Monday, January 28, 2013

Major Gull-fest on Lake Erie

The fabled East 72nd Street park, along Cleveland's Lake Erie shoreline. This site is one of the best places to seek gulls in the Great Lakes, and North America for that matter. And why, you might ponder, would anyone in their right mind want to chase after "sea gulls"? Well, because gulls (decidedly NOT "sea gulls"!) are among the coolest, most visually stunning, aerobatic, and interesting of any of our bird families. Throw in the fun, and at times majorly vexing, identification challenges and the ever-present possibility of a major rarity, and what's not to like?

Reports of massive gull concentrations were coming hot and heavy from E. 72nd last week, and I could finally stand it no more. So, last Saturday I departed from Columbus at O'dark:thirty and arrived in Cleveland bright and early.

Intrepid birders scan the waters. This type of birding is not for the fair weather binocular-toter. Gulling is at its best when frigid temperatures have caused Lake Erie to ice over, and the hot waters (more on that in a bit) is the only open water in the immediate vicinity. It wasn't so bad this morning, actually - temps were in the low 20's, and the wind was fairly mild.

This video reveals a bit of the ambiance of gull-choked waters. The scene is one of constant cacophony and action, as the gulls loaf, fight, fly, spar, and bugle. It's a bit like packing thousands of thugs, all representing rival gangs, into a small room.

This power plant, located across I-90, is the reason that E. 72nd is so good for wintertime gulling. As part of its operations, the plant discharges warm water into Lake Erie, which causes a sizable open water area to form, even in the coldest weather. The warm water also attracts scads and scads of a fish species known as Gizzard Shad, Dorosoma cepedianum. The shad are not native to the lake, and fair poorly when water temperatures plummet. They're easy pickings for the opportunistic gulls, who make the most of the fishy bounty.

It's always worth scanning the tops of the power plant's stacks. The broad-shouldered lump on the left side of the stack is one of the local Peregrine Falcons. All is as tranquil as can be in gull land as long as the falcons remain dormant. When one makes a pass over the waters - they feed on gulls and ducks - hold on to your hat! Pandemonium is likely to ensue.

It doesn't take an ornithologist to determine when a falcon is afoot. Most of the gulls explode skyward, creating a fabulous visual spectacle. Last Saturday, there were perhaps 20-30,000 gulls in the immediate area; certainly enough to create a cloud when spooked. Die-hard Cleveland birders were tallying as many as 100,000 a few days prior!

Although it is exciting when a falcon or perhaps a Bald Eagle sends everyone aloft, it is often maddening for the birder. It takes a lot of time to scope through the masses, and some tricky individual gulls require detailed study. When you've found something especially noteworthy, say an Iceland Gull, and all of a sudden the birds explode into the air like 20,000 pieces of confetti caught up in a hurricane, it can be a chore to relocate the bird when they all settle back down.

The shot above reveals a taste of the interesting gulling that E. 72nd can offer. Most of the birds are Herring Gulls of various ages, along with a few Ring-billed Gulls. These two species are far and away the most common, with Herrings often dominating when weather conditions are at their most brutal and wintry. There are also a few Great Black-backed Gulls, and a Glaucous Gull.

When there are so many birds constantly milling about, photographers all too often end up with shots like this. I was after a first-cycle Herring Gull when this Ring-billed Gull had the bad manners to fly right in front of my camera. The intended subject can be seen as a brown lump with a foot sticking out, directly below the offending gull.

I clicked off 1,450 images this day, and a few of them were keepers. Gulls are lots of fun to photograph, and I'll share some of my images of specific species, including a few of the rare species, in later posts.

This turned out to be a fun shot. I was after the bird in the direct center of the shot, with the bright yellow bill and gleaming white head and neck. It turned out to be the most interesting gull there, and I'll share more about it later. When I reviewed this image later, I was pleased to see that I had inadvertently captured a young Herring Gull kamikaze'ing at the water in a very steep angle of attack. Gulls are extraordinary aeronauts and spectacular aerobatics are just part of their daily routines. I sometimes wonder, as Jonathan Livingstone Seagull's cohorts failed to do, if they realize just how good they really are. Regardless of what thoughts or consciousness streams through the minds of gulls, they sure are fun to watch.

More on the gulls of Lake Erie to follow.


Andy Avram said...

I love gull watching along Lake Erie, but have only been down to Cleveland a couple times, before it lit up. But at least I was able to see Thayers and Iceland.

I do find your comment on the non-native status of Gizzard Shad in Lake Erie interesting. Kirtland considered them non-native and recent additions to Ohio, with the first documentation of them in Lake Erie in 1848. Trautman considered that Ohio habitats were always favorable for the fish and it liekly occured in low densities in Lake Erie until changes in water quality and competition with other species changed. That was from 1981, so I am unsure if any new insights on the status or Gizzard Shad being native or not in Lake Erie have changed. Any insights?

Jim McCormac said...

I'm just going with what seems to be, Trautman aside, the conventional wisdom that gizzard shad invaded Lake Erie via the canal system. I suspect that's why Kirtland regarded them as nonnative. The canal theory was also put forth in this paper: Miller, R. R. 1957. Origin and dispersal of the alewife, Alosa pseudoharengus, and the gizzard shad, Dorosoma cepecianum, in the Great Lakes. Transactions of the American Fisheries Society 86:97-111.

Unknown said...

Great article. Forwared to my son who lives in Cleveland

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