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Bonaparte's Gulls freighter-chasing

This is the mouth of one of the Great Lakes' most fabled rivers, and one its most varied when it comes to habitat. I made this image early in the morning last Sunday, standing at the end of the pier by the old Coast Guard Station by Wendy Park. The Cuyahoga River dumps into Lake Erie here, with the city of Cleveland as the background. Lake-going freighters enter the river at this point, and wind their way up the narrow crooked river to industrial operations in Cleveland. Rivers do not come more industrialized than the lower Cuyahoga, but its upper reaches are as wild and biodiversity-rich as any river in Ohio.

A post-sitting Bonaparte's Gull watches the world go by. It is a rare bit of isolationist repose for the animal. It spends much time in noisy packs of its brethren, fishing the waters of Lake Erie.

I've written much about Bonaparte's Gulls and will write much more, no doubt. These small delicate gulls are among my favorite birds. They are buoyant on the wing, and talented aeronauts. "Bonies" eschew the aggressive kleptoparasitic ways of many larger gulls, and will rarely be found foraging for garbage. Fishing is the Bonaparte's Gull's stock in trade, and they are quite good at it.

The weather was far too placid for great birding on Lake Erie this day, and after an hour or so at the pier's tip I was about to pack it in and head elsewhere. Until I noticed this freighter far out on the lake, but headed towards the Cuyahoga River. Freighters often mean birds, so I decided to remain and await the ship's arrival.

It turned out to be a freighter from the Lafarge corporation, a large mining concern. The ship is probably loaded with crushed limestone. Lafarge owns the massive limestone quarries on the Marblehead Peninsula, all around the Lakeside Daisy State Nature Preserve, among many other holdings.

If you click the photo to enlarge it, you'll notice a swarm of gulls trailing the ship.

The wake of the freighter seethes with gulls, mostly Bonaparte's Gulls. A lot of these birds came in with the ship, and they were joined by many others who were loafing or fishing in the harbor.

Freighters stir up fish with their massive props, forcing small species near the surface. The gulls are there to take advantage of easy fishing. This clumped bunch of Bonies was but a small part of the flock trailing the freighter. So congested is the airspace over the roiled fishy waters that it's amazing the birds don't knock each other from the sky.

My hope was that a rarity might be among their ranks. A Little Gull perhaps, or maybe a Black-legged Kittiwake. The big flocks of Bonaparte's Gulls are attractive to such hangers on, and all one has to do is pick through myriad swirling birds to try and find something different. No such luck on this day, but it didn't matter much. I was content to watch the action among the Bonies, and listen to the loud concerto of squeaking buzzes put out by the pack.

A successful Bonaparte's Gull leaps from the water with a tasty shiner. The fish was down its hatch within about the first ten feet of flight. If you're a gull, a surefire way to attract unwanted attention is to fly stupidly about with a tail-wagging fish in your bill. You'll be set upon and mugged by about every other gull in the harbor.

The Lafarge freighter continues its way upstream, and under one of the Cuyahoga River's many lift-bridges. A pack of gulls continues to follow, but before long most will probably be back in the harbor, or out on Lake Erie.

You may recall, this is the river that famously caught on fire in 1969 - for about the 13th time. The '69 fire helped spark a landslide of pro-environmentalism. The following year President Richard Nixon formed the EPA, and the battle to clean up our waterways began. Today, even as industrialized as the lower Cuyahoga River is, its water is far cleaner than in the 1960's and '70's. The fish, and Bonaparte's Gulls, are indicators of healthier waters.

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