Saturday, March 31, 2018

23-31 March 2018: Ode to gizzard shad

Here's the star of this week's show:

The fish people at work tell me this is a gizzard shad. No, it's not a bird. Yes, it's dead. In fact, many gizzard shad are dead. That's why they're the star of the show.

Check this out:

If you're like me, you'll probably notice A LOT of gulls in this photo. But look more closely - see all those little black lumps on the ice? Those are all carcasses of gizzard shad. There are even more of them than there are gulls.

The fish people at work also tell me that here in La Crosse, WI, we're at the northernmost limit of the gizzard shad's range. Some years are fine for that species, but if the water gets too cold for too long over the winter, a lot of gizzard shad die. Then they float to the surface and become embedded in the ice. As the ice melts, the buffet is exposed.

And then the birds feast. That photo above is one small section of the ice in front of a new gull-viewing area that the city (county? state?) is building. Well, they call it an "eagle-viewing area," and I guess there are lots of eagles there, but there's an order of magnitude more gulls, so let's call it like it is. I've even seen members of the general public stopping to look at the gulls (and maybe eagles).

Let's zoom out a bit more at that spot: 

It's hard to see at this resolution (clicking on the photo might help), but there's a few thousand gulls there. If I zoom out too much more, you probably can't really see the gulls at all here. But this is still just a portion of the sheet of ice that was covered with gulls this week. I estimated about 7,500 gulls at this one spot - and there were a few thousand more farther down the river.

One day I was gulling my way home from work, hugging the river as much as possible. The riparian route involves some sidewalks (where I bike very slowly and cautiously) and several crosswalk crossings on a new bike path, so it's a little slower than my normal route, but the view has been great this week.

I made a stop behind KFC, where there's a good place to view the gull-covered-ice-covered river. There I saw this:

You might remember that I have been wanting to see a black-backed gull. This is clearly that, despite the poor photographic quality. Much darker than the Herrings and Ring-bills. The slender, long-winged shape means this is a Lesser Black-backed Gull (#86) - a second-year bird, to be specific. (Gull people really like to age gulls. I'm sort of indifferent about aging most of the time, but with a special gull, I'll make the effort.) Lesser Black-backed Gulls (I'll call them LBBGs from here on) live in Eurasia, so you might think this bird would be HUGE news. Well, it's pretty cool, all right, but LBBGs have become increasingly common all over North America in the past couple of decades. It's thought that they're probably breeding somewhere in the eastern North American Arctic, though no one's found out exactly where yet. My personal theory is that LBBGs have discovered a system of wormholes that they're using to travel the globe... which would certainly explain a lot. 

So, this isn't exactly an alert-the-North-American-birding-world sort of bird. It's not even that special in Wisconsin in general - LBBGs are now regular visitors to the Great Lakes. But here on the southwest side of the state, this is an excellent bird indeed. I was thrilled. I only wished I had my scope and camera to get proper photos. But it gave me a chance to try taking photos with my phone through my binoculars, which worked much better than I expected, but obviously won't be winning any photography awards. Still, if a bird is mostly identifiable in the photo, that's great!

The next morning I gulled my way to work. Most of the gulls were now on the east side of the river, following the melting ice (and shad buffet), so morning had become the time to bird. Among the 10,000 or so gulls that I saw, I found this:

That's right - another LBBG! This one a full adult, in lovely light, and I had my scope and DSLR with digiscoping attachment, so I could get a much better photo. Still not going to win any photography awards, but there is no question of the ID of this bird. The yellow legs show up nicely - I cropped the photo to keep both Herring (pink legs, larger) and Ring-billed (yellow legs, smaller) in the image so you can compare them all.

Anyway, that's the good gull news. You might have noticed that LBBG was #86, but that skips quite a few numbers since the last number I mentioned. I probably won't mention every single species in the text if they're expected and not super exciting, but you can always check the sidebar at the right for the full list. In summary, I've also found a few more ducks this week, my first non-Killdeer shorebird (Greater Yellowlegs came in at #82), and first swallow of the year. I was pretty pleased when a flock of Cackling Geese (#83) flew over the house when I happened to step out for a moment, as I'd missed them thus far this year. The best non-gull this week, though, was this guy:

No, not the gulls! The bird on the right - Ross's Goose for #84. Yes, this was the same day that I had only phone + binoculars to try to get photos - but again, it's identifiable. This lone goose was trying its best to blend in with 100 or so gulls, and it was doing a remarkably good job of it. The only other times I've seen Ross's Geese (in Kansas, in previous years), they were flying overhead, mixed into flocks of Snow Geese. It was nice to get great looks (better than this photo!) at a stationary bird, and fun to see that it was no bigger than a Herring Gull! I nearly didn't check this spot on that particular day - it was previously a great gull spot, but they had mostly cleared out as the ice melted - but I'm glad I did, because I might not see this species again this year. The moral of the story is - get out and bird, as often as possible!

Today marks the end of the first quarter of the year, and I'm at a nice round number of 90 species thus far. If only I could continue averaging one species per day for the rest of the year!

1 comment:

  1. Almost the northernmost limit. We sometimes have a big die off up here in Eau Claire, too. I've seen over 50 eagles gathered around a gravel pit connected to the river in April, along with gulls, terns, and diving ducks. I've been told they were all feasting on frozen gizzard shad.

    Nice blog - and great that you're doing a BGY!!