Monday, January 30, 2012

A blizzard of gulls!

 Photo: Chuck Slusarczyk, Jr.

A seemingly impenetrable thicket of gulls fills the air over Lorain Harbor. Lorain is a Lake Erie port city not far west of Cleveland, and is a legendary site for gull-watchers. As of late, Lorain has been especially dense with gulls, and Chuck Slusarczyk was there today, camera in tow. When I saw Chuck's amazing series of photos I had to beg permission to share them. Larophile (gull fanatic) or not, I think you'll be impressed!

I made this photo of the Lorain Harbor several years ago, while helping on an aerial waterbird survey. The Black River enters Lake Erie here, and wherever large rivers confluence with the lake, large numbers of ducks and gulls often congregate. The interaction of river and lake seems to supercharge prey populations such as shiners and other small fish, and the birds are there to feast on the bounty.

Lake Erie is world class when it comes to gulls. An incredible twenty species have been found in Ohio's Lake Erie waters thus far, and there'll be more. We'll eventually get an indisputable Slaty-backed Gull, and there are other potential first state record candidates. The most recent addition to our slate of gulls is the famous Black-tailed Gull, which is still present.

 Photo: Chuck Slusarczyk, Jr.

When you arrive at Lorain Harbor and it looks like this, you know the gulling will be good. Back in the day, we called this area the "hot waters", as a nearby now decommisioned power plant piped warm water into the lake. No matter how cold and ice-choked Lake Erie got, the harbor always remained open.

 Photo: Chuck Slusarczyk, Jr.

An obvious challenge when tens of thousands of gulls are milling around in one harbor is picking out the goodies. This is the sort of challenge that Larophiles live for. The vast majority of gulls currently at Lorain are Ring-billed Gulls, which under most circumstances is the most frequent gull in Ohio. Herring Gulls are a distant second right now, although in tough, frigid winters they can dominate (the lake is completely ice-free this winter). Between these two species, we've got 99% of the gull biomass at this season. So you'll have to have a trained eye to pick out the rarities.

Lorain certainly does attract the uncommon gulls, and mega-rarities. This is the site that hosted our only Ohio record of Heermann's Gull, back in the winters of 1980, and 1981. Same bird, almost certainly, that liked Lorain so much it had to come back.

 Photo: Chuck Slusarczyk, Jr.

An ideal situation for picking through this many gulls is to have them all peacefully loafing on placid waters, where one can scope through the flocks looking for non-Herring/Ring-billed birds. A collective groan often goes up from observers when something spooks the horde, and all of the birds reshuffle themselves. If you had something good, say an Iceland Gull, and were pointing it out to people, you'll have your work cut out refinding it.

 Photo: Chuck Slusarczyk, Jr.

Forgetting about needle-in-the-haystack rarity-seeking for a second, to me one of the great pleasures of birding gull-choked harbors is the sheer ambience created by this many birds. The collective din of so many large gulls bugling their yelping wails, fighting, stealing fish, and gracefully performing all manner of aeronautics is a sight to behold.

 Photo: Chuck Slusarczyk, Jr.

But of course it is the rare and uncommon that keep birders eye-balling the gray and white masses, and here Chuck has lensed one of the uncommon species. It's an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull, easily standing out from the Ring-billeds and Herrings by its much darker charcoal-colored mantle. Lesser Black-backeds used to be a big deal when I first began making trips to The Lake. The first Ohio record dates to 1977, and that bird was a huge deal. This European species has increased tremendously in North America in the intervening years, and now small numbers are to be expected at gull hotspots along Lake Erie.

Photo: Chuck Slusarczyk, Jr.

Cool photo showing the beautiful sooty mantle of the Lesser Black-backed Gull as it plunges for a gizzard shad or some such tasty morsel.

In recent days Lorain has hosted Great Black-backed Gull, Glaucous Gull, Iceland Gull, Thayer's Gull, Bonaparte's Gull, and at least two California Gulls, in addition to the aforementioned species. I wouldn't be surprised if someone turns up a Mew Gull or some other really rare larid.

Should you get the chance, visit the gullapalooza at Lorain while the getting is good. Thanks a million to Chck Slusarczyk for sharing his amazing photos!


Jane said...

Thanks for this fascinating look at gulls of Lake Erie.

Lilac Haven said...

Great pictures. Thanks for sharing.