Monday, March 2, 2009

Invasion of the gulls

For the past week, Oberlin Reservoir in Lorain County has been the place to be for gulls. This upground reservoir, which somewhat resembles a giant square bathtub, has always had a track record of attracting odd birds, in part perhaps because it is within ten miles of Lake Erie. From the perspective of a Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the reservoir could easily be seen from the lake.

And apparently gulls en masse have decided to bail from the open waters of Erie, one of the world’s roughest and most dangerous lakes, and seek the relative tranquility of Oberlin Reservoir. Gabe Leidy and Emil Bacik first brought this phenomenon to light almost a week ago, and I made the trip up yesterday.

Gulls aren’t for all, I know. They’re funny, in a way. As a group, and generally speaking, gulls are instantly recognizable and even many a non-birder will make the identification of “sea gull”. But pinning down individuals to species can be far more challenging, and gull fans are known as “larophiles”. I am a casual larophile, as much interested in learning more about their identity as I am admiring these hardy beasts, whose aerial abilities rivals that of the most acrobatic avian flyers. Besides, upon close inspection, gulls are striking – some of the best-looking birds out there.

Oberlin Reservoir, just east of Oberlin, Ohio, and but a hop, skip and a jump from Lake Erie – if you can fly like a gull.

Even though this is not a large reservoir, there were several thousand gulls, and the viewing conditions are generally fantastic. At times, many of them felt the need to stretch their wings and clouds of gulls would ascend to the skies. Watching scenes like this may be what helped inspire Richard Bach to pen Jonathan Livingston Seagull. I greatly admire the way they wheel and soar about so effortlessly, far more intent on food-seeking than expending thought on the actual mechanics of flight.

There are more larophiles that you might think. Numerous birders have been visiting Oberlin Reservoir to take in the show.

Beautiful adult Herring Gull, resplendent in pure tones of white, gray, and black. Note the glaring yellow eye, bold yellow bill with prominent red spot, and pink legs and feet. This is often the most common midwinter gull along Lake Erie, and there were a few thousand at Oberlin. Their clear bugling calls are a classic sound of coastal areas.

Adult Ring-billed Gull, overall the most abundant Ohio species. Mature birds present no identification problems, especially with that obvious hoop around the bill.

Ring-billeds are the gull that typically invades mall parking lots and other urban haunts looking for scraps. Big gulls are the ultimate omnivores, and might well be termed “garbage-heads”. They’ll eat nearly anything and have bulletproof constitutions. I took this photo a few years ago in a Lorain neighborhood. There is no record of what the homeowners thought of their house-sitters.

The dark one is the world’s largest gull, a Great Black-backed Gull. This one is an adult, with coal-black mantle that stands out from afar. That’s a first-cycle Herring Gull to the left, an adult Ring-billed Gull in front of the GBBG, and a Forster’s Tern in foreground. I took this photo a year or so ago at Conneaut Harbor. There were an incredible eleven Great Black-backeds at Oberlin yesterday. This species is very rare in Ohio away from the waters of Lake Erie, as are the rest of the gulls I’ll show.

I took this photo at the Ohio State University Museum of Biological Diversity. Great Black-backed Gull specimen above; Little Gull specimen below. The world’s largest and smallest gulls. Little is a fairly rare Lake Erie visitor in Ohio, and far rarer inland. This comparison illustrates the diversity of the gull world. It would take about fourteen Little Gulls to match the weight of a Great Black-backed, and I’m sure the latter would enjoy eating the former if the opportunity came along.

We had our first Ohio record of Lesser Black-backed Gull in 1977, and they’ve steadily increased since. There were at least four at Oberlin, a great inland record. I took the above photo of an adult in 2007 while on a See Life Paulagics trip into the Atlantic Ocean off Belmar, New Jersey, run by Paul Guris. It is interesting in that we picked this bird up about eighty miles out. Lesser Black-backeds are European, and cross the pond to get here. They breed as close to North America as Greenland but we’ve still got no breeding record – yet. Adults resemble Great Black-backed Gulls, but have a somewhat paler mantle and are smaller and less robust. In basic (winter) plumage they develop dusky-brown heads, which GBBG’s never do.

Pick the Glaucous Gull out. This one was shot at East 72nd Street in Cleveland, but we had six at Oberlin yesterday. It is standing just beyond that adult Great Black-backed, amongst Herring gulls. This is a first-cycle Glaucous, which are a somewhat dingy brown overall. They’re whoppers, second only to Great Black-backeds in massiveness among the Ohio gulls. Note how there is no dark pigment in the primary tips, as with the Herrings on either side. This is one of the white-winged gulls, pale ghostly Arctic dwellers that breed in polar bear country. Coming to Ohio’s north coast is their version of a Florida getaway.

This gorgeous photo of a first-cycle Iceland Gull comes courtesy of Flickr and Ómar Runólfsson, who snapped the shot in, appropriately enough, Iceland. We had five or six at Oberlin. They look much like Glaucous Gulls, and the plumage progression is similar, but Icelands are noticeably less robust. They also do not have the pronounced cranial ridge over the eye that Glaucous does, which lends them a comparatively gentle and somewhat dove-like appearance. The jutting brow of a Glaucous creates a rather hostile, aggressive look, as if the bird is thinking about killing something. Which it probably is.

We had one first-cycle Thayer’s Gull, which is what this bird is. Photo, once again, courtesy of Flickr, photographer only identified as Sam. These are tricky beasts and may not warrant separation as a species from Iceland Gull. Youngsters like this one are easier to ID than the adults, at least to me. Note the slender bill and pale upperparts with neat checkerboard pattern of scapulars. First-cycle Herrings are most similar, but are generally darker and have a more massive bill and look more robust, and for want of a better word, “aggressive”. This “species” may be better treated as a subspecies of Iceland Gull.

The recent inland invasion of gulls in Ohio is probably without precedent, both in terms of overall numbers and rare species usually not seen in the interior. Also from yesterday come reports of tens of thousands of gulls at Hoover Reservoir – mostly Herring and Ring-billed as would be expected. But observers report Great Black-backed, Lesser Black-backed, Glaucous, and Black-legged Kittiwake from the throngs.

If opportunity allows, get out to your local reservoir this week.




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3 comments:

dAwN said...

wow...looks like you were really invaded...how cool to see all of those gulls. Thanks for photos and commentary...very helpful for those like me...who are still learning.

Anonymous said...

Jim,
Great report on these Gulls. I have always found it very difficult to ID Gulls. Have seen some of the usual Ring-billed and Herring at Lake White Pike Co this winter.
Gary Wayne

Andrew Durso said...

Crazy photo of the GBBG and LIGU juxtaposed!