Sunday, March 18, 2018

12-17 March 2018: Gulls!, Great(er) waterfowl, and a shrike stakeout

Gulls! We have gulls! Gulls have had a special place in my heart ever since I did my master's research on Glaucous Gulls. Unfortunately, before - but not after - that time was when I frequented regions where one might expect to find many different interesting gull species. Before my master's, I wasn't paying enough attention. Since then, I haven't had enough gulls. La Crosse does not usually have enough gulls, either. We get tons of Ring-bills and a few Herring, and some Franklin's and Bonaparte's on migration. No white-wingers; no black-backs. Usually. But you never know when one might show up. Except, you can be pretty sure that it will not be when there are zero other gulls around (like all winter). Well, the Ring-bills and Herring Gulls (#67) are back now... so it's time to start looking at gulls.

One convenient place to look at gulls is about half a mile from my office, so I swung past there most days this week. The best day had 27 Ring-bills and 9 Herrings: these are VERY small numbers compared to anywhere that would be considered "gully", but kind of newsworthy here, especially to have "so many" Herring standing on the beach and inviting you to study them. No white-wingers; no black-backs. (Yet?) All days had 30-40 Bald Eagles in easy view, often actively fishing, picking at dead fish on the ice, half-heartedly chasing Hooded Mergansers, and brawling. The late-afternoon light is stellar in that spot, and every day there were also several people there, sitting in their cars or standing on the beach to photograph and watch the eagles. I'm pretty sure I was the only one looking at the gulls...

Couple of FOGYs on my commute this week: a kettle of Turkey Vultures (#68) circling over my street when I got home one day (don't worry - everyone at home was fine!), and a Great Blue Heron (#69) on my way to work the next day.

The ice is continuing to break up on Lake Onalaska, slowly but surely. One day this week I headed over to my favorite waterfowling spot (the spillway on the northwest part of French Island) before work. The morning was chilly, but the very light breeze was at my back - and so was the sun, which is why I bird that spot in the morning. Early morning also means minimal thermal distortion when looking through a scope. It was a bit bumpy biking out the spillway because the surface had been muddy, then walked upon, then frozen - but it was manageable. There were two good groups of diving ducks within easy scope view - the ice is still keeping them close to the spillway - and another group farther out that I could still ID, but not pick through for the more subtle rarities with confidence. Most were Lesser Scaup (~1200), with some Canvasbacks, Buffleheads, Common Goldeneyes, Ring-necked Ducks (#70), and a single Gadwall (#71). All of those are expected here at this time of year, and many of them will become more abundant over the next few weeks. 

BUT - I was carefully checking the Lesser Scaup. Lessers are common in this area - thousands can be seen from this particular spot during migration - but Greaters are not. Last year I picked through thousands of scaup and never confirmed a Greater. I never even had a good candidate that was too far away to tell for sure. (I got a lot of practice with Lessers vs Greaters during a winter in Connecticut when my job was to survey waterfowl, all day every day, and there were thousands of both species every day, often mixing together. I say this because I know how tricky the two species can be to separate - but it's definitely possible when you know what you're looking for.) Anyway, I was picking through the scaup closest to the spillway when a female caught my eye because the white patches around her bill were very large. I've found that to be a good way to quickly find candidate Greaters, although other cues are needed for a definitive ID. Well, she gave me a definitive ID with direct comparison to the female Lessers around her - her head was rounder without the peak at the back, her bill was wider, and her nail (the black tip on the bill) was VERY wide, extending across almost the whole tip. Definitely a Greater Scaup for #72! A moment later her mate made himself known too, with a rounded head and a wide bill (although I didn't get a good look at his nail). I wasn't sure I would find Greater Scaup at all this year - certainly not in my home county - so this was a good morning. 

On St. Patrick's Day - I wasn't wearing green, but I was definitely green in spirit - I went on a shrike stakeout. Gwyn had seen a Northern Shrike at the same place twice, flying around and calling and generally impossible to miss. The relevant area was clearly defined as Puppy Lane:

The relevant area was also not very large. To make a long story short, I spent three hours there... with no shrike. Northern Shrike is becoming a great candidate for my nemesis for the year (although it's early yet - I'm sure there will be many more candidates!). 

It was a beautiful day, though, and I did get a couple of FOGYs in passing: Wood Duck (#73) and Tundra Swan (#74). It was my most diverse checklist yet this year, with 32 species. In a couple of months, a good checklist will top 80 species - more than I've seen so far this year!


  1. Emily, I'm so sorry the shrike didn't show for you. Birds can be such jerks at times. ;) I'm convinced the way to find them is to not look for them, then hear something kind of weird while looking for something else and there it is. Interestingly, the day after I saw it there, my facebook memory from three years ago was...seeing a shrike in the back of Vets!

    1. I figured the shrike had probably gone to wherever you were birding that day. ;-) I'll just have to keep trying - good excuse to keep getting out and enjoying spring!

  2. I agree with the sentiment that the best way to find a shrike is not to look for one. That's how I got mine this year. Being even more landlocked than you, I think any non-Ring-billed Gull is an exciting one, so congrats on your Herrings!