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.
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…
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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 😉 )
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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).
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.