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A rough day on Lake Erie

Lake Erie, as seen from the fishing access parking lot just east of the power plant in Eastlake, Ohio.

I traveled to the Cleveland area and specifically Holden Arboretum yesterday, to give a program for the Blackbrook Audubon Society. The subject, fittingly, was "Birding Ohio's North Coast", and the talk largely outlines the Lake Erie Birding Trail guidebook, which was released earlier this year.

The program was in the evening, but I went up early to meet with Brian Parsons, the Holden Arboretum's Director of Planning and Special Projects. The arboretum is engaged in some very exciting work, and Brian was good enough to give me a tour. More on that in a later post.

As fate would have it, Eastlake was only 20 minutes from the site of my talk, and I had a bit of time in between things to run up there and do some gull-watching. The weather was tough. Gale-like winds raged, and the temperature was in the teens. These conditions transformed the lake into a raging cauldron, with big rollers forming and atomizing against piers and breakwalls as seen in the photo above. Many people came and went while I was there, to stare at a formidable and angry Mother Nature from the safety and warmth of their cars. It's hard to make decent photographs from a car, so I spent my time outside behind the tripod, dodging spray from waves crashing against the seawall twenty feet away. By the time I left, my car was frosted in a thin veneer of ice.

A literal mountain of water forms, giving a bunch of Red-breasted Mergansers a thrill ride. The world's largest gull, the Great Black-backed Gull, glides by the summit of the water-mountain. The waves on this day were truly impressive, with some exceeding ten feet and forming tubes. Thousands of mergansers were offshore, and there was gulls galore.

The Cleveland region of Lake Erie offers truly world class gulling. Harbors and power plants can teem with tens of thousands of birds at peak traffic times. A staggering 20 species have been found in this area, and very few other places can boast that kind of larid diversity. Seeing such numbers of birds is rather awe-inspiring, and I relish the opportunities that I have to travel to The Lake to bask in their presence. Should you like to experience this part of Lake Erie at its wintry finest, consider attending the December 6 meeting of the Ohio Ornithological Society, which will feature field trips to Cleveland hotspots, and a talk by legendary birder/photographer Chuck Slusarczyk, Jr. Chuck will be focusing on, appropriately enough, gulls. All the event details are RIGHT HERE.

Watching scads of gulls doing their thing is always interesting, at least to me. They engage me on several levels. One, their resistance to incredibly hostile environmental conditions is completely impressive. Keep in mind, you or I would die in very short order were we to find ourselves in the lake at this time of year. To the gulls, it is nothing. They frolic as if on a Floridian vacation at the beach.Two, their flying abilities are utterly remarkable. Even with yesterday's hurricane blasts, the gulls glide about with impunity, seemingly paying the explosive gusts no mind, but instead capitalizing on the wind to better position themselves. If I were to come back as a bird (and I might), I would give a gull serious consideration as my next incarnation.

There is more to gulls, such as the interesting identification challenges and the hybridization issues, but the other major reason I enjoy watching gulls is their behavior. In the photo above, a fracas breaks out between two first-year Herring Gulls over a tasty gizzard shad or some such morsel. Other Herring Gulls speed to the scene, some caught with mouths agape as they loudly bugle their thoughts. A congregation of gulls is generally a lively place.

A quartet of Ring-billed Gulls works the headwind, trolling the waters. The center bird, with the sharply marked pink and black bill and dusky plumage, is a first-year gull (some use the term cycle, as in first-cycle gull. I've never warmed to that term). The others are adults. All of our gulls take multiple years to attain full adult species, and in the case of the Ring-billed Gull three years are required. For most of the year and in most places, this is the most abundant species of gull in Ohio. As winter sets in, they will generally be eclipsed by ever-increasing numbers of Herring Gulls, on Lake Erie.

Burly, bull-necked and stern in countenance, an adult Herring Gull glides by, pale yellow eye aglow. Its feathers have grown dingy around the head; that's a feature of its winter, or basic, plumage. Come the onset of spring and the approach of breeding season, Herring Gulls shed the dirty feathers and become gleaming white. Handsome beasts, indeed.

If a large gull such as a Herring Gull makes it to its fourth year and the attainment of complete adult plumage, it may well have a very long life ahead of it. Gulls can live for many decades.

Delicate and ternlike, an intricately marked adult Bonaparte's Gull wheels by, ever vigilant for emerald shiners and other small piscine fare. This one is my favorite, and I spent the better part of my two frigid hours watching them. As always, I was hopeful that a rare associate, such as a Little Gull or Black-legged Kittiwake, might be accompanying the "Bonies", but even without that added spice the Bonaparte's Gulls are fine entertainment.

This is a small gull - dwarfed by the preceding species. It takes a Bonaparte's Gull only two years to achieve its adult plumage. Adults are easily identified by the bold black, gray, and white wing pattern. The only species close to it is the very rare (here) Black-headed Gull, which has sooty black underwings, among other differences.

A Bonaparte's Gull stutter-steps in midair, showing its flashy orange feet and legs. The bird has spotted fishy prey, and has made instant aerial corrections to prepare for a feeding plunge. At this point, it has two immediate issues: catching the fish, and then wolfing its meal down before larger gulls have a chance to try and steal it away.

The offshore waters of Cleveland and vicinity support an enormous concentration of Bonaparte's Gulls in November and December. One-day estimates in excess of 100,000 birds have been made along Cleveland's lakefront. This part of the lake is a vital staging area for the small gulls, and seeing them at their peak numbers is one of the great spectacles of Nature in this part of the world.

My time was up all too soon, and it was time to go to the talk. Just before departure, the sun popped out and lit the crashing surf beautifully. All in all, a fabulous if brief trip to our Great Lake.


Wow that first shot looks like a painting. Great pictures but I am cold just looking at them. Brrr I can imagine the wind and spray. A great study of gulls too.
Anonymous said…
Amazing photos.
I was up on the Lake in Wickliffe last night and the waves were a spectacle. I saw many mergansers riding them!
Anonymous said…
Fantastic photos and a wonderful story about the lakefront visit. I can almost hear the waves booming and the gulls calling.

Ken Andrews
Maple Heights, Ohio
Jack and Brenda said…
Beautiful photos of the surf!!
Jim--your photography is first-rate. Well, it always has been, but... When did you go to the dark side? Tripod? Telephoto? Professional photographers, watch your back. Jimmy Mack's in the game!!
Stunning images and great writing.
The beauty and power you captured in those photos are almost (*almost*) enough to make me wish I had been there in person. And I am NOT a stand-in-wind-with-temps-in-the-teens-on-a-lakeshore-watching-gulls kind of gal...

Julie is right--you have really ramped up your game this year with your pics. Fantastic job, and thank you for sharing!
matt_stansberry said…
This is really good stuff Jim. Great writing, great photos.

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