Thursday, March 22, 2018

19-22 March 2018: Iceland Gull x2!

Gulls! So many gulls! 

This is just one section of the gull madness about half a mile from my office. There has been much, much more gull madness a bit farther down the river, but it's hard to get a good view down there. At this spot, there's a nice little public beach right next to the road where you can set up for a good long look.

Last week, I was excited that there were a few dozen gulls there. This Monday, I stopped by after work and there were hundreds! I had only my binoculars (no scope), but didn't see anything glaringly out of the ordinary.

The next day I had an appointment for a bike fit (to try to address the back pain that's becoming problematic... the bike fit didn't solve it yet, but we'll keep working on it), so I couldn't go gulling that day. On Wednesday I took my scope to work and went gulling afterwards. I had barely started scanning when I saw this:

One of these gulls is not like the others: it's an adult with a "dirty" head (standing with bill tucked into its back near the center of the photo). Herring and Ring-billed gulls get streaking on their heads in the winter, too, but at this point the adults are almost all pure white again (though the subadults are another story). But that gull in the middle has adult-type plumage with a very brown head. Thayer's Gulls (which are now lumped into Iceland Gull, but still a recognizable "type") often have very brown heads. I could also see that the eye was dark (very unusual in Herring)... and I was pretty sure I could see that the underside of the primaries on the right wing was silvery, rather than black. The underside of the primary is diagnostic for Thayer's versus Herring, which otherwise Thayer's can resemble closely.

After seeing those traits and feeling pretty excited, I put my camera onto my scope to take the above picture (and a few more, of course, because digiscoping often does not result in great photos!). Of course, as soon as I took the camera off, the bird started waking up and stretched out a wing! I had a great view of the underside of the primaries then - very silvery - definitely a Thayer's-type Iceland Gull for #76!

I'd had a great look, but I really wanted to try to get decent open-wing shots for documentation purposes. Any gull other than Herring or Ring-billed is flagged as rare in eBird for this area right now (later, Bonaparte's will be common). Given how subtle the differences are between Thayer's and Herring, I wanted to make sure I had photographic evidence - both so that other birders would believe me, and so that I wouldn't start doubting myself!

After the gull woke up, it was wandering around feeding on dead fish here and there. There are SO MANY fish carcasses emerging from the ice as it melts - it's no wonder there are so many gulls and eagles around. 

Thayer's-type Iceland Gull at center, showing dark eye, relatively straight-edged bill (not bulging out near the tip), black upper primaries on the near wing and silver under primaries on the far wing, and extensive streaking on head and neck. With Ring-billed (left) and Herring (right).

Of course, every time I got my scope on the Thayer's, and then got my camera on the scope, and then refocused on the Thayer's... an eagle would barge in, or a helicopter would buzz over (this is right next to the airport), and the gull would be off again! Luckily it always landed again in the same general area. That dark head really helped it stand out from the crowd when I was scanning to refind it.

Finally, after an hour, I managed to have my camera ready when the gull flew!

Thayer's Gull at right, showing the very pale undersides of the primaries. Compare how black the wingtips are on the adult Herring (top right) and Ring-billed (below that). I couldn't have asked for a better comparison photo! The "angel wing" poses are pretty cool too.

Then, of course, the gull was very obliging, providing a number of open-wing shots.

"I'm just going to sit here and hold my wings open for, like, a whole minute while I peck at some fish bits in the water."
Herring Gull says "MINE!" with a ridiculously puffy neck. I don't know why they were fighting when there were dead fish everywhere! It's probably an ego thing.
I was really excited to find this gull. Iceland Gulls have been reported (on eBird) in La Crosse County in just 3 of the past 5 years - none last year, which was my first year here. I thought I might have to bike clear across the state to find an Iceland Gull this year - but here was one right next to my office! In my 5MR and 7.5MR patches to boot! Plus, I'd found it myself, which is always more satisfying than chasing someone else's find - and I had intentionally been looking for rare gulls, rather than just happening upon it. That gull made my week.

But then... I found another Iceland Gull the next day!

First-year Kumlien's-type Iceland Gull at the back left - the pale brown bird with telltale pale wingtips. This was how it was standing when I first found it, and I knew I'd have to see an open wing to be sure it wasn't just a bleached Herring. Some gulls can get REALLY bleached after spending the winter at lower latitudes.
There we go! Sorry about the fuzzy photos - there was a lot of heat shimmer from the bright sun.
This first-year bird was a Kumlien's-type Iceland Gull - somewhere in between a Thayer's (black primaries as an adult) and Iceland (pure white primaries) as a result of interbreeding between those two types. 

So - not just one, but TWO Iceland Gulls! Two days in a row! That's pretty awesome... although now it kind of feels like, ho hum, just another Iceland in La Crosse, just like every day! But I'll definitely appreciate the good gulling while it lasts. 

The usual scarcity of interesting gulls around here could very well be simply because there aren't many people looking - probably no one on most days. I happen to like gulls, and I happen to work next to a great gull spot, and I'm pretty motivated to get out and find unusual species that I didn't find last year - so, who knows? Maybe some more interesting gulls will turn up. I also got to share the Kumlien's with a couple of other birders today - maybe more people will get bitten by the gull bug and start looking more often!

1 comment:

  1. Congratulations on a great find! And the ID information is very helpful to me, too. I don't usually get to look at anything besides Ring-billeds, so I will keep this all in mind the next time one of the bigger guys turns up.