Monday, March 31, 2008

Northern Fulmar - New to Ohio!

This bird is just too exciting to tarry about with endless blathering build-ups - we'll cut to the chase. A Northern Fulmar, Fulmarus glacialis, was discovered today at Alum Creek Reservoir in central Ohio. While not entirely unexpected, this is a new species for the state, and certainly the best find of the year, possibly even longer.

The fulmar was discovered near the dam, out on the largest part of this massive, sprawling lake. It was found by a visiting birder from Queens, NY, Al. B. Trossle, who is quite familiar with the species from his work as a seabird counter in Atlantic waters off the coast of Delaware. Al reports that "I was white-faced with shock when I saw the bird. Being that this is Ohio, I knew it had to be a wolloping doozy".

Alum Creek State Park ranger Gil O'Motte reports that the throngs of birders have already begun, as is to be expected with the find of a major rarity these days. Said Gil "I mean, we see birds around here all the time. Can't understand the fuss - the thing looks just like a seagull. But, if you must visit, I'd head to the top of the dam and watch from there, like all the rest of the twitching nutters. If I had my way, we'd start charging all of them a fea to come see it".

Map of Alum Creek Lake. One of the largest man-made water bodies in interior North America, and too big to fit on a normal-scale map. This depicts the part of the lake that could reasonably be shown on a regular map. At its widest spot, Alum Creek stretches some 26 miles from shore to shore.

Fishing trawler working deep waters off the Alum Creek beach. The presence of a large commercial fishing operation here undoubtedly has contributed to the presence of Northern Fulmar, and other rarities. As the lake is large enough that it isn't cost-effective for the boats to return to port each evening, they often stay out for several days. The trawler crews clean and process their catches of round goby, smelt, and paddlefish at sea, throwing unwanted fishy debris overboard. The fish guts - chum, in birder parlance - attracts mobs of gulls, and sometimes seabirds like the Northern Fulmar.

Noted seabird authority Peter Harrison has already been consulted about this find. Mr. Harrison, author of Seabirds: An Identification Guide, states "This really doesn't surprise me. Fulmars, even though in the Procellariidae family along with petrels, are very gull-like. They've probably been regular visitors to Alum Creek for some time, and merely overlooked. I've seen the photos of this bird, and there's no doubt what it is. This could herald many other exciting finds at Alum Creek Lake".

This is the actual fishing boat that the fulmar has been following, and the bird is actually among the swarms of gulls in this photo. Irish pelagic bird authority Terry O'Droma took this photo from the deck of another ship, and added "Once I heard of this find, I rushed to the lake as fast as possible. This is one of the most exciting seabird finds in recent times. It absolutely supports my theory of the New Jersey/Meso-American Trench as a major conduit for Atlantic seabird dispersal into new territory. Over long periods of time, this waterway is what has paved the way for evolution of new seabirds species." Abundant credit must be given to Terry for enduring the angry waters of Alum Creek Lake to document the fulmar, and obtain this utterly amazing series of photos. Bundled for the cold, the black-capped O' Droma, wearing his mottled pea-coat, was thoroughly pink-footed with cold by the time he returned to shore.

This map of North America depicts the now famous New Jersey/Meso-American Trench, the likely avenue of dispersal of seabirds into interior North America, a theory first put forth by Dr. Terry O'Droma and enthusiastically supported by Peter Harrison, Roger Tory Peterson, and Bill Thompson III, among many others. This trench, which runs a sinuous course from Trenton to the Central American country of Honduras, follows a roughly southwest path. Formed by glacial scouring during the last ice age, it is a shallow and intermittently flooded narrow valley that is sometimes easy to miss. Its path runs right through central Ohio and the village of Cheshire, hard on the eastern shores of Alum Creek Lake. The NJMAT, as it is known among oceanographers, is not nearly as well known in the corn belt as it is along the eastern seaboard, where its channel is broader and more conspicuous and attracts an astonishing array of waterbirds. New Jersey rocker Bruce Springsteen, after observing the rushing waters of the Trench at high tide, was inspired to write his mega-hit, Born to Run

Finally, here is concrete documentation of our bird, the Northern Fulmar, on the wing over Alum Creek. Note the mostly dark upper wings, with only light flashes at the bases of the primary flight feathers, and the strongly contrasting white head. With a good look, you'll notice the gull-like yellowish bill with the "tube nose" that characterizes petrels. We are doubly fortunate in that when Dr. O' Droma snapped this documentary photo, a diagnostic landmark of the Alum Creek shoreline is faintly evident in the background, leaving no question as to where the photo was taken.

This is Cheshire Lighthouse North, one of the navigational beacons that dot the shoreline of Alum Creek Lake, and can be seen faintly in the background of O' Droma's fulmar photos. Because of its large size and relatively shallow waters, this lake has the reputation as one of the most dangerous water bodies in the midwestern United States. Hundreds of ships - schooners, trawlers, motor yachts, and even canoes - went down to visit Davey Jones's locker in the days before the lighthouses. The lighthouse above is also a great place to watch for the Northern Fulmar, as many of the sightings have been made from this point. Just drive north along Africa Road, and as you draw near the village of Cheshire, watch off to your left for the lighthouse.

This is a fantastic sighting, and one that every Ohio birder will want to add to their list, so I'd advise getting to Alum Creek ASAP. Hard to say if or when we'll get our next fulmar.


Anonymous said...

Happy April Fools day to you too Jim.

Anonymous said...

From the photo, that looks to be a left-handed Fulmar. An even better find. They taste just like chicken you know.

Anonymous said...

Hey Jim,
As soon as I read the title of your post, I immediately started getting ready. I called in school and said I was sick and rushed down to Alum Creek. I even missed a major Biology test to look for the Fulmar. I searched for 7+ hours and it didn’t turn up. I was surprised that only 3 other birders were looking for it and it hasn’t made it to the listserves yet.

Yeah, I was only kidding. Great story!

Ethan Kistler

Anonymous said...

I've seen that exact bird in your photo. I was there. I guess I was confused about being at sea, must've been in that trench thingy you were talking about there.
- Ben Warner

Anonymous said...

Dear Jim,
Hi my name is Cooper S. Hawk of the Hemingway Nature Lovers Club of Perry, Iowa.I wanted to let you know that our club is taking a three-week vacation to this Alum Creek Lake to see the Fulmar.We have rented four tour busses and a lodge near the lake called "Yorkwerk Cottage" and we are planing to motor around the lake in a couple of tour boats from the local marina called "Marina Alum" that we found at just would like to know if you or Al.B Tossle could lead our voyage.However, when we contacted an ex-ODNR friend, Steve Gray, he said that it was likely to be an ""April Fools"" joke-whatever that is.Retirement might have done something to him......If this is a joke it is NOT funny and our club will be unfortunately out of $13,000 or so.Here in Iowa, pranks aren't excepted and "April Fools" sound propstourous.If there is something you need to admit please contact me at the following number.But I know that a smart, educated man as yourself would not do something so...immature.Thanks for your consideration and the great news!!!

Coop S. Hawk
*email me sometime!