Gull watching in the southern Lake Michigan region (USA) – 201402

A group of Herring Gulls and Ring-billed Gulls at Lake County Fairground, Libertyville, Illinois. 18 February 2014.

A group of Herring Gulls and Ring-billed Gulls at Lake County Fairground, Libertyville, Illinois, just north of Chicago. 18 February 2014.

Back in July 2013, I was discussing the appearance of a European Herring Gull with fellow gull enthusiast Amar Ayyash (from Chicago) on Facebook (see this post). I had put up a photo that showed an adult gull in rest and Amar commented how similar to an American Herring Gull it looked. I responded that I should come over to the States to see that for myself after which Amar suggested that if I was going to do that, that I should do so during the winter.

Heading for Lake Michigan

I later found out that each third Saturday of February, the Illinois Ornithological Society holds the annual Gull Frolic, an event during which some 150 birders come together at the North Point Marina north of Chicago to enjoy the local gulls that are attracted with bread for close up views. All this in a setting of friendly people, good food and a great location for taking photos.

That sounded like a good event to be part of and a good opportunity to combine it with a short gull watching trip in the Lake Michigan area around Chicago and Milwaukee.

So with the help of Amar who gave me valuable information about which gull locations to visit, plans were made and on Wednesday 12 February I was heading for Chicago for a 9-day trip.

Flying over ice covered Lake Michigan. 12 February 2014.

Flying over ice covered Lake Michigan. 12 February 2014.

Set goals

Of course, every gull that I would come across would be scrutinized and analyzed but I still wanted to add some structure to the trip. So I decided I wanted to get familiar with:

  • Kumliens and Thayer’s Gull
  • The differences between American Herring Gulls and European Herring Gulls
  • The differences between Ring-billed Gulls and Common Gulls

How did that turn out? I will report on that in upcoming posts…

Gull species

In total, I saw 8 gull species (listed from abundant to single individuals):

  • American Herring Gull Larus smithsonianus
  • Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis
  • Thayer’s Gull Larus thayeri
  • Glaucous Gull Larus hyperboreus
  • Great black-backed Gull Larus marinus
  • Iceland Gull Larus glaucoides kumliens
  • Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus
  • Slaty-backed Gull Larus schistisagus

And as usual with gulls, there were a few individuals that were tricky to identify.

Highlights

I have obviously taken a huge number of photos that I will have to go through, but here are the ones that I like best.

Slaty-backed Gull

There is no other gull to open with than the Slaty-backed gull that Amar and I discovered on Friday, February 14 at the Lake County Fairgrounds in Libertyville. The full story is described here, but in short this is a mega-rarity for Illinois and a gull that I never anticipated to see (certainly not on this trip).

This very obliging gull gave us incredible views and as a result we made many, many photos. It is difficult to choose only one that I like most, so here are my 2 favorites:

schistisagus-20140214-1

schistisagus-20140214-2

And I couldn’t resist to get all touristy and have my photo taken (by Amar) together with the Slaty-backed Gull (and yes: Illinois in February is cold!).
slaty-backed-gull-and-me-20140214

Glaucous Gull

Very high on my list of gulls to see during this trip was a Glaucous Gull in adult plumage. During my trip I saw about 3 adults, of which one made my wish of making a great flight shot come true:

hyperboreus-adult-20140215

15 February 2014, Winthrop Harbor, Illinois, USA.

Thayer’s Gull

Another gull that I had been wanting to see for quite some time (because of their beautiful primary pattern in adult plumage) is the Thayer’s Gull. They were present in low numbers (as expected) but some of them gave good views.

16 February 2014, BP Whiting refinery, Indiana, USA. Adult Thayer's Gull in basic plumage.

16 February 2014, BP Whiting refinery, Indiana, USA. Adult Thayer’s Gull in basic plumage, showing the distinct Thayeri pattern in primary P9.

15 February 2014, North Point Marina, Winthrop Harbor, Illinois, USA. Second-calendar year Thayers Gull.

15 February 2014, North Point Marina, Winthrop Harbor, Illinois, USA. Second-calendar year Thayer’s Gull.

Iceland Gulls

Seeing Iceland Gulls in the Lake Michigan area is interesting because they are treated by default as subspecies Larus glaucoides kumlieni, which is different from the nominate L. g. glaucoides that we get over here in the Netherlands.

During my trip I saw various first-winter individuals and an adult (and perhaps one or 2 sub-adults, but I have to study the photos some more before I can be sure πŸ˜‰ )

16 February 2014, BP Whiting refinery, Indiana, USA. Second-calendar year Iceland Gull.

16 February 2014, BP Whiting refinery, Indiana, USA. Second-calendar year Iceland Gull.

American Herring Gull

Obviously abundant, I got to see all ages of American Herring Gull and their various plumages. It is one thing reading about the differences with European Herring Gulls, but seeing it for yourself is quite an eye opener. I will write up a detailed post soon about what differences struck me the most.

13 February 2014, BP Whiting refinery, Indiana, USA. A second-calendar year American Herring Gull showing the distinctive dark tail that we as European birders love to see in these birds.

13 February 2014, BP Whiting refinery, Indiana, USA. A second-calendar year American Herring Gull showing the distinctive dark tail that we as European birders love to see in these birds.

