are quite often quite pale-faced. However, any young California MUST be seen in flight to have any hope of documenting on our local waters, and luckily this bird flushed many-a-time passing by at close range, passing to-and-fro at point-blank range. Young California’s exhibit a very DARK primary/secondary/covert pattern, lacking the pale inner primary gap of Herring, and more reminiscent of Lesser Black-backed – dark from the outer primaries through the greater covert band. Also distinct is the tail pattern, barred more black-and-white than the brownish rump of the Herring and the bird flaunted this characteristic extensively. In a word, the flight feathers are darker than Herring – tail & wing combined. The bird’s bill’s is two-toned, slender, and elongated. Confused? Here are some close-range shots:
Good birding –