Lesser Black-backed Gull

It was very strange to see Lesser Black-backed Gulls in the USA; it is a species that I very much associate with Europe. I saw a handful of individuals, all adults apart from one 4th-calendar year type. Plumage wise, they looked similar to the ones I see in the Netherlands.

15 February 2014, North Point Marina, Winthrop Harbor, Illinois, USA. Adult Lesser Black-backed Gull in basic plumage.

15 February 2014, North Point Marina, Winthrop Harbor, Illinois, USA. Adult Lesser Black-backed Gull in basic plumage.

Ring-billed Gull

This abundant gull may not be the most interesting because of its lack of plumage variation, but it is a species that I wanted to become familiar with in case I should come across one in the Netherlands.

Ring-billed Gull was the first gull that I saw up close during my trip and I had a nice photo session on my first day of gull watching near the BP oil refinery.

13 February 2014, BP oil refinery, Whiting, Indiana, USA. Adult Ring-billed Gull in basic plumage.

13 February 2014, BP oil refinery, Whiting, Indiana, USA. Adult Ring-billed Gull in basic plumage.

Gull locations

During my trip I stayed in Mount Prospect, Chicago, Illinois for the first 5 days and in Wauwatosa, Milwaukee, Michigan for the remaining 4 days.

My mobile head quarters: a Dodge Avenger. Lake County Fairground, Libertyville, Illinois. 18 February 2014.

A Dodge Avenger acted as my mobile headquarters. In the background a group of Herring Gulls and Ring-billed Gulls. Lake County Fairground, Libertyville, Illinois. 18 February 2014.

From there, I visited the following locations (see map):

BP Oil refinery

With Lake Michigan covered with ice for about 85% during my stay, the open water next to the BP oil refinery attracted a group of a few hundred gulls on a daily basis. Because it was a secluded spot with the sun coming from behind, it was an excellent spot for observing gulls.

I visited it on Thursday afternoon and for most of the day on Sunday with excellent results.

At the beach of the BP oil refinery, looking North. Watching gulls takes you to the most beautiful places... 13 February 2014.

Ring-billed Gulls at the beach of the BP oil refinery, looking North. Gull watching takes you to the most beautiful places… 13 February 2014.

On the beach of the BP oil refinery with fellow birders from the Illinois Ornithological Society. I'm the second from the left, fourth from the left is Amar Ayyash. 16 February 2014.

On the beach of the BP oil refinery, looking South. From left to right: Amar Ayyash, Matthew Winks and myself. 16 February 2014.

At the beach of the BP oil refinery with birders from the Illinois Ornithological Society. I'm the second from the left, fourth from the left is Amar Ayyash. 16 February 2014.

At the beach of the BP oil refinery with birders from the Illinois Ornithological Society. I’m the second from the left, fourth from the left is Amar Ayyash. 16 February 2014.

North Point Marina

This harbor is where the Gull Frolic was held and it fortunately held open water which assured the presence of a variety of ducks, geese and gulls. The high vantage point and the sun coming from behind in the afternoon made it a great spot for taking photos.

View of the harbor at the end of the Gull Frolic. 15 February 2014.

View of the harbor at the end of the Gull Frolic. 15 February 2014.

The hard-core birders who stayed the full day of the Gull Frolic and were rewarded with seeing the Slaty-backed Gull. I'm the second from the left. North Point Marina, 15 February 2014.

The hard-core birders who stayed the full day of the Gull Frolic and who were rewarded with seeing the Slaty-backed Gull. I’m the second from the left. North Point Marina, 15 February 2014.

Lake County Fairgrounds

Located next to a landfill, the parking lot of the Lake County Fairground is where the gulls congregate to rest and preen: mainly Herring and Ring-billed Gulls but also the occasional Thayers, Kumliens, Glaucous, Great Black-backed (apparently a rare visitor) and Lesser Black-backed Gulls.

The first visit on Friday resulted in a Slaty-backed Gull (!) and while a follow-up visit on Tuesday provided fewer numbers, any day on which you can see Glaucous and Thayers Gulls is a good day in my book.

Other locations

Other locations that I visited but without seeing many gulls (because the location was inaccessible due to snow or ice, because of bad lighting conditions, or simple because of low numbers of gulls) where the Hammond Marina (Chicago), McKinley Marina (Milwaukee), Veteran’s Park (Milwaukee), Kohl’s and Menards parking lot (Johnson Creek), North Point Park (Sheboygan), North Pier (Sheboygan), and Broughton Drive (Sheboygan).

I initially planned to also visit Michigan and New Buffalo to the south-west of Chicago but that fell through because of bad weather (heavy snow kept me indoors for a full day).

Summing up

Although the 2nd half of the trip turned out to be a bit disappointing due to low numbers of gulls, the first half more than made up for it especially with the sighting of the Slaty-backed Gull and the way the photos of it turned out.

From a gull watching point of view I have learned a lot about the species that I came over for, and from a personal standpoint the experience of making the trip all by myself was very valuable.

I can highly recommend visiting the USA to watch gulls (but be sure to check the best spots with the local birders) and I can definitely see myself visiting that country for more trips in the future.

Advertisements

One thought on “Gull watching in the southern Lake Michigan region (USA) – 201402

  1. wauw, wat heb je weer fantastische foto’s gemaakt ik ben benieuwd welke er aan je muur komt te hangen!! πŸ™‚

    Liefs Marian

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s